Winter in the Blood

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Winter In The Blood
James Welch

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Winter in the Blood (1974), the first novel by James Welch, is set on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, which is located forty miles south of the Canadian border and twenty miles north of the Missouri River. It is the fourth largest Indian reservation in Montana; more than five thousand people live there. The protagonist and narrator of the novel is a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian whose name is never revealed. He lives on a cattle ranch with his mother and stepfather, but he is an alienated individual who feels little affection for his family. The narrator seems to have no purpose or direction in life, and when he visits the small towns that border the reservation in search of his girlfriend, he gets drunk in bars and indulges in meaningless sex with women he picks up there. However, the narrator also has significant encounters with an old Indian named Yellow Calf, through which he learns more of his family heritage.

With its sharp poetic imagery and its realistic portrayal of life on a Montana reservation, Winter in the Blood is considered one of the most important works of the movement known as the Native American Renaissance. This refers to works published from the late-1960s onwards, when Native American writers began to become more prominent in the American literary landscape.

Author Biography

James Welch was born on November 18, 1940, on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana. His father, a welder, hospital administrator, and later rancher and farmer, was a Blackfeet Indian. His mother, who trained as a stenographer, was a member of the Gros Ventre tribe.

Welch was raised as a Catholic and attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations before moving with his family to Minneapolis. He graduated from high school in 1958 and briefly attended the University of Minnesota before returning to Montana. He graduated from the University of Montana in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts. He began writing poetry and entered the master of fine arts program, but he did not complete the degree. In 1968, he married Lois Monk, a university teacher. The following year, Welch was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This led to the publication of his first collection of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (1971).

Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems was followed by the publication of Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood, which he wrote between 1971 and 1973 and which was published in 1974. Critical reception of the novel was enthusiastic. Welch's second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), also featured an alienated protagonist; it was about an alcoholic half-Indian, half-white man. Welch's third novel represented a departure from his previous work. Fools Crow (1986) was a historical novel that told the story of the Blackfeet Indians in the 1860s, culminating in the massacre on the Marias River in 1870. Fools Crow was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book award in 1987. Welch's fourth novel was The Indian Lawyer (1990), about an Indian attorney and congressional candidate who served on the Montana prison parole board (as did Welch). The attorney gets involved with the wife of a prisoner and is blackmailed, forcing him to return to practice law on the reservation.

For his next project, Welch collaborated with filmmaker Paul Stekler on the PBS documentary about the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which the Seventh Cavalry under General George Custer was annihilated by Sioux Indians. Welch then published his own account of the battle from an Indian point of view, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994).

Welch's final novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), was a historical novel about a Sioux Indian who as a child witnessed the battle of Little Bighorn. The protagonist of this novel joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured Europe, and was left behind in France recovering from an injury. Remaining in France, he had to make his way in an alien culture.

Welch was a Visiting professor at the University of Washington and Cornell University. In 1997, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.

Welch died on August 4, 2003, of a heart a tack, at the age of sixty-two.

Plot Summary

Part One

Winter in the Blood begins on an Indian reservation in Montana sometime in the 1960s. It is summer. The narrator, a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian, comes home after a drinking spree in town, where he got into a fight with a white man in a bar. When he arrives at the cattle ranch where he lives—with his mother, Teresa, and his grandmother—he finds that Agnes, his Cree girlfriend, who had been living with them for three weeks, has left. She has taken his gun and electric razor.

The narrator goes fishing and comes home with Teresa's friend, Lame Bull. After supper, he reads and listens to the radio with his grandmother. Lame Bull and Teresa go away for three days. When they return, they report that they got married in Malta, one of the small towns that border the reservation.

The next day, the narrator helps Lame Bull on the ranch. In conversation with Teresa, he recalls events from his childhood, such as the day he accidentally drowned five ducks he had won at a fair and the death of his father ten years ago, who froze to death returning home drunk one winter's night.

Lame Bull hires Raymond Long Knife to work on the ranch, but Raymond is dissatisfied with the pay. Lame Bull punches him on the nose and takes him back to town.

After a night in which the narrator recalls stories told by his grandmother and his dead brother, Lame Bull gives the narrator a ride to Dodson. The narrator then takes a bus to Malta, fifty miles from his home, to find Agnes, even though he claims she is not worth the trouble. In a bar, he meets Dougie, Agnes's brother. Dougie gets the narrator to help him rob a white man who is drunk and passed out.

At a bar in a hotel, the narrator meets a man from New York, who tells him he has left his wife and intended to fly to the Middle East but instead drove out west. He tells the narrator he wants to go fishing and insists on it even when he is told there are no fish in the river. The man talks to the barmaid, thinking he knows her. She tells the narrator that she used to be a dancer, and the man paid her to dance for him. He recognizes her and rushes out of the bar.

The narrator wakes up the next morning with a hangover. He goes to another bar and remembers that the barmaid was with him in his hotel room the previous night.

Part Two

The narrator rides his horse, Bird, to visit an old blind man, Yellow Calf, who lives in a shack three miles away. They drink coffee and Yellow Calf comments that the world is "cockeyed."

Lame Bull drives with Teresa and the narrator to Harlem, where the narrator gets talking to a woman named Malvina in a bar. He spends the night sleeping on the couch in Malvina's house. In the morning, she rejects his sexual advances and tells him to go away.

The narrator travels to Havre, since he has been told that Agnes is there. In a restaurant, he again encounters the man he met in Malta. The man thinks an old man at the bar is eavesdropping on them, and he wants the narrator to meet him at the Legion Club. After the man leaves, the old man's face plunges into his oatmeal. The narrator realizes he is dead.

At the Legion Club, the mysterious man wins several boxes of chocolate-covered cherries and a teddy bear at a punchboard. He says he is going to Canada to escape the FBI. He wants the narrator to accompany him by car to Calgary and then return alone with the car, which would be his to keep.

They walk through the streets of Havre, the narrator carrying the teddy bear. The man buys a hunting knife and a used Ford Falcon. As they drive downtown, the narrator spots Agnes standing in the street next to her brother.

The narrator and the mysterious man plan to start for Canada at midnight. That evening, the narrator goes out to walk, and a movie house showing old Westerns jogs his memory. He is taken back to his childhood. On a winter's day twenty years ago, when he was twelve and his brother Mose fourteen, their father sent them to bring the cows in. They rode out on horseback at dawn and, by lunchtime, had gathered over half of the seventy-eight cows and three bulls.

The narrative returns to the present. The narrator finds Agnes in a bar, but Dougie and his friends beat him up. The narrator ends up on the street with a broken tooth. A woman named Marlene helps him, and he goes back to a bar and has a whiskey. He then observes the man who wants to go to Canada being arrested and taken away in a police car. He meets Marlene again, and they spend the night together in a hotel. He leaves around mid-morning and decides he has had enough of Havre.

Part Three

The narrator hitchhikes a ride home with a man in an Oldsmobile. When he arrives home, no one is there, not even his grandmother. He assumes she must have died, which is confirmed when Teresa and Lame Bull return in the evening. They took the body to Harlem for preparation before burial. They drink a glass of wine. The next day, they dig her grave.

The narrative returns to the narrator's memories of herding the cows with Mose. It was getting dark, and they had to get the cows across the highway. A calf broke away, and the narrator's horse, Bird, gave chase. A car went past them, and hit Mose, killing him.

Back in the present, after the grave has been dug, the narrator rides to visit Yellow Calf.

Part Four

Yellow Calf talks about the narrator's grandmother, whom he knew when he was young. She was the youngest wife of Standing Bear, a Blackfeet. Yellow Calf recalls a terrible winter of starvation, when they had to run from the soldiers. Standing Bear was killed in battle with the Gros Ventre. The Blackfeet turned against the narrator's grandmother, blaming her for bringing them despair and death. She was left to fend for herself, surviving only because Yellow Calf brought her food. The narrator suddenly realizes that Yellow Calf is his grandfather, not Doagie, a man of mixed race, as he had formerly believed.

The narrator returns home, thinking about the affair between his grandmother and Yellow Calf and wondering how it could have remained hidden for so long.

Ferdinand Horn and his wife visit to offer their condolences. The narrator then struggles, with the help of Bird, to free a cow that is lying on its side in mud. The cow is freed, but the effort kills Bird.


The next day, Teresa, Lame Bull, and the narrator bury the old lady. The narrator's thoughts stray to his future. He will have to see a doctor about his injured knee. He also thinks he may start again with Agnes and perhaps even marry her.



Agnes is a slender young Cree woman from Havre. She is the narrator's girlfriend, who lives with him and his family for three weeks. The narrator's grandmother hates her because she is Cree. Agnes walks out on the narrator, stealing his gun and electric razor. He meets her again in Havre, where she appears to live an aimless life, full of drinking and promiscuity.

Airplane Man

The unnamed man meets the narrator in Malta and then again in Havre. He comes from New York, where he left his wife, apparently taking some of her money. He says the FBI is looking for him. He intended to fly to the Middle East, but at the last minute tore up his plane ticket and drove out west. He persuades the narrator to accompany him by car to Canada, but his scheme fails when he is arrested in Havre.


Doagie was a half-white drifter who lived with the narrator's grandmother. The narrator was told that Doagie was his grandfather, but it later transpires that this is not the case.


Dougie is Agnes's brother. In Malta, he gets the narrator to help him rob a drunken white man. In Havre, Dougie and his friends beat the narrator up.

First Raise

First Raise was the narrator's father. He was good with machinery and could repair almost anything. He was often away from home, drinking in the bars in town, and Teresa describes him as a foolish man. First Raise's dream was to go on an illegal hunt for elks, but he never got to make the trip to Glacier National Park. One winter night ten years before the story begins, he was on his way home drunk after spending an evening in a bar in Dodson, when he fell down, passed out, and froze to death.


The narrator's Blackfeet grandmother lives with him, Teresa, and Lame Bull. She is old and blind and does not speak. She dies while the narrator is away in Havre and is buried on the family property. As a young woman, she was the wife of Standing Bear and was known for her beauty. After Standing Bear was killed in battle, she was scorned by the Blackfeet, except for Yellow Calf, who brought her the food that enabled her to survive a harsh winter. For years, the narrator believed that his grandmother remained alone for twenty-five years following the death of Standing Bear, until she began living with the drifter Doagie. The narrator later learns that his grandmother was close to Yellow Calf, and that Yellow Calf, not Doagie, is his grandfather.

Larue Henderson

Larue Henderson is an acquaintance of the narrator in Harlem. He manages an auto repair garage.

Ferdinand Horn

Ferdinand Horn is a friend of the narrator's family.

Lame Bull

Lame Bull is Teresa's friend who becomes her husband early in the novel. He is forty-seven years old, eight years younger than Teresa. Part of the reason he married Teresa was so he could own some of the best land in the valley. Being a prosperous cattleman makes him happy. He is efficient, practical, and crafty, although Teresa complains about his sloppy habits.

Raymond Long Knife

Raymond Long Knife is a white man who comes from a long line of cowboys, but he is lazy and does not like to work. Lame Bull employs him for a couple of days to help stack hay bales.


Malvina is a woman the narrator meets in a bar in Harlem. He stays the night at her house.


Marlene is the woman the narrator meets in Havre. They spend the night together in a hotel.


Mose was the narrator's elder brother. Mose was fourteen when he was killed by a car as the two boys were driving the cows home one early evening in winter. The brothers were close, and the narrator often remembers the enjoyable times he had with Mose.

