In memorian 

Missoula remembers James Welch

Some people, I thought, will never know how pleasant it is to be distant in a clean rain, the driving rain of a summer storm. It’s not like you’d expect, nothing like you’d expect.
–James Welch
Winter in the Blood

In the first few days of August, Missoula received the blessing of rain, a coolness that brought a sense of peace. A good day followed the rain, the best the valley had seen in a summer of record high temperatures. And in the quiet early evening of that clean day of August 4, James Welch passed away at the age of 62. Barbara Theroux of Fact & Fiction Books in Missoula described the wake of his death as a stillness. But if it is a stillness, it is a stillness that holds a rush of memories.

When I was asked to write a tribute to the memory of James Welch, I immediately thought of the Missoula writers’ community. I began compiling a long list of contemporary writers in this town, but then I stopped. Missoula is a multi-faceted community. And I kept thinking about what Barbara Theroux had said: “We are all trying to process what the passing of Jim Welch means to us as individuals, to our community, and to the world. We’re trying to comprehend all that we have lost.”

I’ve sat with that idea over this long week. How do we comprehend our loss? How does one community pay tribute to a man the world will long remember? Years earlier Richard Hugo, Welch’s teacher and friend, predicted the lasting influence of James Welch. Hugo’s poem, titled “Letter to Welch from Browning,” carries the haunting message “I’ll never see you quite the same. Your words/will ring like always on the page…”

Last week the media buzzed with the news of James Welch’s death. The world beyond our small place here mourns the death of a man we dearly loved. James Welch was one of our own. He belonged to us. We claimed him and were astonished that this gentle genius claimed us, too. “You connected with him, because he connected with you,” Theroux explained. We were proud that James Welch was Jim to us.

“What people may not know is how generous Jim Welch was,” the author’s longtime friend Margaret Kingsland wrote to me. Robin Hamilton, a teacher at Hellgate High School, recalls Jim speaking to sophomores in his class. “Jim’s quiet authority captured them,” he said. Others spoke of Welch’s benevolence, how he gave of his time and never asked for payment. Jim taught at Two Eagle River School in Pablo, Montana. Many young Indian writers say James Welch validated their experiences. They felt that James Welch had opened the door for them, and not just because he was a writer that others knew, but because he was a man who made them feel that they were known.

I spoke with a waitperson named Bobbi who remembered Jim and his wife Lois. “Together, they glowed,” she told me. “I knew his work but I did not know him personally. Still, the beauty of his insides shone on his face,” Bobbi said, then looked away, visibly moved by the memory James Welch had inspired. “I’ve been trying to think just what he had…He was so kind, so lovely to interact with. I wish I would have told him so.”

KPAX’s Ian Marquand expressed his heartfelt desire to hear Jim reading a chapter from a new book. “I want to hear that voice. . . see that smile. . . hear that laugh one more time.” Strangers touched my arm, leaned closer to tell me their remembrance of James Welch. He was humble, gracious, kind, brilliant, funny. His writing defined “high lonesome.” Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, wrote “Montana and the world are poorer for no longer having the benefit of Jim Welch’s remarkable way of speaking the truth but richer for having read his words, for having known the simple goodness of his heart.”

I believe stories have the power to heal individuals and communities, so I searched for the story I hoped would help a community say goodbye to James Welch. But this time, that story would not be spoken to me, I told myself.

Then Margaret Kingsland shared a story of Jim that had returned to her again and again. It is the story I longed for.

During the celebration of the Centennial of Fort Belknap, James Welch was honored by his tribe. “I can see Jim and Lois as they lead the dance processional,” she said quietly. “I can see the line of people growing behind him, his friends and relatives stepping in to join him. I can hear the voices of the drummers lifting. I can see the whole tribe as they fill the room. And he leads that procession onward.”

. . . the Little Bighorn valley reminds me a lot of…the Fort Belknap Reservation, where my family had our ranch. And we considered that valley a beautiful place to raise families, to run cattle, to grow alfalfa and bluejoint…Imagine…an immense campground filled with eight thousand people…relatives…Then imagine old ones, the keepers of the stories, as they visit with one another, recounting war honors or joking or teasing a young one who is too full of himself.
–James Welch
Killing Custer

“The man who wrote so often about returning home had returned home,” Margaret finished.

In my imagination, I am standing to honor the processional James Welch inspired. I stand out of respect. I stand to let a great man pass.

Debra Magpie Earling is the author of Perma Red. James Welch was her teacher.

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