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New endowment will bring Native American writers to University of Montana

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The University of Montana announced Monday a new visiting writer fund established by Lois Welch to honor her late husband, acclaimed author James Welch.

The James and Lois Welch Distinguished Native American Visiting Writer Fund will bring a Native American writer to campus to teach each spring semester. The position will be endowed through a gift from Lois Welch’s estate plan and the funds will be invested so that the earnings can support the program in perpetuity.

“Jim would be in a happy state of shock today to hear us formalize this (fund) in the UM Creative Writing program,” Lois said on Monday.

“This program, this university, that poet (former professor Richard Hugo), kick-started him on his career as a writer,” she continued.

The residency will kick off with its first guest writer in spring 2023.

Lois previously served as a professor of comparative literature at the university and was head of the creative writing program. The $50,000 per year fund is a “natural progression” in the ways the Welches have supported UM and Native American students, she said.

The Welches have supported a scholarship for creative writing students as well as the James Welch Native American Writers Festival, which is planned for summer 2022. 

The new visiting writer position was announced at an event on Monday in the rotunda of the Payne Family Native American Center featuring guest speakers like UM President Seth Bodnar, Judy Blunt, director of the creative writing program, and Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Timothy Davis.

“It’s an honor to be here today to present this to the president (Bodnar) and say thank you guys, especially to Mrs. Welch for the great generosity and giving that will benefit students forever,” Davis said.

Davis presented Bodnar with a vest his wife made to celebrate the occasion.

Bodnar thanked Davis for the vest and Lois for her generosity and lasting impact on the university.

“The life and work of James Welch had just such a transformative impact, not just on the University of Montana, not just the state of Montana, not just on Indigenous peoples, but on our entire country and our way of understanding Native American culture through writing,” Bodnar said. “His work has influenced so many writers who have followed it.”

James Welch earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965 and then enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program, where he met his mentor and friend, Hugo.

Welch wrote many books including “Winter in the Blood,” “The Indian Lawyer” and “Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians.”

Welch was of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre heritage — he spent his early years on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations. He died in 2003.

The UM Foundation is seeking donations to help grow the James and Lois Welch Distinguished Native American Visiting Writer Fund.

“His beating of the drum so slowly brought us back here to a place where we’re now going to have a regular enrichment of Native voices coming to the campus, working with students, making Jim’s optimism show,” said Kathryn Shanley, professor and chair of Native American Studies. “His optimism was a future optimism, a belief in the future.”

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