The Narrator

The unnamed narrator is a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian who lives on a ranch with his mother Teresa and her husband Lame Bull. He lives an aimless, unfulfilling life, hanging around the bars in the small towns that border the reservation, getting drunk, picking up women, and getting into fights. The great tragedy in his life was the loss of his brother Mose when the narrator was twelve and Mose was fourteen. In the accident that killed Mose, the narrator smashed his knee, which has never fully recovered. Even though he is intelligent and capable, the narrator has never had much of a career. He worked in a rehabilitation clinic in Tacoma, Washington, for two years, although his mother claims that he was there for much less than that. Then, he spent most of his time in bars in Seattle. Although, during the course of the novel the narrator does nothing of note, he does gain some dignity and self-respect when he discovers that he is the grandson of Yellow Calf, not the half-breed Doagie.


Teresa is the narrator's mother. She is a widow who marries Lame Bull. Although she is Indian, she speaks disparagingly of other Indians. She is also a Catholic. Teresa is a rather bitter woman who is not known for her generosity of spirit. The narrator says he never expected much from her and nor did anyone else. Teresa was disappointed in her first marriage. She refers to her late husband as a fool. Teresa is also disillusioned about her son. She regrets that he has not made anything of his life, and she criticizes him for his failure. She does not like having him hang around the ranch and tries to get him to start looking for a job.

Yellow Calf

Yellow Calf is an old blind man who lives in a shack three miles from the narrator's home. He lives a spartan life in tune with nature. After he tells the narrator about the severe winter the Blackfeet endured when he was a boy, and tells what he knows about the narrator's grandmother, the narrator realizes that Yellow Calf is his grandfather.



The narrator is in an alienated state of mind, closed off from his own emotions. He does not feel affection for his family or for his girlfriend. Neither does he feel any other emotions for them, such as hatred or guilt. His emotional life is simply flat. In the first chapter, which sets the tone for the novel, he refers to this state of mind as "distance," and says it has been growing in him for years. Part of this distance can be explained by the narrator's loss of his father and brother, both long dead. He comments toward the end of the novel that these two were the only people he ever loved. Since then, it appears, he has been unable to find his way in life and connect with others. He lacks self-knowledge and a sense of identity, which may explain why he remains unnamed. He does not really know who he is, and as a result, his life lacks purpose and direction. He hangs around the ranch even though his mother would sooner he went out and looked for a job. When he goes on small expeditions to the local towns, he never connects with anyone in a meaningful way. He drinks too much and the one-night stands he has with the women he picks up in bars are depressing affairs. When Marlene, one of the women, starts sobbing, the narrator cannot respond with an iota of empathy. He simply stares at her, and the image that comes to his mind is devoid of humanity:

I was staring at the sobbing woman with the same lack of emotion, the same curiosity, as though I were watching a bug floating motionless down an irrigation ditch, not yet dead but having decided upon death.

The narrator is also alienated from the wider community in which he lives and from his cultural heritage. Culturally, as an Indian he is part of a minority group that is mistrusted by the white majority. When he returns home at the beginning of the novel, the narrator has just been in a fight with a white man in a bar, and in Havre, he feels "that helplessness of being in a world of stalking white men." But this is not a novel about the subjugation of Native Americans. The narrator does not get on any better with the Indians he meets in the towns, one of whom, Agnes's brother, beats him up. He admits, referring to Indians as well as whites, that "I was a stranger to both and both had beaten me."

Topics for Further Study

  • What do you think is the cause of the narrator's alienation? Is his alienation mostly his own psychological problem, or are there wider social causes of it, such as the difficulties of Indians living in a dominant white culture? Does the narrator grow and change during the course of the novel? If so, in what ways? Or, does he stay much the same?
  • Research Native American religion and spirituality. What are its main characteristics, and how does it differ from the Judeo-Christian tradition?
  • Research what current conditions are like on Native American reservations. Has life on reservations changed much in the thirty years since the novel was written? What are the main issues facing Native Americans living on reservations today, and how are those issues being addressed?
  • Research the history of the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre tribes, and other tribes of the Great Plains, during the nineteenth century. How were they were forced onto reservations? What was the Dawes Act of 1887, and why did most Indian leaders oppose it?


Breaking through the prevailing mood of distance, alienation and separation, the narrator gains at least one moment when he feels more integrated with himself and his world. It comes when Yellow Calf, in telling the story of himself and the narrator's grandmother, obliquely hints that he, Yellow Calf, is the narrator's true grandfather. This is a moment of revelation for the narrator because up to that point, he has believed that a "half-breed" drifter named Doagie was his grandfather. Discovering an important fact about his true origins re-connects him to his family and perhaps also to his Indian cultural heritage, represented by the wise old Yellow Calf. When the narrator realizes the truth, he instinctively knows the importance of what has transpired, and he starts to laugh: "It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance."

Welch is a subtle writer, and he does not suggest that the narrator's life will now suddenly change for the better. But the ending of the novel does show the narrator in a positive frame of mind, ready to take more decisive action than he has in the past. He seems to be more in touch with his emotions also. When Ferdinand Horn's wife tells him that she has seen Agnes in Havre, it is "a stab in the heart" for the narrator. He realizes that he does feel something for her after all. Then in the final scene, as he stands at the graveside of his grandmother, he is still thinking of Agnes. He decides that "Next time I'd do it right. Buy her a couple of crèmes de menthe, maybe offer to marry her on the spot." Although the tone, in keeping with the rest of the epilogue, may not be entirely serious, the narrator seems now to be a changed man from the disaffected individual presented in the first chapter, who had no feelings for his girlfriend and was "as distant from [him]self as a hawk from the moon."



The novel is structured around the metaphor of a journey, which represents the need to come home—to oneself and to one's family and heritage. It is a difficult journey, as the narrator himself announces in chapter 1, when he returns home from a night on the town: "Coming home was not easy anymore." After the first homecoming, the narrator goes away again, to Malta to find his girlfriend. Part 2 sees him back on the ranch, and then journeying once more, to Harlem and Havre. In part 3, he returns home again. Within this structure of departure and return, two more journeys are embedded in the form of flashbacks. These flashbacks are mental journeys made first by the narrator, as he recalls the events leading up to the tragic death of his brother, and second by Yellow Calf, as he recalls the terrible winter of starvation endured by the Blackfeet when Yellow Calf was in his teens.

Another way of understanding the journey metaphor is to see these journeys as episodes on the path of the most fundamental journey of all, the one that begins with birth and ends with death. In part 4, the wise man Yellow Calf calls this the only cycle he knows. As if to remind the reader of the ultimate destination of all journeys, the novel begins and ends with the focus on death. First, the narrator sets the scene by referring to the grave of the Earthboys, a local family. More significantly, he also refers to the "borrow pit" (a place from which the earth has been excavated and used for other purposes) where—it is later disclosed—the narrator's father died. Then the novel ends with the burial of the narrator's grandmother.


The image of blood that appears in the title of the novel represents passion, life energy, and connection to family, culture and race. Winter in the blood suggests that the blood in the narrator runs thin; he suffers from a kind of spiritual and mental anemia. The blood image returns at a significant moment in part 4, after the narrator's sudden realization that Yellow Calf is his grandfather. This realization was "as though it was his blood in my veins that had told me." In other words, Yellow Calf awakens the cultural and family blood that runs within the narrator, suggesting that the winter in the blood may be at an end.

The suggestion of regeneration is conveyed by another image, that of rain. At the end of part 4, after his strenuous struggle to free the calf, and Style Bird's collapse, the narrator lies on the ground, feeling the summer rain fall on his face. His thoughts turn to his dead brother and father, and for the first time in the novel they are peaceful rather than troubled thoughts. He thinks that First Raise and Mose will like the rain: "they were that way, good to be with, even on a rainy day." The peaceful nature of this scene is a marked contrast to the chilly wind and falling sleet that occurred as the narrator knelt before the dead body of his brother twenty years ago. The final paragraph of this scene, that concludes part 4, has an unmistakable feeling of something having been washed clean by the rain:

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.

Historical Context

Native Americans in 1960s and 1970s

Taking their cue from the civil rights and "black power" movements, Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s became more assertive in their efforts to preserve their culture and improve their economic situation. In 1969, more than two hundred Native Americans from a group called Indians of all Tribes took over Alcatraz Island, the former federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. They used their occupation, which lasted until June 1971, to protest the conditions on Indian reservations.

There was plenty to protest. Native Americans were lower on the socio-economic ladder than any other minority group in the United States. In 1970, the median income of Indians was half that of whites, and over one-third of all Indians lived below the official poverty level. Housing conditions on many reservations were unsanitary, with some dwellings little better than shacks with no running water, sewers or electricity. Life expectancy for Indians was forty-four years, compared to sixty-six years for the general population; infant mortality was three times the national average; and teenage suicide was five times the national average. In 1973, the unemployment rate on Indian reservations averaged 37 percent.

There were more examples of Indian militancy in the early 1970s. A group of Native Americans established a settlement at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to demonstrate their claims to the Black Hills. In November 1972, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., to publicize their grievances. In 1973, AIM received national attention when two hundred of its members mounted an armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Wounded Knee was the site of a massacre of three hundred Sioux Indians by U.S. soldiers in 1890.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: The American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut population numbers 827,000, which is 0.4 percent of the population of the United States. This represents an increase from 1950, when the Indian population numbered 343,410, which is only 0.2 percent of the population.
    Today: According to the 2000 census, there are more than 2.4 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (Eskimo and Aleut).
  • 1970s: The federal government takes action to preserve Indian rights and culture by promoting Indian self-determination. In 1975, Congress passes the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, under which Indian tribes may administer their own social programs such as housing and education. Congress also passes the Indian Child Welfare Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
    Today: Native American tribal governments have large responsibilities for the administration of their land. This includes protection of hunting and fishing rights, water rights, religious traditions, and cultural heritage. Many tribal governments have taken advantage of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which permits gaming on tribal lands. Nearly 130 tribes in twenty-four states are involved in some kind of gaming.
  • 1970s: Large numbers of Native Americans live in poverty on Indian reservations. But because of growing Indian militancy, mainstream society and American policy-makers are forced to take notice of their plight.
    Today: The U.S. Civil Rights Commission reports to Congress in July 2003 that Native Americans still suffer high rates of poverty, poor educational achievement, substandard housing, and high rates of disease and illness. Native Americans continue to rank at or near the bottom of nearly every social, health, and economic indicator.

The Native American Renaissance

Although Native American culture traditionally emphasized oral storytelling, works of fiction by Indian writers existed from the early twentieth century. But it was not until the late 1960s that Indian literature began to blossom in unprecedented ways, as Native American writers developed a body of written work that helped to preserve and extend knowledge of Indian life and culture. A landmark event in what came to be known as the Native American Renaissance was the novel House Made of Dawn (1968) by N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. The novel tells the story of a Native American who grows up on a reservation in New Mexico, fights in World War II, and then moves to Los Angeles, where he forgets his Native American roots in the harsh city environment.

During the 1970s, as more notable literature was produced by Native Americans, mainstream literary culture became more accepting of books which presented the Native American experience. The major publisher Harper & Row, for example, began a Native American Publishing Program, and the third book in that program was Welch's Winter in the Blood. Other important Native American works of the period include Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony (1977), Jo Harjo's poetry collection, The Last Song (1975), and Voices from Wah'kon-tah (1974), an anthology of Native American poetry.

Critical Overview

Winter in the Blood received warm praise from reviewers on publication. Reynolds Price, in a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review, was so impressed he argued that the novel should not be classified as an "Indian novel." He described it instead as "a nearly flawless novel about human life." Price commented on the way in which the narrator's life, so enclosed and self-defeating for most of the novel, was transformed at the end: "it opens onto light—and through natural, carefully prepared, but beautifully surprising narrative means: a recovery of the past; a venerable, maybe lovable, maybe usable past." In Newsweek, Margo Jefferson described the novel as "beautiful and austere." She commented that its "power lies in the individual scenes, with their spare dialogue and piercing detail, and in the atmosphere Welch … creates."

