Stranger in a Strange Land 

James Welch discusses history, fiction and his new novel

James Welch is the author of several novels, including The Death of Jim Loney, Winter in the Blood, Fools Crow, one collection of poetry, and the nonfiction Killing Custer. His most recent novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, is loosely based on the life of a 19th century Oglala Sioux who tours Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It went on sale on Aug. 15. The Independent reached him at his Missoula home later that week, a few days before he embarked on a three-and-a-half-week book tour.

The last time we caught up with you, it was in the midst of some hubbub about the Laurel [Montana] School District and its proposed ban of Fools Crow for, among other things, its allegedly pornographic content. What became of that?
The school board decided to take it out of the curriculum—in other words, they banned it from the classroom—but they say they have a couple copies of it in their library that a student could check out if he or she wanted to. But I’m a little skeptical about that, even…

Plain brown wrapper, under-the-counter kind of thing?
Yeah, and as a matter of fact a reporter at the Laurel Outlook told me that the principal had checked out one of the books and had kept it all year, so I don’t even know if there’s one or two or none in the library. And then it was a big issue in Bozeman, too. Some Christian Coalition kid objected to it, so there was another big outcry. Not necessarily to take it out of the classroom, in fact just the opposite—it was sort of against this kid, but at least the school board had to meet to decide whether to keep it in the curriculum or not. And so they met and voted to keep it in. So it was a great triumph on that score. Kind of a failure in Laurel.

Now that your work has begun to accrue quite a bit of scholarly commentary, how comfortable are you with the attempts of scholars to dissect your novels and make broad statements?
I’ve always basically ignored the scholarly commentary. I pay attention to reviews, because that’s how you know how your book is doing when it first comes out. But after that, the scholarly articles and so on—I really pay hardly any attention to them, but I do feel that those people have the right to do that because once the book leaves my possession and goes out into the world, then it’s pretty fair game for anyone to interpret any way they want to.

Here’s an interesting quote from the North Dakota Quarterly: “For Welch, the hero’s identity can never be defined in isolation; it stands in relation to his identity as Indian.” How about the identity of the Native writer?
I used to get upset at people who would say “Indian writer,” and I used to say “writer who happens to be of part Indian descent”—I’m half Indian and half Irish, as a matter of fact. It doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but I know it bothers young writers to be categorized as “Indian writers” because it puts a limitation on your work immediately. I know of a lot of people who object to that.

In Killing Custer you write that although Parisian audiences were “properly thrilled” by Buffalo Cody and his traveling Wild West Show, they basically went home from the reenactment of the Little Big Horn with “the image of Custer and his troops slaughtered by savages.” How would you react if a French reader told you how he was properly thrilled by how thoroughly Fools Crow or The Heartsong of Charging Elk satisfied his preconceptions about what a Montana-born Native writer would write about and how he would write about it?
Certainly I’ve toured France with books and done a lot of interviews and things like that. I think they’re smart enough to know that I’m a writer, and writers in France generally aren’t generally as popular as, say, Stephen King is in this country. … It kind of surprised me—not as many people read there as in the United States, comparatively. I don’t think that people think I’m some sort of curiosity…

Mmm, that’s the word I was trying to avoid. Have you ever been treated like a curiosity?
No, I haven’t. But you know, my editor has been instrumental in bringing young Indian performers to France for various events, and French people just love Indian dancing and drumming. They know that there’s a place for that, and then they know that there’s a place for the writer who writes about Indians.

What were some of the challenges you faced in researching The Heartsong of Charging Elk, especially as pertains to the French legal system?
Well, actually, the material on the Wild West Show is kind of limited. I was really surprised, because when I did Killing Custer there was a mountain, you know, tons of material on the Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. I managed to find enough stuff to make the Wild West Show credible. As for France and what it must have been like around the turn of the century, I found maybe five or six books that really served me well and gave me enough that I could kind of recreate the flavor of the country and of the people, especially around Marseilles. I also had to find out things like when electricity came to Marseilles and the telephone and so on. So there was quite a bit of research, but it was all great fun.

There are certain similarities between the character of Charging Elk and the real-life Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux who participated in the battle at Little Bighorn and later joined the Wild West Show.
He would have been slightly older than my character at the time of Little Bighorn. My character would have been about ten; Black Elk was something like fourteen. He went around and tried to loot the soldiers’ bodies and so on. But yes, there is a similarity. Black Elk went over with Buffalo Bill’s show in 1887, when they went to England for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration. They toured England and Scotland and I think Ireland, and then he got left behind. The ship took off and he had to make his way with a couple of his buddies, so the joined another Wild West show. There were lots of Wild West shows touring Europe around that time. When Buffalo Bill’s show came back in 1889—which is when my character arrives in France—Black Elk came to the show and Buffalo Bill asked him if he wanted to tour around Europe again. Black Elk said no, I’m homesick, I want to go home and I have a vision that will help my people. He stayed for two years; my character stays for sixteen years and presumably forever.

What’s the neatest perk to being a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres?
I actually got the certificate that made me the Chevalier a few years before, but the medal had never been presented—it has to be presented in person, and so the cultural attaché from San Francisco came up and presented me with the medal last winter. I was very honored and I thought it was very moving. It’s something that you take very seriously because French people take it quite seriously. It is an honor. As for perks…

You don’t get to ride the subway for free or anything?
No. I don’t even get a free hamburger at the Paris McDonald’s. I guess there aren’t any perks aside from the warm feeling you get knowing that you’re a knight.

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