When you visit Google today you will be welcomed by a colorful doodle that represents the life of Native American author James Welch. Today, November 18th, 2016, would have been his 76th birthday. The beautiful drawings on the homepage epitomize both Welch’s Native American heritage and his award-winning career in literature.
Welch was born to a Blackfeet father and a Gros Ventre mother. He grew up on a reservation and spent most his life writing tales and poems that are reminiscent to Native American culture. He died at the age of 62 back in 2003 in Missoula, Montana. Indian Country Media Today’s Ron Seden wrote that “he was known not just for his desire to tell readers about his life as an American Indian, but for his modesty and generosity.”
Even though he received international praise for his writing, Welch was concerned whether his Native American point of view would ever be fully appreciated. And that helped to enforce his creativity. “I knew that nobody wanted to read about Indians, reservations, or those rolling endless plains,” he wrote. “I began to think that maybe…life on the reservation was hopeless. Nevertheless, I began to write poems about the country and the people I come from.”
Welch may have had concerns about the popularity of his writing, but historical novel Fools Crow, which was about a Blackfeet man’s struggle with the decision to fight or assimilate into white culture, along with his other work found appreciative audiences across the globe.
About the Google Doodle
The Doodle was created by Sophie Diao, who did her best to capture Welch’s unique life and legacy in the drawing. On Google’s blog, it mentions that the image was created to also celebrate National Native American History Month and to pay tribute to both Welch’s creativity and his ability to bring the experiences of the North American people to life.
Diao has a background in film storytelling and animation. She found her inspiration not only in Welch’s books, but also in ledger art, which is a form of 19th-century artwork created by Native Americans in the margins of old account books and ledgers, which became popular during the late 20th century. “It’s a really unique style,” she tells Smithsonian.com. “So pretty. It caught my eye and I really wanted to do something around that.”
The Doodler is of Chinese descent, and she took great pride in the chance to learn more about Welch’s life and work, she found that it resonated with her as a woman of color. “I definitely sympathize with the fears that were shown in [Fools Crow] about your culture being taken away from you our being changed against your will.”
Diao worked along with other Native American Google employees and with Welch’s widow to ensure that she represented the subtleties of a culture that was not her own. “I wanted to strike a balance between being reverential of his work and his heritage as a Native American, but also make it easy for the user to look at. I didn’t want it to look like some random person’s idea of tribal art.”
The Legacy of a Visionary Writer and Poet
James Welch was a prominent author of novels and poetry who focused on the beauty, mystic and heritage of the early American West. His first book of poems, Riding the Earthboy Forty, earned him his review from a Saturday Review critic…
“His poems are alert, sorrowful, and true. For a young man, he is very strong. . .. If Welch stays put in his own life, I think his strengths should develop; his voice is clear, laconic, and it projects a depth in experience of landscape, people, and history that conveys a rich complexity. You realize his is not looking at a thing, but seeing into it—which is vision.”
Welch’s creativity and voice shined in his first novel Winter in the Blood , which is a story about a young Indian living on a reservation in Montana. The narrator is, like the author, part Blackfoot and part Gros Ventre Indian. He describes himself as a “servant to a memory of death.” Both his father and brother are dead; and throughout the course of the novel, his beloved grandmother dies as well.
In the New York Times Book Review, Reynolds Price described the narrator’s life as a “Black sack tied firmly shut. But as the story threatens to die in its crowded sack, Price wrote, “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.”
James Welch is still best known for his novels and he acknowledged that his work as a novelist places him in a small, select group of Native American writers. He told Will Nixon of Publishers Weekly that finding good works of fiction written by Indian authors can be difficult, adding…
“I think Indians tend toward poetry instead. A lot of people have said that poetry more closely approximates the rhythms of their own traditions, such as songs. And Indians prefer to write poetry because they have something to say about their culture and society and it’s harder to be political and polemical in fiction.”