Winter in the Blood soon came to be considered a classic of Native American literature. In 1977, the Modern Language Association of America held a seminar on the novel at its annual convention. Arising from that session, an entire issue of American Indian Quarterly in 1978 was devoted to essays on the novel. Since that time, it has been the subject of much scholarly interest, with whole dissertations being devoted to it. Scholars have interpreted the novel in various ways. Some have placed it within the European literary tradition; others have examined its place within the Native American tradition, in the context of the myths and religions of the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre tribes. The tone of the novel has been variously interpreted as comic, tragic or satiric, and there has been discussion about whether the novel presents a negative picture of Indian life or offers the possibility of spiritual redemption.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, Aubrey analyzes the importance of Native American consciousness in the novel, as seen in the characters of the narrator and Yellow Calf.

Welch once commented that the reason he did not give his protagonist a name was because "he didn't do anything significant enough to give him a name' (quoted in Mary Jane Lupton's James Welch: A Critical Companion). Insignificant the narrator may in many ways be, but lying behind his ordinariness and the apparent meaninglessness of his existence are glimpses of something that is not ordinary and certainly not meaningless. As another critic, William Bevis, has pointed out, the narrator possesses "a very sophisticated consciousness … so sensitive, so observant, so intelligent, so articulate, so verbal" (quoted in Understanding James Welch, by Ron McFarland). MacFarland might well have added that even though Welch commented that he wrote within the "Western, European-American tradition" (quoted in McFarland), there is a distinctive Native American tinge to the way the narrator perceives the world; his poetic images and metaphors suggest a way of experiencing life that is quite different from the dominant Western view. When this is viewed in conjunction with the wisdom of old Yellow Calf, the novel reveals the presence of a Native American consciousness that still, even after centuries of domination and invalidation by the Eurocentric West, remains intact and is ready to reaffirm itself.

One of the major differences between the scientific, materialist worldview that has dominated Western thought for more than three hundred years and the Native American view is the relationship between humans and the rest of creation. In the scientific view, consciousness resides only in humans; the material world of rocks, earth, plants, and trees is essentially dead. And to the extent that the traditional Christian worldview has survived the onslaught from scientific rationalism, Westerners regard humans as quite distinct from the animal kingdom, since only humans have been endowed by their Creator with an immortal soul. However, this way of thinking is foreign to the Native American, for whom the entirety of creation is alive, and everything is connected in a web of interacting relationships.

Carol Lee Sanchez, herself a Native American, describes the difference between the two worldviews in her essay, "Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: The Sacred Connection":

Most Euro-American or Euro-Western peoples tend to separate themselves from "nature" and to rank humans above animals, plants, and minerals in hierarchical fashion, and so it is not easy for them to perceive or accept a personal relationship with what they describe as the "natural world." Native Americans believe themselves to be an integral part of the natural world. When we speak of "nature," we are also including ourselves.

Welch is not a didactic writer; he does not write specifically to express or promote the Native American worldview, and so the narrator in Winter in the Blood does not act as a mouthpiece for the Indian way. After all, he is drifting through life with no firm compass, alienated as much from Indians as from whites. But just as a man raised in the Deep South cannot wholly erase his southern accent no matter how long he has lived in New York, the narrator cannot entirely hide who he is and the culture he represents. This is particularly noticeable in his descriptions of animals and birds. As Mary Jane Lupton puts it, Welch characterizes "animals as near humans, by naming them and giving them histories. Animal references appear with great consistency, either as metaphors or as genuine presences." An example of this occurs when the narrator remembers the six ducks that drowned when he was a boy. He not only remembers the exact place it happened, he also observes that "The weeds grew more abundant there, as though their spirits had nourished the soil." It appears that even the lowly duck has a spiritual significance and a continuing connection to the place where it lived its earthly life. The circumlocution "as though" or "as if" is a frequent device the narrator uses in his descriptions of animal life, as if he feels the need to draw back from the full implications of his words and suggest they are merely metaphors. Be that as it may, he seems to be able to divine in non-human creatures a capacity for relationships with humans that are more than merely poetic. Arresting details surface from time to time in this respect. At the end of part 4, when the narrator struggles to free the cow from the mud, a magpie alights on a fence post and "then squatted to watch." After the cow has been freed, the magpie flies closer, and "his metallic awk! awk! was almost conversational." It is just a hint, but here is a glimpse of a world in which all creatures are interrelated and have something to say to each other.

The most notable example of this is the narrator's old horse Bird, whom he has owned since he was a boy and who is a character in the novel in his own right. Long years of association between them enable the narrator to converse with Bird, and Bird has a range of personal responses to his words. When Bird gets tired and the narrator teases him, Bird "flicked his ears as if in irritation." When the narrator tries to free the cow and Bird for a moment does not cooperate, the narrator chides him and a repentant Bird "nodded his agreement." But the most remarkable moment between them comes as the narrator ponders the story he has just been told by Yellow Calf, about the winter of starvation endured by the narrator's grandmother. As the narrator thinks the story over, "Bird farted," and at that moment, the narrator suddenly realizes that Yellow Calf is his grandfather:

And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Welch's Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994) is his retelling of the story of the massacre of General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry by Sioux warriors at Little Bighorn in 1876, the aftermath of the battle, and Welch's experience of making the documentary film Last Stand at Little Bighorn with Paul Stekle for PBS in 1992.
  • Growing Up Native American: An Anthology (1995), edited by Patricia Riley, includes writings by twenty-two Native American authors in which they tell stories of oppression and survival, of heritage denied and reclaimed.
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), by Spokane Indian writer Sherman Alexie, is a well-reviewed collection of twenty-two interconnected stories about life in and around the Spokane, Washington, Indian Reservation.
  • The Ancient Child: A Novel (1990), by N. Scott Momaday, shapes the Kiowa myth of a boy who turned into a bear into a novel about Set, a Native American boy in search of his identity. Set was raised far from a reservation and, when he returns to Indian lands, he meets a young medicine woman named Grey, who reconnects him to his cultural heritage.

Here, wind, horse, and human mind seem to come together in one stunning moment of secret communication and understanding. It is appropriate that this happens in the presence of Yellow Calf, because he is the wise old man of this tale. In Yellow Calf, the Native American worldview that hovers at the margins of the narrator's consciousness is seen in its fullest form. He appears in only two scenes in the novel, but his importance to its underlying theme is immense. When the narrator first visits Yellow Calf, in part 2, he tells the old man that no one should live alone, but Yellow Calf says that the deer provide him company in the evening. He talks to them and understands what they talk about amongst themselves. He says he understands other animals too, although some more than others. This shows that for Yellow Calf, in keeping with Native American tradition, there is a fluid interplay between the human and the nonhuman worlds. Understanding the animals comes perfectly naturally to him. He does not think it in any way remarkable. As Sanchez says regarding her Native American beliefs: "We are as familiar with the natures and aspects of our local animal populations as we are the natures and personalities of our sisters, brothers, and cousins—because we believe all things are our relatives."

Yellow Calf says the deer are not happy because things on the earth have changed: "They know what a bad time it is. They can tell by the moon when the world is cockeyed." The narrator pokes fun at him, but if for a moment one puts aside culturally based beliefs that one cannot hold a conversation with a deer, Yellow Calf's gnomic comment is full of meaning. It suggests another level of alienation in the novel, beyond the merely personal condition of the narrator. In part 1, it is revealed that there are no longer any fish in the river that runs by Teresa's ranch, due to industrial pollution. It appears that Yellow Calf can sense the disturbance in the environment from the deer's reaction to it; the phrase "the world is cockeyed" suggests a pervasive condition of which a polluted river may be only one symptom. And when he says, cryptically, "sometimes it seems that one has to lean into the wind to stand straight," he again hints at some large disturbance of the environmental balance. He is the wise man who, despite his blindness, sees further than other men.

The second scene in which Yellow Calf appears, in part 4, is notable for the way in which the narrator seems to perceive Yellow Calf in terms of the old man's union with the natural world. At one point, Yellow Calf's "shoulders squared and hunched like the folded wings of a hawk"; and the narrator senses that behind his unseeing eyes, Yellow Calf lives in a world "as clean as the rustling willows, the bark of a fox or the odor of musk during mating season."

This pure quality of Yellow Calf's life is part of what the narrator calls his "distance"; it is a distance from all corruption, superficiality and pettiness, and quite different from the distance that separates the narrator from himself and his environment. Yellow Calf lives deeply within himself and is on good terms with everything in the universe. At one point, the narrator remarks, "A mosquito took shelter in the hollow of his cheek, but he didn't notice." Needless to say, mosquitoes are not usually perceived as "taking shelter" on human skin. There is something remarkable, something unshakeable, about Yellow Calf that suggests a way of experiencing the world undreamed of by the impoverished Western imagination. It gives us the clue that, lying just beneath the surface of this rather bleak tale is something far more rich and strange than the dispiriting escapades of an aimless drunk.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Winter in the Blood, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Jim Charles and Richard Predmore

In the following essay excerpt, Charles and Predmore describe aspects of Winter in the Blood amenable to formalistic analysis and crossliterary teaching.

New Critical Approach: A Close Reading of Winter in the Blood

There are two main reasons for approaching American Indian literatures from a traditional literary critical standpoint. First, if you want to make the case that a novel like Winter in the Blood should be taught not only in an American Indian literatures course but also in a course on the contemporary American novel, then it would be smart to show that the novel contains all the complexity and richness of great literature. The best way to demonstrate this is to subject American Indian literature to formalistic analysis. Secondly, failing to combine formalistic literary analysis with a sociocultural critical approach can lead to mistakes and misemphases, which can be demonstrated through a careful analysis of the main character of Winter in the Blood.

On an obvious level there are aspects of the novel other than the main character and the story of his full development that are amenable to formalistic analysis. The five-part structure of the novel correlates with the developmental stages of the protagonist. Welch's "sparse" style is darkly, grotesquely, and absurdly comic. In addition, there are numerous stylistic connections to Eliot's "The Wasteland" in Winter in the Blood. These include the identity-changing consciousness of the no-name narrator, allusions to dryness and the coming rain, environmental pollution, alienation, the emptiness of modern urban life, and innumerable references to fishing. Other features of the novel lending themselves to formalistic analysis include the abundance of minor characters used by the author to develop the character of the protagonist as well as Welch's use of imagery and symbolism. For example he uses dryness, the color blue, fishing, scatology, coldness, and distance as major symbols in the novel.

Velie, in his criticism mentioned earlier, misses the main point of Winter in the Blood when he states, "There is no resolution at the end of the novel, the narrator does not find himself, or develop a new sense of identity." Winter in the Blood is built around the Blackfeet tradition of the narrator protagonist, who goes on a vision quest and takes a wife, enterprises that imply character development. For much of the novel, the protagonist quests in the wrong places—the nameless wasteland towns of northcentral Montana—and he quests for the wrong things: the gun and the razor stolen by his Cree girlfriend.

A complex array of problems besets the protagonist. He is battered by the white world, the "great earth of stalking white men." From a drunken white man, the protagonist receives his "wounded knee." The narrator protagonist suffers from guilt related to the death of his brother Mose. He has an on-again-off-again relationship with his father and a cold mother. His Cree girlfriend has left him.

A good portion of the novel is devoted to describing how lost the narrator is. At home, he is lost in his relationship with his mother and her new husband, Lame Bull. In the towns, he is surrounded by absurd conversations, nihilistic events (death in a bowl of oatmeal, for example), and sterile sexual encounters.

