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UM announces James and Lois Welch visiting writer fund

by UM News Service
| November 23, 2021 2:48 PM

Indigenous voices will enjoy a greater prominence at the University of Montana thanks to a new visiting writer fund established by Lois Welch to honor her late husband, acclaimed author James Welch.

UM will use the James and Lois Welch Distinguished Native American Visiting Writer Fund to bring a prominent Indigenous writer to campus to teach each spring semester. In the future, the position will become endowed through a significant gift included in Lois Welch’s estate plan. The endowment means her gift will be invested and the earnings made available to support the program in perpetuity.

“A gift of this magnitude has never been offered to UM’s creative writing program before, and it will certainly enhance the stature and visibility of the program,” said Professor Judy Blunt, chair of the College of Humanities and Sciences Department of English and director of UM’s Creative Writing Program. “But the vision also recognizes the value of literature in both Lois’ and Jim’s lives.”

Lois Welch, who served as a professor of comparative literature at UM and head of the creative writing program, said the $50,000 per year visiting writer fund is a “natural progression” from a number of other ways the Welches have supported UM, its writing programs and the Native American writing community. Their contributions include the Welch Scholarship, which is awarded to creative writing students, particularly undergraduate students of Indigenous descent, and a new James Welch Native American Writers Festival planned for summer 2022.

“Jim would have recognized the tribute and what it can accomplish,” Lois said of the new visiting writer program, “but at the same time he was so humble, he could have never set himself apart.”

Jim Welch spent much of his early years on the Blackfeet Reservation, the homeland of his father, and the Fort Belknap Reservation, the homeland of his mother. His family moved to various places in the country.

Welch is one of the Indigenous authors credited with starting what has been termed “the Native American Renaissance” in the late 1960s, a period lauded for the significant increase in production of literary works by Native American writers.

“When Welch’s ‘Winter in the Blood’ got a front-page review on The New York Times Book Review, he changed not only Native American literary history, but the American literature canon of masterworks,” said Kathryn Shanley (Nakoda), professor and chair of Native American Studies at UM. “His contributions can be seen today in a new generation of Native and non-Native writers. The Jim and Lois Welch visiting writer fund honors that tremendous legacy and brings Jim’s international achievements back home to Montana. We are grateful for the Welches’ generosity and vision.”

After getting his bachelor’s degree in 1965, Jim Welch enrolled in the then-fledgling Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. There he would meet his mentor and friend, poet Richard Hugo.

“Jim became a writer, thanks to Hugo,” Lois Welch said. “Hugo was a working-class guy and an amazing poet. And Jim thought, ‘if he can do it, I can do it.’

“We don’t give enough attention to the importance of having a role model,” she said. “It’s so important that we have a place where Native Americans can tell their stories and be heard.”

Welch frequently traveled abroad, often accompanied by Lois, who speak fluent French and served as his translator. In 1997, Jim Welch was awarded the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal. He died in 2003 at age 62.

The James and Lois Welch Distinguished Native American Visiting Writer residency will start in spring 2023. Those writers selected for the program can be authors of poetry or prose and will teach a graduate creative writing workshop and an undergraduate course in Native American literature, Blunt said.

Visit www.hs.umt.edu/creativewriting/donate.php to make a gift online or mail a financial gift to the University of Montana Foundation, noting the James and Lois Welch Distinguished Native American Visiting Writer Fund on checks, at P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT 59807-7159.