For three days, the center of the world of Native literature was in Missoula, Montana.
The inaugural James Welch Native Lit Festival celebrated the legacy of the Gros Ventre writer and welcomed both established and emerging writers to talk about the craft. .
Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Blackfeet, had thought about creating the festival for some time and near the end of 2020, he decided to go for it.
Before doing so, he reached out to Lois Welch, the widow of James Welch, to ask if he could create the event in his name.
“I'm not going to start a festival with her husband's name on it without her blessing, you know?,” HolyWhiteMountain said.
He said Native writers don’t get to talk about their work the way they want to and the festival creates that space for them.
“I want to create a space where a bunch of Native writers can be together and we can talk the way we want to talk about our work and our lives and our writing process and see what happens,” HolyWhiteMountain said. “Anybody that wants to listen to that conversation can be there.”
During the opening night in front of a packed house at the Wilma Theater, HolyWhiteMountain welcomed questions from the audience, but half-joked that anyone who asked “What is it like to be Native American,” would be thrown out of the venue.
“That’s why we are holding this event, so we don’t have to answer questions like that,” he said.
The three-day event brought in some of the best Native writers from around the country, including Louise Erdrich, David Treuer, Tommy Orange and others.
Speaking Thursday night, Lois Welch expressed her excitement for the event.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” she said. “Every molecule in my body is currently thrilled to be here with Louise Erdrich and Sterling HolyWhiteMountain and all of you in this wonderful theater celebrating Jim and Native writers.”
It has been nearly 19 years since James Welch died and Lois said he would have been startled and embarrassed to know the festival was being held in his honor.
“He never dreamed of such a wonderful event as this festival is turning out to be,” she said. “He would’ve been pleased, he would’ve smiled, he always smiled.”
Naturally, throughout the festival James’ work was praised and many of the writers spoke about his impact not only on their careers but also on the world of literature.
Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, said she owes a lot to James Welch and that the festival was a “great idea, perfect idea.”
She called for the 1974 Pulitzer for fiction to be awarded to James for his debut novel, ‘Winter in the Blood.’
Erdrich recalled a story of one of the last times she encountered James at her bookstore in Minneapolis. He signed the wall at the back of the bookstore and Erdrich joked that she uses white-out to protect his name when others encroach too close to his signature.
She described him as modest and very easy to talk to.
“Modesty in a writer, you know, that's pretty rare,” Erdrich said. “We all know that, it's pretty rare.”
One of the things that James Welch taught her is the importance of having a natural sense of curiosity and staying committed to your work.
“As writers, I mean, we can start something and artists start something, but I've read so many times a book that starts so beautiful and so well; but somewhere that commitment falters and somewhere, the person loses that inner grip,” Erdrich said.
On Friday night, Treuer, Ojibwe, read a personal essay from his time at Princeton University and spoke to the importance of mentors. During the question and answer session, Treuer expanded on Native literature and its place in the world.
“Our literature is the best American literature, I think that, I really do,” Treuer said. “Just like Irish literature is the best of English literature.”
A professor of Native American Literature at the University of Southern California, Treuer tells his students to look for echoes, not for origins. When you read something, he said, what do you hear? What does it remind you of?
“When I read ‘Fools Crow,’ I heard echoes of ‘The Odyssey,’” He said. “I don’t know if that was an inspiration of Jim’s, I have no idea but I felt the same kind of language, the same kind of repetitiveness of titles.”
The festival wrapped up with a roundtable discussion named after the famous Vine Deloria Jr. book, ‘We Talk, You Listen,’ featuring Tommy Orange, Kelli Jo Ford and Brandon Hobson.
They touched on a plethora of topics ranging from how they use humor in their work to trauma to spirituality to the pope.
While the conversation was serious and candid, it was also filled with laughs.
Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations of Oklahoma, said he credits James Welch for the birth of his son.
“Do we want to hear this story?” the moderator quipped back as the audience laughed.
Orange went on to tell the story of while he was working at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California. They were trying to start a book club and ‘Winter in the Blood,’ was the first book.
Only Orange and his now wife showed up for the first meeting.
“The rest is history,” Orange said.
All three were asked what advice they would give to emerging Native writers and all gave similar but different answers.
Ford, Cheyenne, said to find your mentors and continue to read and write.
“Find your people,” said Ford, who teaches fiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “It’s really inspiring and an honor to work at IAIA and the students and seeing the community they form.”
Orange encourages people to “find the new stuff,” citing the latest seasons of both “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs.”
“Find the new stuff that’s saying the new thing about being Native because that’s how you feel,” Orange said. “That’s how people who read Native lives right now, they need to understand how we feel right now and in the future moving forward. We’ve been overproduced as a historical people in an insane way and we’re just now being acknowledged.”
Hobson said it’s important to stick with your passions and do it for the right reasons.
“I think you create art for yourself because there’s that passion to do it,” Hobson said.
The festival is the start of more to come. HolyWhiteMountain said the next rendition will be held in 2024 but also hopes to start a James Welch reading series, comedy night and more.