In the beginning of Part II, the narrator visits Yellow Calf, old and blind, and jokingly referred to as a "wise man." But Yellow Calf proves to be wise, and the wisdom he imparts to the protagonist provides direction for the protagonist's impending regeneration. First, the narrator comments on how "clean and spare" the old man's shack is (in marked contrast to the other indoor locations in the novel that are described as messy). Yellow Calf says, "It's easier to keep it sparse than to feel the sorrows of possessions." The deficiency of material possessions is a lesson that comes relatively easily to the narrator who says to Yellow Calf, "'Possessions can be sorrowful.' I agreed, thinking of my gun and electric razor." The dawning growth in character contrasts sharply with the possessiveness of Lame Bull. Secondly, through Yellow Calf, the narrator is exposed to Welch's suggestion of a traditional American Indian outlook on nature. This culminates with the narrator's recognition of Yellow Calf's ability to understand animals: "Yellow Calf was facing off toward the river, listening to two magpies argue." The old man's third lesson is the simplest of them all. He tells the narrator, "You must say hello to Teresa for me. Tell her that I am living to the best of my ability." In contrast, as he wanders through the wasteland towns, the narrator does not live to the best of his ability.

Distance is a metaphor that Welch uses to describe modern alienation: "none of them counted; not one meant anything to me. And for no reason. I felt … nothing but a distance that had grown through the years." Distance is a condition of life in northern Montana. According to the narrator: "The country had created a distance as deep as it was empty, and the people accepted and treated each other with distance." This distance dominates the lives of the people in the town sections of the novel. The sordid Malvina keeps photos on her night table, "all [of which] were of Malvina alone in various places." The man in the khaki suit, with whom the narrator spends the most time in the town passages of the novel, is most often identified as "the man who tore up his airplane ticket." We cannot figure out where he really comes from, who is family is, or why he wants to go to Canada, if indeed he really does. One of the first things he says to the narrator is about fishing: "I'll take you out with me tomorrow and if we don't catch any fish, I'll buy the biggest steak in—where are we?—Malta!"

In the town sections, the Cree girl represents the opposite pull from the distance and coldness of the man who tore up his airplane ticket. In her eyes the narrator sees "the promise of warm things, of a spirit that went beyond her miserable life of drinking and screwing and men like me." The narrator increasingly realizes that if he should go with the airplane man, he "would become somebody else, and the girl would have no meaning for me." He says, "I wanted to be with her, but I didn't move." In a signal moment in the novel, in Havre the narrator sees the airplane man standing in front of the Palace Bar and then sees the entrance to Gable's Bar, into which the Cree girl has just gone. The narrator throws the keys to the Falcon into the air, indicating the narrator's choice. Tossing the keys signals his growth and development: he steps toward the warmth and closeness of a relationship with the Cree girl.

There are clear indications that the narrator is on the mend, that his quest is leading him out of the wasteland. He leaves town and drives to his mother's farm, where he describes bathing himself, a cleansing of the towns from his life. By this time, he has ceased worrying about his gun and razor. Cold and unemotional to this point in the novel, the narrator demonstrates, true feelings—for Marlene, for the Cree girl, and for the professor's daughter. He sees their childlike vulnerability.

In the episode where the narrator and Bird pull the cow out of the mud, the protagonist gets mad for the first time in the novel. Immediately following his healthy outburst, he says, "I crouched and spent the next few minutes planning my new life." Through memory, he relives the death of Mose and seems to be making progress in ridding himself of the "final burden of guilt." The narrator has warm and loving memories of both First Raise and Mose. He throws his grandmother's old medicine pouch into her grave, an act of closeness to the distant old woman. Another indication of the narrator's growth is indicated in the story of his favorite horse, Bird. He explains how brutal the training was and how hard Bird's life was. In his own way, the narrator, like Yellow Calf, respects the life and wisdom that animates nature: "You have grown old, Bird, so old this sun consults your bones for weather reports." The narrator no longer mocks the old man's sympathetic relationship with nature, and he certainly has outgrown the Michigan professor who "spoke about the countryside as if it were dead."

Given the tough life the narrator describes as the old cow horse's lot, and given Bird's valiant work and sacrificing his life to pull the stupid cow out of the mud, it is clear that the narrator is thinking about Yellow Calf's earlier advice about living life to the best of one's ability. His hard work to save the cow represents a change for him because it is only the second time in the novel readers have seen him work.

After his grandmother's death, the protagonist rides the three miles to inform Yellow Calf. In his third conversation with the wise man, he learns that Yellow Calf was his grandmother's lover, which makes Yellow Calf the father of the narrator's mother; it makes Yellow Calf the narrator's grandfather. The narrator's growth here parallels the growth of Jack in All the King's Men. Both learn their real lineage. Just as important, the narrator learns his grandmother's full story, that she was widowed as a young woman during the brutal winter of 1883–84 and was ostracized from the tribe. It was the teenaged Yellow Calf who hunted game for her through the winter, insuring her survival.

The best way to see the narrator's growth is to realize that his Cree girlfriend is just as lost and ostracized and just as in need of help in the Montana towns as the grandmother was during the desperate winter of 1883. At the end of the novel, when he thinks of marrying the Cree girl, the narrator is obviously thinking of following in his grandfather's footsteps.

Finally, the meaning of temperature and distance and the title of the novel are all made clear. The narrator has always seemed to have winter in his blood; that is, his character has seemed as cold and distant as the Montana winter. But what we learn at the end is that Yellow Calf had given "winter in the blood" a different meaning. Yellow Calf's life showed that even in the worst of times, distance and coldness can be overcome by closeness and warmth. The novel demonstrates the narrator's new warmth: he has genuine feelings for the Cree girl, Marlene, and the professor's sickly daughter; he rescues the stupid cow; he loves First Raise and Mose. All these actions and thoughts show that Yellow Calf's "warmth in the blood" runs through the narrator's veins and that he may indeed end up being able to "live to the best of his ability."

Source: Jim Charles and Richard Predmore, "When Critical Approaches Converge: Team-Teaching Welch's Winter in the Blood, in SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 47-60.

Alan R. Velie

In the following essay, Velie describes how Winter in the Blood, rather than being a "protest novel," meets all the requirements—characterization, ending, and tone—that define a dramatic comedy.

If my students are any indication, many white American readers expect any novel written by an Indian, about an Indian protagonist who meets hard times, to be a bitter protest about white oppression of noble red men. Although House Made of Dawn and Winter in the Blood are by Indians, about Indians who are pretty well buffered by life, they are not protest novels, though they are often read that way. In my opinion to read them as protest novels is to reduce complex books into simplistic melodramas based on racial stereotypes of noble savage and white oppressor.

It seems to me that there is something condescending and even bigoted about not allowing blacks and Indians to determine their own attitudes about life in America. Too often we expect, even demand, that they be furious with whites and concentrate their efforts on reviling them. Black poet Al Young ridicules this attitude:

   Dont nobody want no nice nigger no more
   these honkies man that put out
   these books & things
   they want an angry split
   a furious nigrah
   they dont want no bourgeois woogie
   they want them a militant nigger
   in a fiji haircut
   fresh out of some secret boot camp
   with a bad book in one hand
   & a molotov cocktail in the other
   subject to turn up at one of their conferences
   or soirees
   & shake the s―out of them

Like Young, James Welch deplores this attitude on the part of those whites who consider themselves sympathetic to the Indian plight. In explaining why he thinks only an Indian can write honestly about Indians, he says:

I have seen poems about Indians written by whites and they are either sentimental or outraged over the condition of the Indian…. For the most part only an Indian knows who he is—an individual who just happens to be Indian…. And hopefully he will have the toughness and fairness to present his material in a way that is not manufactured by conventional stance.

Welch's writing is certainly not "manufactured by conventional stance." Although he is occasionally outraged, he is never sentimental, and his outrage is selective. He despises bigotry and bigots, and attacks them. In "Harlem, Montana: Just off the Reservation" he derides "Harlem on the rocks, / so bigoted, you forget the latest joke," and in "In My First Hard Springtime" he says Montana bigots "are white and common." But Welch has many other moods and stances as well, and Winter in the Blood is in no way a protest novel. Not only is it far more complex, it really is neither bitter nor angry. In fact, although it is powerful and moving in places, it is primarily comic.

Once one abandons the idea that all Indian novels must be angry, it is not surprising to find that Winter in the Blood has a strong comic undercurrent. The comic novel is becoming the dominant genre in fiction today. Reed, Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, Vonnegut, Heller, Roth, and Elkins differ widely from one another, but their vision of the world is fundamentally comic. And Welch, Although he is isolated geographically in Montana, is a writer who is well aware of literary trends. Much of his poetry evinces the influence of the surrealism which Robert Bly and James Wright have imported from South America. In his fiction he employs his own variation of the black humor used by Reed, Pynchon, et al.

Before discussing Winter in the Blood as a comic novel, perhaps I had better define the term. Traditionally, dramatic genres have been more sharply defined than fictional ones. The basis for identifying dramatic comedy for thousands of years has been characterization, ending, and tone. Donatus and Evanthius, fourth-century grammarians whose commentaries on Terence were appended to his work, were extremely influential in determining Renaissance ideas of comedy. These ideas, put into practice by playwrights like Shakespeare and Jonson, determined the shape of comedy for centuries. Essentially Donatus and Evanthius defined comedy on the oasis of the modest state of the characters ("mediocrity of human fortune" Evanthius called it), the light tone of the work ("pleasingly witty" is Evanthius' phrase), and its happy ending, which usually involved marriage on the part of the hero and heroine.

These distinctions are less helpful in differentiating types of novels. We cannot identify novels on the basis of ending, for instance. Jane Austen's novels end happily with marriage, but many comic novels today end with the thwarting or discomfiture of the hero. In others, the hero is in no better shape at the end than when we found him at the outset. Nabokov's Pnin has lost his job as well as his wife. Roth's Portnoy is no closer to maturity or stability than he ever was. Heller's Yossarian is literally as well as figuratively at sea. What is more, non-comic novels often end on a positive note—take, for example, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, House Made of Dawn and Ceremony.

Method of characterization gives us some basis for differentiation between comic and non-comic novels, but only if we discard the notion of status, whether in the sense of rank, as the Romans and Greeks conceived it, or in the sense that Northrop Frye uses it to describe the hero of high and low mimetic mode. Rank is irrelevant not only today, but was so even to Shakespeare, who use a duke as protagonist in Twelfth Night. And, as Frye points out, although the low mimetic mode, in which the hero is "one of us," is the mode of most comedy, it is also the mode of much realistic fiction. Further, the ironic mode, in which the hero is inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, can be used not only for farcical comedy, but also for works like The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd, in which Hester Prynne and Billy Budd are pharmakoi or scapegoats.

The important thing about characterization is the attitude the author takes towards the character—how much dignity he allows him. If the author treats the character with compassion and allows him dignity, whether he is high mimetic like Hamlet, or ironic like Billy Budd, the character has a tragic, or at any rate serious, dimension. If the author undercuts the character's dignity, holds him up to ridicule either by the situation he puts him in or simply by the way he describes him, we have comedy. There is pathos in the situation of Humbert, Yossarian, Portnoy, and Welch's narrator, but all are treated comically.

It is tone, however, that is the primary basis for the general understanding of the term "comic novel." By and large, a comic novel is a longish work of fiction which contains a liberal amount of humor—or, to put it most concisely, a funny book. On the basis of this definition, Winter in the Blood qualifies as a comic novel. The first sentence of the book should let us know what sort of novel we will find; "In the tall weeds of the borrow pit, I took a leak and watched the sorrel mare, her colt beside her, walk through burnt grass to the shady side of the log and mud cabin." There is no lofty seriousness here, just a man performing a function everyone, whatever he might protest to the contrary, finds funny and undignified. Scatology, which plays an important part in the novel, as we shall see or the climax of the book, has been an important ingredient of comedy since the dawn of time. Chaucer, Rabelais, and Faulkner use scatology as a way of making man absurd and comical.

