M. L. Smoker reads James Welch's "Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation"

View all films

M. L. Smoker reads James Welch's "Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation"

James Welch’s poem “Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation,” performed by M. L. Smoker. “The Sandhills” is the eleventh film in Above Strands of Earth: Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation at Tippet Rise, a film series produced in collaboration with brinkerhoffpoetry.org and the Academy of American Poets.

Directed by Matthew Thompson and shot at Tippet Rise Art Center.

Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation

We need no runners here. Booze is law
and all the Indians drink in the best tavern.
Money is free if you’re poor enough.
Disgusted, busted whites are running
for office in this town wise enough
to qualify for laughter. The constable,
a local farmer, plants the jail with wild
raven-haired stiffs who beg just one more drink.
One drunk, a former Methodist, becomes a saint
in the Indian church, bugs the plaster man
on the cross with snakes. If his knuckles broke,
he’d see those women wail the graves goodbye.

Goodbye, goodbye, Harlem on the rocks,
so bigoted, you forget the latest joke,
so lonely, you’d welcome a battalion of Turks
to rule your women. What you don’t know,
what you will never know or want to learn—
Turks aren’t white. Turks are olive, unwelcome,
alive in any town. Turks would use
your one dingy park to declare a need for loot.
Turks say bring it, step quickly, lay down and dead.

Here we are when men were nice. This photo, hung
in the New England Hotel lobby, shows them nicer
than pie, agreeable to the warring bands of redskins
who demanded protection money for the price of food.
Now, only Hutterites out north are nice. We hate
them. They are tough and their crops are always good.
We accuse them of idiocy and believe their belief all wrong.

Harlem, your hotel is overnamed, your children
are raggedy-assed but you go on, survive

Photo by Matthew Thompson

M. L. Smoker

Poet and education advocate M. L. Smoker, born Mandy Smoker Broaddus, is a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, where her family’s home is on Tabexa Wakpa (Frog Creek). She holds a BA from Pepperdine University and an MFA from the University of Montana in Missoula, where she was the recipient of the Richard Hugo Memorial Fellowship. She was also a student at UCLA, where she was honored with the Arianna and Hannah Yellow Thunder Scholarship, as well as the University of Colorado, which named her a Battrick Fellow.

Smoker’s debut collection of poems was Another Attempt at Rescue, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2005. In 2009, she and poet Melissa Kwasny co-edited an anthology, I Go to the Ruined Place: Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights (Lost Horse Press), featuring 60 poems on human rights issues by 60 poets. Smoker received a regional Emmy award in 2013 for her work as a writer and consultant on the PBS documentary Indian Relay, which explored the high-risk horse racing style practiced by tribal nations in the Rocky Mountain West. In 2015, she was named the Indian Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association and was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education by President Obama. In 2019, the University of Montana in Missoula recognized her as an alumna of the year.

She served as the Director of the Indian Education Division for the state of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction for nearly ten years. There, she led the state’s Indian Education for All program, as well as the Schools of Promise initiative, which sought to close the achievement gap via new models for education at Montana’s lowest-performing schools. Smoker has also served as an administrator at a rural public school in Frazer, Montana, and taught courses at Fort Peck Community College and the University of Montana.

From 2019 to 2021, Smoker jointly held the role of Montana’s co–Poet Laureate with Melissa Kwasny. She was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow in 2021. Smoker’s free-verse poems are steeped in Native American culture and history, often deploying a personal lens; her influences include John Steinbeck, Philip Levine, and famed Montana writer James Welch. Smoker currently works at the nonprofit Education Northwest as a practice expert in Indian Education, focusing on equity in Native schooling.

James Welch

James Phillip Welch, Jr., a founding author of the Native American Renaissance, was born in Browning, Montana. His father, a welder and rancher, was a member of the Blackfeet tribe, while his mother, a stenographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was a member of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre). Welch was raised and educated on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations for much of his youth, where he was embedded in the Indigenous community, religion, and traditions that would deeply influence his later writing. He attended high school in Minneapolis and wrote poetry privately as a student there, often imitating the classic poems his teacher taught each week in class.

Welch failed out of college twice and worked as a Forest Service firefighter, a laborer, and an Upward Bound counselor before enrolling at the University of Montana. He took a short story class and enjoyed it so much that he applied for the school’s new creative writing MFA. In that program, he studied under Richard Hugo, who encouraged him to write about the Native American culture he originated from. Welch and Hugo soon became close. On a trip with J. D. Reed, the three challenged each other to write a poem about a bar in Dixon, Montana, and submitted the set of poems that emerged to The New Yorker. The magazine accepted the whole set, and suddenly Welch was a published poet. After his graduation from the University of Montana, he began writing more seriously. He married comparative literature professor Lois Monk in 1968; during her sabbaticals, the couple lived abroad, where Welch could focus on his writing for long periods.

Welch’s first and only poetry collection, Riding the Earthboy 40, was published in 1971. The collection is deeply informed by the landscapes of Montana and Welch’s own childhood experiences on reservations. His first work of fiction, Winter in the Blood (1974), began as a long poem about Montana and evolved into a novel. A surprise hit with a front-page New York Times review, it was later adapted into a film of the same name. After this point, Welch primarily wrote fiction, publishing The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), The Indian Lawyer (1990), and The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) over the course of his career. Fools Crow, set in the rapidly changing world of the Blackfeet tribe in the 1870s, brought him even more acclaim, winning the American Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Pacific Northwest Book Award. Welch also collaborated with filmmaker Paul Stekler on the PBS documentary Last Stand at Little Bighorn (1992), then drew from the project for his first nonfiction work, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994).

Welch’s many awards and honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Cultural Ministry, the Native American Literature Prize, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award. The holder of honorary doctorates from Rocky Mountain College and the University of Montana, he also served on the board of directors of the D'Arcy McNickle Center of Chicago’s Newberry Library. His work has been printed in nine languages, and his papers are held by Yale University.
Welch spoke and taught widely over his career, including at Cornell University and the University of Washington, where he held the Theodore Roethke Chair. During the 1980s, he served as Vice Chairman of the Montana State Board of Pardons. In 2003, Welch died of a pulmonary embolism at his home in Missoula, Montana. His legacy continues with tributes such as 2022’s James Welch Native Lit Festival and the Poetry Northwest’s James Welch Prize for Indigenous Poets, as well as his broad influence as one of the first major Native fiction writers in the United States.