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The Heartsong of Charging Elk Reader’s Guide

By James Welch

The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch


The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list are intended to enhance your group?s reading of The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch. Welch?s vividly imagined and eloquently realized tale transforms a historic twist of fate befalling a Sioux Native American into an allegory of human adaptability.


As a young boy in South Dakota, Charging Elk watches his people, the Oglala Sioux, defeat Custer at Little Big Horn. When the Sioux are defeated and forced onto reservations, Charging Elk elects to live in the Stronghold, a campsite in the hills established by the Indians who reject reservation life and seek to preserve the old customs. Life in the Stronghold is hard, but Charging Elk survives to become a fearless young Indian. However, when Buffalo Bill selects him to perform in his Wild West Show, Charging Elk?s life is changed forever. He travels to Europe with the show?far from the Stronghold and to a world beyond any Charging Elk could have ever imagined. While performing in Marseille, Charging Elk falls ill and is hospitalized. Due to an administrative mix-up, the show moves on without him, leaving him stranded in a foreign land, unable to communicate. Over the years, the promised help from the American consulate never materializes, and Charging Elk eventually carves out a lonely life for himself in the ethnic section of Marseille. He drifts toward the seedier side of town, seeking comfort in an affair with a prostitute. The affair ends in a gruesome and bizarre murder that changes the course of Charging Elk?s life, giving him a chance to reinvent himself.
Charging Elk?s story unfolds against the backdrop of the intertwining and opposing images of the
naturalistic nineteenth-century American West and urban nineteenth-century France. His attempt to navigate between these two colliding worlds is a unique version of the stranger in a strange land story, an engrossing parable of human endurance.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Can The Heartsong of Charging Elk be read as an allegory of the Sioux Native Americans? adjustment to life on the reservation? How does Charging Elk?s situation in Marseille differ? If the novel is allegorical, what do each of the characters in the novel represent?

2. Rocky Bear explains to Charging Elk why Strikes Plenty was not recruited to the Wild West Show: ?These bosses think they know what an Indian should look like. He should be tall and lean. He should have nice clothes. He should look only into the distance and act as though his head is in the clouds? [p. 38]. And Black Elk tells the other Indians in the Wild West Show: ?I have lived in the wasichu [white man?s] world for two years? . Men do not listen to each other, they fight, their greed prevents them from being generous to the less fortunate, they do not seem to me to be wise enough to embrace each other as brothers? [p. 59]. What do these examples show about how the white men and the Indians perceive each other? Does the novel break down or reinforce stereotypes of either race?

3. Is Charging Elk a hero? Is he brave? Do the
cultural concepts of heroism and bravery differ in South Dakota and Marseille? Is it possible for Charging Elk to live up to his view of the ideal Oglala Sioux, a ?shirtwearer? like his father [p. 17], within the boundaries of French society?

4. Charging Elk states, ?The French people wanted the Indians to be dignified. And too, the young Indians wished to be thought of as wichasa
yatapika, men whom all praise, men who quietly demonstrate courage, wisdom, and generosity?like the old-time leaders? [p. 51]? Charging Elk aware of the irony that while he performs in a stage show that glorifies the defeat of the white man, in reality the white man is slowly changing the Indian?s way of life?

5. What does the author achieve by shifting the viewpoint from character to character, such as moving the focus from Charging Elk to St-Cyr and Bell each time Charging Elk is arrested? Why does Welch describe Charging Elk?s
memories of America instead of describing his emotions? Does this narrative device affect the reader?s ability to sympathize with Charging Elk? Why might the author want to distance the reader from Charging Elk at certain pivotal moments in the story?

6. On his own in the streets of Marseille, Charging Elk ?thought of himself as one who had no color, was in fact almost a ghost ? [p. 198]. He often thinks of himself as ?invisible? [pp. 200, 338]. But by the end of the novel, Charging Elk is accepted by the union of workers and he feels, ?for the first time since he had left the Stronghold, that he was a part of a group of men who looked out for each other? [p. 416]. How does Charging Elk overcome this paradox of looking so different physically, and yet feeling ?invisible?? Is this symbolic of a larger theme of racial inequality?

7. Why does Charging Elk become ?a little reckless? after the night he scares off the hostile sailor in the Brasserie Cherbourg? What other experiences from his past does this defining moment recall?

8. What is the significance of the refrain from Charging Elk?s dream which echoes throughout the second half of the novel: ?You are my only son? [p. 252]? What is the ?heartsong? of Charging Elk, and does it change or evolve over the course of the novel?

9. How would you characterize Ren?? Does Ren? treat Charging Elk better than other characters do? What is the nature of their relationship?

10. Why does Charging Elk commit such a violent crime? How can the same man who gives precious money to a vagrant mother and child [p. 217] consider scalping the policeman who arrests him for being a vagabond [p. 68] Why do Charging Elk?s charitable instincts to ?share with others? become ?replaced by an attention only to himself and his own desires?? [p. 243] Does isolation breed selfishness and permit the breakdown of morality? How are right and wrong defined in The Heartsong of Charging Elk?

11. What statements does the novel make about the dangers of assimilation? Is it necessary for an individual to lose something of his original culture in order to become assimilated into a new culture?

12. Is Welch?s portrayal of the Native American way of life realistic or idealized? What about his portrayal of white society?

13. How might one answer the question St-Cyr poses in his article about Charging Elk: ?Child of nature or born killer? [p. 312]? Is Charging Elk a ?lesser animal? as St-Cyr unconsciously believes [p. 103], a ?savage,? as the prosecution tries to portray him [p. 315], or just ?a man,? as Ren? believes [p. 330]?

14. From Charging Elk?s point of view, what is the difference between being inside the church, where it is ?warm and holy,? [p. 67] and being back at home celebrating religious rituals in Lakota? Might Sandrine?s card with Jesus?s image on it just as well be his badger-claw necklace
[p. 76]? Is religion simply a matter of personal reality, as Charging Elk thinks when he realizes, ?Wakan Tanka was not here in this land, had never been here! All those times he had prayed to the Great Mystery had been futile? [p. 427]?

15. Charging Elk compares his feelings with Nathalie to those he had for Marie [p. 385]. Are the relationships similar or different? How does Charging Elk?s relationship with Marie compare to St-Cyr?s relationship with Fortune? How does his relationship with Madeleine compare to his relationship with his mother? Are the relationships between men and women in The Heartsong of Charging Elk typical of that period in history?

About this Author

James Welch attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, and studied writing at the University of Montana. One of his four previous novels, Fools Crow, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. Welch lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife, Lois.
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