Welch's humor varies from raucous farce to subtle satire, and it informs every corner of the novel. The broadest humor is in scenes like the one in which the unknown man dies face down in his oatmeal, or the one in which the narrator and the airplane man march through the streets of Havre, the narrator with a purple teddy bear, the airplane man with five boxes of chocolate covered cherries under his arm.

Most of the humor is verbal, however. Welch makes masterful use of ironic diction to undercut the dignity of his characters. Here, for example, is Lame Bull:

Lame Bull had married 360 acres of hay land, all irrigated, leveled, some of the best land in the valley, as well as a 2000-acre grazing lease.

We brought in the first crop, Lame Bull mowing alfalfa, snakes, bluejoint, baby rabbits, tangles of barbed wire, sometimes changing sickles four times in a single day.

Lame Bull's hand was in a sling made from a plaid shirt. The more he drank the more the sling pulled his neck down, until he was talking to the floor. The more he talked to the floor the more he nodded. It was as though the floor were talking back to him, grave words that kept him nodding gravely.

Welch's general technique, which he uses most skillfully in the final scene of the novel, the grandmother's funeral, is to start a description as if planned to allow a character some dignity, and then to pull the rug out from under him suddenly:

I had to admit that Lame Bull looked pretty good. The buttons on his shiny green suit looked like they were made of wood. Although his crotch hung a little low, the pants were the latest style. Teresa had shortened the legs that morning, a makeshift job, having only had time to tack the original cuffs up inside the pant legs.

Teresa wore a black coat, black high heels, and a black cupcake hat…. Once again she was big and handsome—except for her legs. They appeared to be a little skinny, but it must have been the dress.

Welch starts out by telling us that both characters look good, but in describing them reveals that Lame Bull's crotch is baggy and Teresa's legs are skinny.

However long a list we make of funny things in Winter in the Blood, two questions arise: How much humor is enough to make a novel comic, and what happens if in addition to the humor there is a good deal of pathos? It is impossible to give a quantitative answer to the first question, but both questions can be answered at once if we say that in a comic novel the author plays most key situations for laughs rather than pathos. Hamlet has some funny lines, and so does Mercutio, but in the climactic scenes Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are tragic. There is some genuine pathos in Winter in the Blood, the most obvious example being the death of Mose. But in the most important scenes, the epiphany in which the hero recognizes his roots, and the funeral, Welch deliberately opts for comedy.

Let us begin with the epiphany, to use Joyce's term, the sudden revelation of truth which transforms the hero's way of looking at the world. The truth that the hero realizes is that Yellow Calf is his grandfather, the man who saved his grandmother from dying of starvation and exposure. The death of the narrator's father and his brother had left him with winter in his blood—he was numbed emotionally, unable to feel love or compassion for anyone. He felt no closeness towards his mother and very little towards Agnes, the Cree girl he brought home and then ignored while he went on a bender for several days. At the beginning of the book he describes his reluctant homecoming: "Coming home to a mother and an old lady who was my grandmother. And the girl who was thought to be my wife. But she didn't really count. For that matter none of them counted; no tone meant anything to me." The "old lady who was my grandmother" becomes more real to the narrator when Yellow Calf tells him the story of how the Blackfeet cast her out to die during a terrible winter. The narrator sees her as a young, beautiful, and vulnerable woman whereas earlier he had thought of her as bloodless and superannuated. In a flash of insight he realizes that Yellow Calf is the hunter who had provided her with meat and kept her alive. The discovery moves the narrator first to laughter, then to tears. It is a special type of laughter that has nothing to do with humor. "It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance…. And the wave behind my eyes broke." This does not sound very funny, and Reynolds Price, after describing the "beautifully surprising narrative means" that Welch uses in the scene, goes on to say of it: "Welch's new version of the central scene in all narrative literature (the finding of lost kin) can stand proudly with its most moving predecessors in epic, drama, and fiction." Perhaps so, but Price is missing a point here: there is key difference from the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus, for instance, and that is the element of farce that Welch introduces into the epiphany scene:

I thought for a moment.

Bird farted.

And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.

Welch uses scatology to undercut the sentimentality of the moment.

Perhaps the best, funniest, and most successful scene in the novel is the ending. Normally funerals are not the stuff of comedy since death is not something people usually laugh about. If treated properly however, anything, even death, can be a source of humor, and Welch succeeds in making the funeral comic.

Because House Made of Dawn also ends with the death of a grandparent of the hero, some interesting comparisons present themselves. In both books the grandparents who die serve as the hero's link with the past and with his traditional culture. When Abel's grandfather dies, Abel sees that he is buried in the prescribed Tanoan manner, then goes out to run in the race for good hunting and harvest that his grandfather had won. This marks the first time since his return from the army that Abel had been able to participate meaningfully in a Tanoan ritual, and it marks his reentry into his native culture. In an important sense it is for Abel a happy ending, although it is certainly not comic.

Since Welch's narrator has just learned the story of his grandmother's life and has been moved by it, we might expect Welch to treat the old lady's death and burial seriously showing how the narrator had developed closer ties to his culture, or at least that he had a new respect and deeper feelings for his grandmother. This is not the case. The narrator feels only ironic detachment towards his grandmother. After describing what Lame Bull and Teresa are wearing the narrator says, "The old lady wore a shiny orange coffin." Welch adds a farcical touch in having Lame Bull and the narrator fail to dig the grave properly. The coffin is too big, and Lame Bull has to climb into the pit and jump up and down on the box.

Lame Bull's eulogy for the old woman is a highly comic masterpiece of left-handed praise: "Here lies a simple woman … who devoted her life to … rocking … and not a bad word about anybody … Not the best mother in the world … but a good mother, notwithstanding … who could take it and dish it out … who never gave anybody any crap." As counter-point to lame Bull's speech, we have the random thoughts of the hero, who is not sufficiently interested in the proceedings to keep his mind on them. He thinks that the weather would probably be good for fishing, that maybe he ought to see a doctor for his leg, and that maybe if he got a few drinks into Agnes and proposed to her he might get her back. Obviously Welch is not taking his hero seriously here, nor treating the funeral as a serious occasion. Quite clearly he is presenting the situation comically so that it will amuse the reader.

Winter in the Blood starts and ends on a comic note. In between the tone varies from pathos (in the scene in which Mose is hit by a car) to farce (in the scenes in the hotel bar with the airplane man). It never approaches the stridency and bitterness of a protest novel. Throughout most of the book and certainly in most of the key scenes, the tone is richly comic.

Source: Alan R. Velie, "Winter in the Blood as Comic Novel," in Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, edited by Richard F. Fleck, Three Continents Press, 1993, pp. 189-94.

A. Lavonne Ruoff

In the following essay excerpt, Ruoff analyzes through a cultural context the narrator's "relationships with and characterizations of" the females of Winter in the Blood.

But the distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon. And that was why I had no particular feelings toward my mother and grandmother. Or the girl who had come to live with me

In the words quoted above, the nameless narrator of Winter in the Blood summarizes the sense of alienation which plagues him and which must be exorcised before he can become whole within himself and can close the distance he feels between him-self and the external world. To do so, he undertakes a spiritual and physical journey into experience and memory to find the truth about his own feelings and about his family and girlfriend. Through most of the novel, the only people he really loves are his brother Mose and his father First Raise. After Mose was killed by an automobile on the highway while the two boys were herding cattle back to the ranch, the narrator became a "servant to a memory of death." Though the loss of the brother was immediate, the loss of his father was gradual. Following the accident, First Raise was home less and less often until he finally froze to death on a drunken binge. In the ten years since his father's death, the narrator has been able to do nothing of consequence. The closeness he feels to them contrasts with the distance he feels from the females in the novel—human and animal. The purpose of this paper will be to examine the causes and resolution of the narrator's sense of alienation through an analysis of the cultural context—traditional as well as contemporary—of his relationships with and characterizations of these females.

The chain of circumstances which ultimately leads to the narrator's feeling of separateness begins with his grandmother, who is at once the unwitting cause of the family's isolation from the Blackfeet tribe and the means by which the narrator can partially learn about them and his family. Despite the many stories about her early life which the grandmother told her young grandson, she revealed only part of the truth about her life with Standing Bear's band of Blackfeet. In order for the narrator to determine the truth about her life and about the identity of his own grandfather, he must obtain the other parts of the story from blind, old Yellow Calf after his grandmother's death.

A beautiful girl thirty years younger than her husband, she slept with Chief Standing Bear only to keep him warm and to sing softly in his ear. The "bad medicine," which isolated not only the grandmother but also her descendants, began with the migration of her husband's band of Blackfeet from their traditional hunting grounds. After moving into Gros Ventre territory, they endured one of the hardest winters in memory. The details of the starvation winter of 1883–84 come from Yellow Calf, who lost all of his family to starvation or pneumonia.

After Standing Bear's death in a raid on the Gros Ventres, the young widow of not yet twenty was made an outcast by the band. The grandmother attributed their action to the women's envy for her dark beauty and to the men's fear of the women's anger if they helped her as well as to their own reticence because of her position as Standing Bear's widow. However, Yellow Calf attributes the mistreatment to a combination of physical, psychological, and religious causes: "She had not been with us more than a month or two, maybe three. You must understand the thinking. In that time the soldiers came, the people had to leave their home up near the mountains, then the starvation and death of their leaders. She had brought them bad medicine." Her beauty, which had been a source of pride, now mocked them and their situation. Thus, in the case of the grandmother, the source of alienation was external, resulting from circumstances beyond her control. Her isolation from the band became permanent when they were driven like cows by the soldiers to the new Blackfeet Reservation, established in 1888 at the same time as that for the Gros Ventres and Assiniboins at Fort Belknap. Because the band did not mention her to the soldiers and because she had moved a distance from the band in the spring, the soldiers thought she was Gros Ventre.

In addition to attempting to determine the facts about the band's treatment of his grandmother, the narrator also tries to find out who hunted for her. Frustrated by yellow Calf's refusal to answer his questions, the narrator suddenly realizes—at the moment his horse Bird farts—that Yellow Calf was that hunter. Solving his puzzle also solves those of the identity of his grandfather and of his own tribal heritage. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator explains that his grandmother "remained a widow for twenty-five years before she met a half-white drifter named Doagie, who had probably built this house where now the old lady snored and I lay awake thinking that I couldn't remember this fact." However, he does remember the rumors that Doagie was not his real grandfather.

Between the time she was abandoned by the Blackfeet band and the time she took in Doagie, the grandmother continued to live in isolation, separated by three miles from Yellow Calf, her secret visitor. Despite his realization of his grandfather's identity, the narrator cannot explain the distance between Yellow Calf and his grandmother: why the two waited twenty-five years after Standing Bear's death to procreate a child or why they continued to live separately afterward. Certainly the respect both had for Standing Bear is a very important part of the explanation. Their separation prior to the conception of Teresa may also be partially explained as an allusion to one of the myths about the origin of the Blackfeet. Although men and women lived separately at one time, Old Man (Na'pi), a creator-trickster figure in Blackfeet mythology, brought them together so that they could continue and so that the men would abandon their lazy dissolute ways and learn from the women's example of orderly self-government and mastery of agriculture and domestic arts. The theme of the separation of males and females is repeated in the relationships between Teresa and First Raise and between the narrator and Agnes.

A third part of the explanation may be found in the traditional Blackfeet taboo against intermarriage within the band. Because the male members of the band were considered relatives, there was an old law against such intermarriage. By the time the bands were settled on the reservation, intermarriage was no longer considered a crime but was still bad form. Consequently, when the grandmother (then about forty-five) and Yellow Calf conceived a child almost at the last opportunity before the onset of her menopause, they were violating a taboo in order to recreate a new race of Blackfeet in an alien land. Having done this, however, they chose to remain apart and the grandmother chose to obscure the fatherhood of the child through living with Doagie. Nevertheless, this violation of custom was one more portion of the bad medicine passed on to the daughter Teresa.

The unwitting cause of the family's isolation from other Blackfeet, the grandmother still serves as its link to the tribe's culture and history. The power of the oral tradition she transmits is retained in the memory of the narrator. Advancing age has not diminished the strength of her contempt for those who made her an outcast or her hatred for such old enemies as the Crees. Too weak and feeble now even to chew regular food or to go the toilet by herself, she is still fierce enough to wear a paring knife in her legging and plot ways to slit the throat of Agnes, her grandson's Cree girlfriend. Almost a hundred years old when the novel opens, the grandmother now communicates with her family with an occasional "ai" or squeak of her rocker.

In her silent old age, she must endure the vulgar teasing of Lame Bull, in violation of the old Blackfeet taboo that a man should not speak to his mother-in-law or even look at her, which was equally binding on her. Also violated is the taboo that although a mother-in-law might be supported by her son-in-law, she must live not in the same tepee with him but rather in a smaller one set up some distance away. She must also endure the disinterest of her grandson, who usually regards her as a subject for bad jokes or detached curiosity. His treatment of her is a deviation from the traditional respect children were expected to show elders.

Though she clung to the old ways in life, she is denied them in death by Teresa, who insists that she be properly prepared for burial by the undertaker in near-by Harlem. Ironically, she is sealed up in her shiny coffin so that no one gets to see his handiwork. Her funeral is neither Catholic nor traditional Blackfeet. Only her grandson observes a bit of the old burial customs by throwing onto her grave her one surviving possession from the old life—the tobacco pouch with its arrowhead. Having reached the end of his odyssey to find the truth about himself and his background, the narrator casts away the bundle containing the bad medicine which has plagued the family.

Teresa combines her mother's solemn dignity and fierce determination to survive with her own alienation from Blackfeet traditions. Because she rejected these in favor of acculturation, she is alienated both from the beliefs of her mother and from the dreams and desires of her first husband and sons. The most valuable material possessions passed on to Teresa by her mother are the land acquired through mistaken identity and a house built by a man she wrongly believed to be her father. Although the ranch supports the family, it has destroyed what has been traditional Blackfeet role structure by making the male financially independent on the female and by forcing the male to give up hunting for ranching to provide for his family. For solace and understanding, she turns to Catholicism and to friendship with the Harlem priest, who makes Indians come to "his church, his saints and holy water, his feuding eyes."

The differences between Teresa and the men in her family are revealed in her son's description of her as having always had "a clear bitter look, not without humor, that made others of us seem excessive, too eager to talk too much, drink too much, breathe too fast." She approves hard work on the ranch and disapproves foolishness and fighting. Whatever natural intolerance she possessed has been sharpened by her experiences with First Raise and her son. As a result, she has developed the ability to interpret things as she wishes to see them and to ignore what she does not, as her memories of First Raise demonstrate. At the same time that she tells her son that his father was not around enough, she insists that he accomplished what he set out to do. When her son points out her inconsistency, she merely says that he has mixed his father up with himself. Her only explanation of why First Raise stayed away so much is that he was a "foolish man" who "could never settle down"—a wanderer just like her son and "just like all these damned Indians."

Because Teresa is primarily concerned with doing what has to be done in order to provide for her family and to keep the ranch going, she marries Lame Bull shortly after her son arrives home from his latest spree in town. Clearly, she has no illusions about Lame Bull, whose advances she has previously resisted. When he jokes that her son has said she is ready to marry him, she replies in her clear, bitter voice that "my son tells lies that would make a weasel think twice. He was cut from the same mold as you." Although after their marriage she complains about Lame Bull's sloppy habits and his teasing of her mother, she is obviously sexually attracted to him. Lame Bull responds to her complaints only by grinning a silent challenge, and "the summer nights came alive in the bedroom off the kitchen. Teresa must have liked his music."

Her relationship with her son is complicated both by her own personality and by his inner turmoil. Like his father, whom he describes as "always in transit" before his death, the narrator can neither live with Teresa nor leave her permanently. The conflict between mother and son is clear from Teresa's first words after he arrives home. Immediately accosting him with the news that his "wife" Agnes took off with his gun and electric razor shortly after he left for town, she simultaneously urges him to get his property back and defends herself for not stopping the girl: "What did you expect me to do? I have your grandmother to look after, I have no strength, and she is young—Cree!" Her tactic of squeezing into one breath as much advice, criticism, and self-defense as possible only antagonizes and further alienates her son. Because she feels that her son's only real problems are that he is a wanderer like all Indians and that he is too sensitive, she cannot understand why he did not stay on at the Tacoma hospital, where he was offered a job after having an operation on his leg. His explanation that he was hired only as a token Indian male to help the hospital qualify for grant money does not penetrate her consciousness. His bitterness at her lack of understanding is summed up in his comment that "I never expected much from Teresa and never got it. But neither did anybody else. Maybe that's why First Raise stayed away so much."

The narrator's discussion with Teresa about his pet duck, Amos, which precedes their discussion of First Raise and of the narrator himself, dramatically reveals the nature and possible consequences of their conflict. It is Teresa who reminds her son about Amos, and her habitually negative recollections become a springboard for her running commentary about her first husband, sons, and Indians in general. She recalls that First Raise won Amos pitching pennies at the fair when "he was so drunk that he couldn't even see the plates" and that the other ducklings drowned because her sons did not keep the tub full of water for them—"You boys were like that." When the narrator tries to explains that Amos, who had remained perched on the edge of the tub while his siblings plunged to the bottom, survived because he was smarter than the other ducklings, she dismisses his theory with the remark that "He was lucky. One duck can't be smarter than other. They're like Indians." As far as she was concerned, the other ducks were crazy.

Like the narrator, Amos inexplicably survived a disastrous accident which killed his siblings. While the narrator is just as unable to solve this puzzle as he is that of his own survival when Mose died, he does, in the course of this conversation with Teresa, learn that she killed Amos—a truth so horrifying that he desperately tries to avoid comprehending it. When he realizes that the answer to the question of who killed Amos, one he did not want to ask, is going to be either his mother or first Raise, the implications so traumatize him that he tries to suggest, instead, that one or the other of them killed the hated turkey which used to attack him, not Amos, who must have been killed by the bobcat. Matter-of-factly leading her son to a truth he does not want to face, Teresa quietly confesses that she did indeed kill Amos. In her own eyes, she has done what her husband and sons could not do—sacrifice sentiment for practicality by killing the pet duck for Christmas dinner. Her act symbolizes the reversal of traditional male and female roles: because the hunter now can only dream of bringing elk meat home from Glacier Park, the mother is forced to provide food by whatever means available. Although the narrator is reacting to what he feels is the deliberate murder of Amos by his mother and to becoming an accomplice when he unknowingly eats his pet, he does not yet really perceive that the power of life and death Teresa held over Amos is held over him as well. This realization is revealed symbolically as he recalls his dream after the sexual encounter with the barmaid from Malta.

The conflict between mother and son is intensified by the intrusion of the opposite sex. Although Teresa treats Agnes with cold politeness because she thinks the girl is her son's wife, she does not hesitate to point out that the girl is not happy and belongs in town, which the narrator realizes means Agnes belongs in bars. Consequently, she disapproves of her son's wanting to bring Agnes back. Teresa's marriage to Lame Bull and her friendship with the Harlem priest increase the narrator's hostility toward his mother. He cannot bear to see his father replaced by Lame Bull, whom he detests as a crafty, vulgar down and whom he thinks married his mother for her ranch. Realizing that marriage to Lame Bull means that her son must leave, Teresa tells her son to start looking around because there is not enough for him on the ranch. The narrator also cannot bear his mother's drinking partnership with the priest. When the latter sent Teresa a letter, the narrator wants to read it, "to see what a priest would have to say to a woman who was his friend. I had heard of priests having drinking partners, fishing partners, but never a woman partner." Instead, because he cannot even bring himself to see her name inside the envelope, he tears the letter up between his legs.

The Oedipal jealousy he feels is part of his inability to separate himself from her and to see himself and his mother as they really are rather than as his distorted perception makes them seem. Welch provides evidence that the narrator's view is not held by everybody. When the bartender in Malta comments that Teresa is "a good one—one of the liveliest little gals I know of," the narrator wryly comments that "She is bigger than you are, bigger than both of us put together." The best example of the tender side of her nature is her care and love for her mother. The narrator is so distanced from himself and her that he has no perception of how hard the physical and psychological drain of running the ranch, raising her family, and caring for an aged mother have been on Teresa. Now fifty-six years old, she is worn down by the endless demands on her by a mother almost a hundred years old and son of thirty-two whose chief occupation seems to be getting drunk, laid, and beaten up. Her acts of genuine caring and her grief at the death of her mother contrast with the behavior of both the narrator and Lame Bull. Rather than join her new husband and her son in drinking "Vin Rose" after the grandmother's grave is dug, she walks into her bedroom to be alone. During the bizarre funeral, she falls to her knees in grief. The narrator's slowly increasing perception of the hard lives of both his grandmother and mother is reflected in his growing awareness of the fact that Teresa has come to resemble her mother. How much she differs from his one-night stands is revealed in his comment, made while digging the grandmother's grave, that "from this distance she looked big and handsome, clean-featured, unlike the woman I had seen the night before."

Deprived of the affection he needs from Teresa, the narrator seeks it in a misplaced attachment to Agnes and in casual sexual encounters. Because Agnes is a Cree from Havre, scorned by the reservation people, a permanent union with her would continue the bad medicine passed down from the narrator's grandmother. The narrator vividly recalls the stories she has told him about the Crees, who were good only for the whites who had slaughtered Indians, had served as scouts for the soldiers, and "had learned to live like them, drink with them, and the girls had opened their thighs to the Long Knives. The children of these unions were doubly cursed in the eyes of the old woman."

The contempt of the Blackfeet for the Crees was based not only on their long-standing warfare and on the Crees' close interaction with the whites but also on their strikingly opposed attitudes toward female sexual morality. Among the Crees, chastity was desirable but not essential, and illegitimacy was not a cause of great concern. An adulterous wife might be given to the lover in exchange for a gift, and wife exchange operated similarly. Among the Blackfeet, chastity was of supreme importance. Because illegitimate pregnancy was regarded as a severe family disgrace, young girls were closely watched by their mothers and married off as soon as possible after puberty. Women's prayers uniformly began with the declaration of their purity; and the most important ceremonial, the Sun Dance, began with the vow of a virtuous woman for the recovery of the sick. On the other hand, the Blackfeet male's efforts at seduction were actively encouraged by his family. Perhaps because of this double standard, the Blackfeet traded with the Crees for love medicine, which the former called Ito-wa-mami-wa-natsi (Cree medicine.)

Agnes' conduct, as well as her tribal background, reinforces the conclusion that the narrator has made a disastrous choice. Agnes is interested only in exchanging sex for a good time and whatever she can get or steal. As the narrator puts it, she is "a fish for dinner, nothing more." When she grew bored reading movie magazines and imagining she looked like Raquel Welch, she took the narrator's gun and electric razor and headed for Malta, where she quickly found a new man. Despite his recognition that she is "Cree and not worth a damn," the narrator is haunted by the image of her body by moonlight, a memory stronger than the experience itself. Because he cannot get her out of his blood, he hesitatingly decides to go after her. Like the medicine man Fish, whose interpretation of the signs after Standing Bear's death was partially responsible for making the grandmother an outcast from her band, Agnes possesses a power which cannot be withstood: her "fish medicine" is strong enough to separate the narrator from his grandmother and mother. He longs to recapture what he has convinced himself that he and Agnes had together before she left. But when the narrator finally finds her in Havre, he ducks so that she cannot see him: "I wanted to be with her, but I didn't move. I didn't know how to go to her. There were people counting on me to make her suffer, and I too felt that she should suffer a little. Afterwards, I could buy her a drink."

This same ambivalence is demonstrated in his physical descriptions of her. He is attracted by her combination of open sexuality and childlike innocence. When he meets her in a bar, she is wearing a dress cut almost to the waist in back and pulled up over her thighs. Nevertheless, her eyes "held the promise of warm things, of a spirit that went beyond her miserable life of drinking and screwing men like me." Because of his growing desire to reform himself and to believe that she really is capable of warmth and affection, he tries to persuade her to settle down by learning a trade like shorthand. Although she curtly rejects his advice in disbelief, his attempt to reform her is an essential step toward achieving his own regeneration because he had expressed concern for the welfare of someone with whom he wants a close relationship; "I was calm, but I didn't feel good. Maybe it was a kind of love." Unfortunately, Agnes' reaction to his plaintive confession that he is not happy leaves no doubt that he will get even less sympathy from her than he has from Teresa: "That's a good one. Who is?"

Neither her rejection of his suggestion for a new life nor the beating administered by her brother breaks the bond which ties him to her. Although he lies to his inquisitive neighbor Mrs. Frederick Horn when he tells her that Agnes came back with him, he obviously intends to try to fulfill this wish. By the end of the novel, he has healed enough internally to think about going to a doctor about his injured knee but not enough to risk losing Agnes by taking the time necessary to recover from surgery. His need to end the spiritual and emotional pain of his longing for her is stronger than his need to end the physical pain in his knee: "Next time I'd do it right. Buy her a couple of cremes de menthe, maybe offer to marry her on the spot." Given the evidence about Agnes' attitudes and behavior, his wish for stability and closeness through marriage is not likely to be fulfilled. He may catch his "fish" again, but he probably will not be able to hang onto her. However, his wanting a close relationship with a woman, even if he has to commit himself to marriage, demonstrates how far he has progressed from the distance he felt within himself and from the women in his life which he expressed at the beginning of the novel.

Source: A. Lavonne Ruoff, "Alienation and the Female Principle in Winter in the Blood," in Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, edited by Richard F. Fleck, Three Continents Press, 1993, pp. 195-208.

Kathleen M. Sands

In the following essay, Sands describes how Welch develops and communicates the narrator's "sense of dislocation and alienation through the episodic nature of the narrative" and the incompleteness of the storytelling in Winter in the Blood.

The narrator of James Welch's Winter in the Blood suffers the malaise of modern man; he is alienated from his family, his community, his land, and his own past. He is ineffective in relationships with people and at odds with his environment, not became he is deliberately rebellious, or even immaturely selfish, but because he has lost the story of who he is, where he has come from.

Welch's narrator is an American Indian, but one who suffers more than the tensions of living on the margins of conflicting societies. He is an Indian who has lost both tribal identification and personal identity because he is cut off from the tradition of oral narration which shapes consciousness, values, and self-worth. He is a man whose story is confused, episodic, and incomplete because he has never received the story of those who came before and invested the landscape and the people with significance and meaning. Storytelling keeps things going, creates a cultural matrix that allows a continuum from past to present and future; but for the deliberately nameless narrator of Winter in the Blood, there is no past, no present, and certainly no future, only the chaos of disconnected memories, desperate actions, and useless conversation.

His dilemma is clear from the beginning of the novel. Welch is blunt as he reveals the barrenness of the narrator's perceptions of himself and his environment. As he walks toward his mother's ranch the narrator reflects, "Coming home was not easy anymore." The land he crosses is empty and abandoned:

"The Earthboys were gone" (p. 1). The ranch buildings have caved in. Even at this own ranch, there is a sense of emptiness, especially in his relationships with his family: "none of them counted; not one meant anything to me. And for no reason. I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years" (p. 2). In fact, he reveals he no longer has feelings even about himself.

There is little for him to feel but pain. His injured knee aches; he is bruised and hung over; his woman has run off, taking his rifle and razor; his mother is abrupt and self-concerned; his ancient grandmother is silent. His memories give him no comfort: his father drunk and grotesquely frozen to death, his brother mangled on the road, his own bitter realization that his red skin, not his skill, had been the reason he got a job in the Tacoma hospital. Memory fails him totally as the events of the past stream through his mind in a nightmare collage. The story of his life is disordered, chaotic, and finally, to him, meaningless. As the narratives are broken, so is the man.

Welch develops the intensity of the narrator's sense of dislocation and alienation through the episodic nature of the narrative. In the first encounter between Lame Bull and the narrator, they recall a flood on the stream where the narrator is fishing. Lame Bull insists that it occurred when the narrator was not much more than a gleam in his father's eye. The narrator counters, "I remember that I was almost twenty." The story is brief and terse; conflicting versions result in separation of the men rather than a sharing of a common event. The story does not work because it does not grow out of a shared preception.

Other such episodes in the novel demonstrate the emptiness and distance created by separate stories or conflicting versions of the same one. Teresa and the narrator tell variants of the story of Amos, the one duck that survived the neglected water tub. Teresa's version is skeletal and the narrator becomes confused, mixing up Amos and the turkey. The retelling of the events creates confusion rather than clarity. Then, when the narrator asks his mother why his father stayed away so much, she is defensive and abrupt, switching the focus of the discussion to a recollection of First Raise's death. The narrator admits limply that he has little recollection of the event. The episode results not in shared grief or comfort but in Teresa's accusing her son of being a drifter too. The narrator is alienated again: "I never expected much from Teresa and I never got it. But neither did anybody else. Maybe that's why First Raise stayed away so much." This is a bitter resolution to the question which prompted the brief story.

The stories that might make the narrator understand his family and his history are either incomplete or contradictory. They increase his discomfort, frustrating his attempts to confirm his past and create a continuity of events from which to operate in the present. Even when recollections from the family past nudge his memories to the surface, he is unable to patch together satisfactory narratives within his own mind: "Memory fail."

The one story that he does recall, as he sits in the living room facing his grandmother, is her story. Memory does not fail the narrator here as he recalls in rich detail the circumstances of the telling and the events of the narrative:

"When the old lady had related this story, many years ago, her eyes were not flat and filmy; they were black like a spider's belly and the small black hands drew triumphant pictures in the air."

Traditional storytelling devices are themselves memorable to the narrator: gesture, animation, drama. And as Welch spins out the memory in the narrator's mind, he enriches the language with detailed images and melodious rhythms. The narrator's memories take on the color, logical sequence, and vitality of the traditional tale, all stylistic characteristics which are deliberately absent from the disturbing episodes which cream conflict and further alienate the narrator. In recalling his grandmother's story of her youth he is struck with a kind of awe because "she revealed a life we never knew, this woman who was our own kin." He is caught up in the mystery of the past, in a yearning to know the complete story, and in a fear that he might lose what part of it he still holds. The memory is incomplete but it is not cause for confusion or recrimination. It is the single intact thread in the torn fabric of his history. It holds a promise of some continuity with the past, of pride in his Blackfeet ancestry. His grandmother, however, is silent now, lost in her own memories and physical frailties, and the narrator's memories of the story she told years before slip away, too fleeting to affect the practiced chaos of his life.

When the narrator heads for town, his confusion and misdirection intensify even more: "Again I felt that helplessness of being in a world of stalking white men. But those Indians down at Gable's were no bargain either. I was a stranger to both and both had beaten me."

The structure of the novel reflects the increased sense of disorientation in the terseness of the language and the separation of incidents. As the narrator's life lacks motivation, direction, continuity, the novel apparently does too. This merging of narrative and form allows the structure of the work to carry the theme as effectively as the narration itself. The airplane man becomes a key figure in the effectiveness of the episodic technique. He is a man with no past, no identity, no future, and, more importantly, no story to tell. "Well, that's another story," he says, but he never tells the story. His hints and contradictions only puzzle the narrator further. The airplane man is the radical extreme of disorientation, dislocation, distrust, disillusionment, and disgust. The narrator is mildly fascinated by his wild plots, but he is also repulsed, instinctively aware of the severity of the man's disorder. The appearance of the airplane man marks the narrator's most frustrating and isolated period in the novel, so that even his encounters with women are without intimacy or emotion. They provide drunkenness without relief or elation, fights without victory. And all the while there are snatches of stories, traces of memories. The incompleteness of the stories and memories that disturbed him acutely at home has intensified so that life becomes a confusing and sterile nightmare; "There were the wanted men with ape faces, cuffed sleeves and blue hands. They did not look directly into my eyes but at my mouth, which was dry and hollow of words. They seemed on the verge of performing an operation. Suddenly a girl loomed before my face, slit and gutted like a fat rainbow, and begged me to turn her loose, and I found my own guts spilling from my monstrous mouth. Teresa hung upside down from a wanted man's belt, crying out a series of strange warnings to the man who had torn up his airplane ticket." The nightmare goes on; images and stories melt into one incomprehensible vision of chaos and mute desperation. The elements of a dozen stories have merged into a bizarre and terrifying reality that follows the narrator from sleep into consciousness. Not until the airplane man is arrested, still without having told his story or revealed his identity, has the narrator had enough of the town, and of himself: "I wanted to lose myself."

The time he has spent in the towns has not been without some benefit, however, for it is there that he is confronted again and again with the memory of his brother's death. The story of Mose's death is crucial to his confrontation with his personal past and the landscape that defines him. The story unfolds slowly in his mind. It is too painful to recall at once, so he pieces it together slowly. It too is episodic, but as with his grandmother's story, it is set apart from the alien world of the present by a detailed narrative and a richness of style absent from the action concerned with his search for his girl friend. The story, however, is left unfinished in the city. Not until the narrator returns to the reservation and cleanses himself of the town dirt and corruption can he face the pain of the remembered sequence of events that preceded Mose's death.

The final episode in the story is precipitated by two events that enable the narrator to complete the story. First, his grandmother has died during his absence and he shares the task of digging her grave with Lame Bull. As they rest he notices the grave of his father, with its headstone which tells only part of a story: "A rectangular piece of granite lay at the head of the grave. On it were written the name, John First Raise, and a pair of dates between which he had managed to stay alive. It said nothing about how he had liked to fix machines and laugh with the white men of Dodson, or how he came to be frozen stiff as a plank in the borrow pit by Earthboy's."

First Raise had been a man who told stories. Granted, they were stories to entertain the white men in the bars, but he had one story which had given him hope, a reason to live from year to year. Every fall he had planned to go hunting, had made elaborate preparations in his mind, and had told his sons of the deer he would shoot. It was a story to live on, but no gravestone could carry First Raise's story. That was up to the narrator. And Mose, the only other man the narrator was not alienated from, did not even have a grave marker. All that was left was the narrator's memory. Awareness of the grave and his recollection of the bone-chilling cold of winter send his memory back over the last few minutes of his brother's life. Even then, so close to the end, the memory breaks off as the narrator walks out to look at his brother's unmarked grave, returns to the house, picks up the nearly-full bottle of wine, and goes to the corral to saddle Bird. Then, as though some unconscious understanding of the power of the story still permeates his mind, he invents a story for Bird, surmising the terror the horse must have felt when it had been broken, empathizing with the animal fear and sympathizing with the age and loyalty of the animal, which in its terror of man had been conquered only by its comprehension of death: "You ran and ran for what must have seemed like miles, not always following the road, but always straight ahead, until you thought your heart would explode against the terrible constriction of its cage. It was this necessity, this knowledge of death, that made you slow down to a stiff-legged trot, bearing sideways, then a walk, and finally you found yourself standing under a hot sun in the middle of a field of foxtail and speargrass, wheezing desperately to suck in the heavy air of a summer's afternoon … A cow horse." In the invention of the story, Bird, the same horse he was riding when his brother was struck and killed, is forgiven for its part in the death through the narrator's comprehension of its instinctive acceptance of its role as cow horse: "No, don't think it was your fault—when that calf broke, you reacted as they trained you." The forgiveness allows the narrator to resume and complete Mose's story, "I didn't even see it break, then I felt your weight settle on your hind legs." At last there is no blame. He has forgiven the horse, helpless to reverse its instincts, and he has forgiven himself in the process. Finally, he can grieve: "'What use,' I whispered, cried for no one in the world to hear, not even Bird, for no one but my soul, as though the words would rid it of the final burden of guilt, and I found myself a child again." A burden does remain, but it is the burden of grief, not guilt; the story has created a catharsis. The pain has been confronted and endured, and again, in the eloquence of the language and the merging of emotion, landscape, and tragedy, Welch has demonstrated that this story, as the story of his grandmother's youth, is essential to the narrator's comprehension of himself and his relationship to all that is past. The narrator's telling of his brother's death has been long and painful, a kind of logo-therapy, at least in part curative of the alienation and bitterness and distance he feels. True, the tears he sheds are solitary, but they are a demonstration of feeling for his brother, and more importantly, for himself.

Having unburdened himself, the narrator moves on toward the isolated cabin Yellow Calf inhabits to tell the blind Indian of his grandmother's death. He had been there twice before, once when he was a child, riding behind First Raise through a snow storm, and again before his trip to town. The first trip had seemed significant at the time, but his understanding of it was incomplete. He had known the old man was important, but he had been too young then to ask the right questions. The questions had lingered all those years though, and now on the third visit, he begins, "Did you know her at all?" Slowly, with prompting from the narrator, Yellow Calf tells the story of the bitter winter, the starvation, the shunning of the then-beautiful young wife of Standing bear, the bad medicine the people associated with her after the chief's death. Finally, with the right questions, Yellow Calf tells how someone became her hunter and protector. The half-formed questions that the narrator has carried over two decades are suddenly answered. At the end of Yellow Calf's story, he thinks for a moment and in that moment the old horse farts: "And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption. 'Listen, old man' I said, 'It was you—you were old enough to hunt!'" Now he knows: Yellow Calf and his grandmother were both Blackfeet; for twenty-five years they had met and loved; Teresa was their child; he was their grandson. The story that his grandmother had told meshed with the one completed by Yellow Calf, and with the completion the narrator knows himself.

The narrator laughs at Bird's fart, at the revelation of truth, at the amazing simplicity of the mystery of his beginnings which had eluded him for so long: "I began to laugh, at first quietly, with neither bitterness nor humor. It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance." Yellow Calf joins in the laughter, the laughter of relief that the story is finished and the mystery revealed, that he has lived long enough to pass his memory on to his grandson. It is the mutual laughter of the understanding of just one moment in time, but it is a beginning.

The story has done more than give the narrator a personal identity. It has given him a family, a tribal identity. It has invested the land with history and meaning, for Yellow Calf can still lives in that place of the bitter winter, dwelling in harmony with the earth. The old man makes explicit the continuity of human history and the land; "Sometimes in the winter, when the wind has packed the snow and blown the clouds away, I can still hear the muttering of the people in their tepees. It was a very bad time." But it was also a memorable time, a time of such suffering that the land has taken on a sacred meaning for the old hunter, and in turn for the young man. The oral tradition of the people has been passed on to the alienated, isolated Blackfeet man and given him a continuity of place and character. The images that have lived for decades in the old man's mind have been transferred to the younger man: "And so we shared this secret in the presence of ghosts, in wind that called forth the muttering tepees, the blowing snow, the white air of the horses' nostrils. The cottonwoods behind us, their dead white branches angling the threatening clouds, sheltered these ghosts as they had sheltered the camp that winter. But there were others, so many others." The story merges the past with the present, and the language is detailed and descriptive, at times poetic, meant to make the images indelible in the narrator's mind. Like his grandmother's story, Yellow Calf's story is "literary" in style. This rich style is used by Welch only in the two complete narrations in the novel, Mose's story and the combined stories of the old ones.

The two most important narratives in the novel come to completion in one day, both of them on the land where they began in real experience, and they offer the narrator a balanced and curative release of both tears and laughter, a sense of harmony with the earth, and an understanding of himself. But the reintegration of man into family, society, and the land is not accomplished in a moment, not even a moment of intense revelation; the rent fabric of life is not so easily repaired. Even as the secret of yellow calf is revealed, the narrator realized "there were others, so many others." Yet that very realization is in itself a sign of insight, and what he has learned gives him the capacity of imagination for the first time in the novel: "I tried to imagine what it must have been like, the two of them, hunter and widow. If I was right about Yellow Calf's age, there couldn't have been more than four or five years separating them…. It seemed likely that they had never lived together (except perhaps that first winter out of need). There had never been any talk, none that I had heard…. So for years the three miles must have been as close as an early morning walk down this path I was now riding." His imagination crosses the boundaries of time, but it is linked to the land as he ponders the knowledge he has gained: "It was a good time for odor. Alfalfa, sweet and dusty, came with the wind, above it the smell of rain. The old man would be lifting his nose to the this odor, thinking of other things, of those days he stood by the widow when everyone else had failed her. So much distance between them, yet they lived only three miles apart. But what created this distance? And what made me think that he was Teresa's father? After all, twenty-five years had passed between the time he had become my grandmother's hunter and Teresa's birth. They could have parted at any time. But he was the one. I knew that. The answer had come to me as if by instinct,… as though it was his blood in my veins that had told me." Inevitably there must be doubts left for the narrator, but one crucial question had been asked and firmly answered, opening the possibility for reintegration. If Yellow Calf and his grandmother had closed the distance, perhaps his feelings of distance from his family, his past, his people, his land were not unconquerable.

Two events at the end of the novel demonstrate the positive effect of the narrator's new comprehension of himself and his place within the social and physical environments. As he returns to the ranch, he is met by family friends who have come ostensibly to offer condolences but really to question him about the woman who had run away from him. In response to the query the narrator invents a story, saying that his "wife" had returned from Havre and is in the house. "Do you want to see her?" he challenges. His imagination, once engaged, allows him to create a story of his own, one which at the end of the novel, he seems determined to turn from lie to fact when he says, "Next time I'd do it right. Buy her a couple of cremes de menthe, maybe offer to marry her on the spot." The projection is somewhat tentative, but the intent is to close the literal and emotional distance between himself and the girl and to make his story true.

The other event which dramatizes the effect of his new knowledge is the cow-in-the-mud scene. Despite the fact that he wants to ignore the stupid animal, he does not. He enters into a frantic struggle to save the cow, committing all his strength and energy to the task. In the process the pent up anger that has cut him off from his family and the land is spent. "What did I do to deserve this?" he asks, meaning not just the job of saving the cow but all the suffering he has been through. He goes on. "Ah, Teresa, you made a terrible mistake. Your husband, your friends, your son, all worthless, none of them worth a [s―t] … Your mother dead, your father—you don't even know, what do you think of that? A joke, can't you see? Lame Bull! The biggest joke—can't you see that he's a joke, a joker playing a joke on you? Were you taken for a ride! Just like the rest of us, this country, all of us taken for a ride." The narrator's anger is directed at himself, at everyone around him, at society, at the country. It is a bitter anger, but it is anger tempered by a sympathy and passion he had not demonstrated before. Earlier, he could say dryly that he never expected or got much from Teresa, but now he feels something for her, a mixture of anger and sympathy. He sees that she is a victim too. He sees beyond himself. His fury purged, he begins to move again saying, "I crouched and spent the next few minutes planning my new life." Having discovered the distant past in Yellow Calf's and his grandmother's story, having resolved the crucial event in his own past by reliving Mose's story, and now intently engaged in the physical present, he projects into the future. He verbalizes no projections and the dilemma of the moment re-engages him, but the very ability to consider the future is encouraging; coupled with his determination to find the girl who has left him, it signals a coming to terms with life that he has not been capable of before.

On another level the cow-in-the-mud scene reintegrates the narrator with the natural environment in a dramatic way. He has walked and ridden the land but has not been a part of it. Now he is literally sucked into it. As the earth has sucked First Raise and Mose into it, it now draws the narrator, so that symbolically he is linked with those who are now past, those for whom he feels the strongest emotional ties. In triumphing over the earth, he has become one with it. As the rain begins to wash the mud from his face, he wonders "if Mose and First Raise were comfortable. They were the only ones I really loved, I thought, the only ones who were good to be with. At least the rain wouldn't bother them. But they would probably like it; they were that way, good to be with, even on rainy day." Though again he is alone, he is also at one with the earth and at peace with himself and his place on it.

James Welch's use of oral tradition in Winter in the Blood is a subtle one. He has adapted the traditional form to suit the needs and style of modern fiction. He has transformed it from an essentially narrative mode to one that carries the theme of reintegration of the alienated contemporary Indian. It is not, however, a simply thematic device to facilitate a positive ending in an essentially ironic, even cynical novel. The function of storytelling in Indian communities is to keep life going, to provide a continuum of the past into the present, to allow for the predication of a future. The narratives in Winter in the Blood are broken. Those which do come together are painful for teller and reader alike, and they do not promise a happy future. What they do provide for the narrator is knowledge and insight into the past, a painful acceptance of the present, and maybe, the strength and understanding to build a future.

Source: Kathleen M. Sands, "Alienation and Broken Narrative in Winter in the Blood," in Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, edited by Richard F. Fleck, Three Continents Press, 1993, pp. 181-88.


Jefferson, Margo, Review of Winter in the Blood, in Newsweek, November 11, 1974, pp. 115-16.

Lupton, Mary Jane, James Welch: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 2004, pp. 37-61.

McFarland, Ron, Understanding James Welch, University of South Carolina Press, 2000, pp. 52-83.

Price, Reynolds, Review of Winter in the Blood, in the New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1974, p. 1.

Sanchez, Carol Lee, "Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: The Sacred Connection," in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, edited by Carol J. Adams, Continuum, 1999, pp. 207-28.

Welch, James, Winter in the Blood, Harper & Row, 1974.

Further Reading

Beidler, Peter, G., ed., "Special Symposium Issue on James Welch's Winter in the Blood," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 4, May 1978.

This includes eight essays on the novel and a preface. Three of the essays, by Kathleen Sands, A. LaVonne Ruoff and Louise K. Barnett, discuss the theme of alienation. Other essays analyze the tone of the novel, including humor, the comic mode, and elegy.

Larson, Charles R., American Indian Fiction, University of New Mexico Press, 1978, pp. 140-49.

Larson praises the novel as almost flawless. He admires its comic elements and also comments on the feeling of goodwill displayed by the author to his characters.

Owens, Louis, "Earthboy's Return: James Welch's Acts of Recovery," in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 128-66.

Owens discusses the theme of alienation in Winter in the Blood, focusing on the narrator's quest for identity. The narrator's recovery from his alienated condition is dependent upon a renewed sense of identity as a Blackfeet Indian, and he makes significant progress toward that goal.

Wild, Peter, James Welch, Western Writers Series, Boise State University Press, 1983, pp. 24-38.

Wild offers a comparison between Winter in the Blood and N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. The book reviews the critical response to Welch's novel, and gives his own interpretation of its themes.