A Story Still Unfolding

An exercise in phoning it in

Mom, Grandpa, Dad, my sisters, and me, the fat bald one in the middle, early in my irritable years. Update: Mom tells me this photo was taken in front of St. Anthony’s Church in Missoula on the event of my baptism.

This week, with a pile of other obligations and deadlines piling up, I decided to revert back to what this newsletter was originally going to be: a side companion to the book I am working on (and almost finished!) called Becoming Little Shell. It will be out next year, if all goes reasonably as planned. Which is no guarantee since if all had gone as originally planned it would be out, if not now, then soon. But pandemics come and we fight off insurrectionists and etc. and here we are. So this week, I am presenting the draft introduction to the book. I’ve not shared this before like this; a couple folks have read it, and I think I read it during an online workshop thing, I don’t know. But hopefully this will give folks a sense of what I am working on, and hopefully generate some interest. Thanks, as always, for being here.

There is a story in my family, almost apocryphal, about my father. I heard it on more than one occasion from Dad himself. I’ve also heard it from my oldest sister, who heard it from men who, allegedly, witnessed the event. I have no reason to believe it isn’t true.

Dad is a young man at the time, not yet thirty, a few years removed from his honorable discharge from the navy in 1962. He is a new hand working at a paper mill in Frenchtown, Montana, a small community a few miles west of Missoula. The mill is a sprawling industrial installation near the banks of the Clark Fork River. He will ultimately work there for more than forty years, under at least four different owners. It's a noisy place and the air inside is damp and foggy with steam. A rotten egg-like smell hangs heavy, a scent that lingers still in my memory as something that permeates my father's work clothes, his boots, and even his black plastic lunch box. For years it hangs over the entire valley.

Dad is leaning on a railing, on break perhaps. His foreman approaches, slaps him on the shoulder, and says, “How’s it going, chief?”

An innocuous enough statement to our ears, but to my father, in that era—in any era—the comment was akin to squirting lighter fluid onto a heap of red-hot coals.

Enraged, Dad whirls on the man. A chase ensues from one end of the mill to the other. While machines belch and roar, the men lumber up and down metal stairways, steel-toed boots clanging along wall-hugging catwalks, until finally Dad catches the man. My young father is lean and mean, a confident 6’0” tall and pushing 170 pounds.

“I grabbed that sonofabitch by the throat,” Dad says in closing the story, through gritted teeth, “and I told him, ‘Don’t you ever fucking talk to me again.’ And you know what? He didn’t.”

I begin my story here because this episode is a snapshot of my father’s life. He was often kind and gentle; he loved animals, and he never raised a hand against anyone in my family that I can recall. Certainly never to me. Yet he harbored a simmering rage that would erupt terribly at times, especially when aided by alcohol. He met any perceived slight with an unreasonable knee-jerk belligerence. Many of his stories, and much of his advice to me, centered on physical confrontation.

“If you ever get in a fight,” he told me more than once, “you’ve gotta hurt ‘em. Don’t think about fighting fair. You grab ‘em by the hair, you do whatever you need to do to hurt ‘em as bad as you can as fast as you can. Make sure they never want to fuck with you again.”

Thankfully I never had to practice that advice, but I often wondered where it came from. Dad was a complicated man, and there are stories I’ve heard of his younger days that I tried to pry out of him with varying degrees of success. As I got older, had more conversations with my dad, and put the odd pieces of insight gathered here and there together, it started to paint a picture of a life that was certainly far more brutal than mine has ever been. His relationship with my mom—a marriage of 50+ years—was volatile, and his relationships with my two sisters were, at times, rocky. I had my minor disagreements with him here and there, but I know we would all agree that there was never any question that he loved us all.

My grandfather, Leo Stanley La Tray, died in 1996. I was living near Sumner, Washington, at the time, and made the drive to Plains, Montana, for the funeral. Though I barely knew my grandfather I was to be one of the pallbearers. Arriving at the small Catholic church there, I was amazed to find the nave full of Indians. I took my seat in the front row, beside my dad, and stared around in a kind of puzzled awe. During the service, which I barely remember—it seemed to be more about Jesus than my grandfather—Dad kept poking me in the ribs and trying to make me laugh. When we exited the church and prepared to join the procession to the ceremony, Dad leaned in and asked, “So what did you think about all those Indians?”

I've thought about Indians my entire life. I grew up with a vague idea that my father’s side of the family was Indian. Chippewa, specifically, as my grandparents would speak of it at times. I have a dim memory as a four-year old sitting on the floor assaulting a coloring book with crayons. When asked why I depicted a pair of children with red-colored skin, I said it was because they are Indian. My visiting grandmother, Ruby Katherine (Doney) La Tray, sitting at the kitchen table, asks, “Is my skin red? No? But I am Indian.” I didn’t know what to say.

My grandfather's funeral was a turning point. Here was a collection of people I'd never known but was clearly connected to. Who were they? Why didn't I know them? What is the story of our family?

Here are facts I now know. My father was Indian. If he’d been enrolled—as he should have been—with Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, or with any of two or three other Indian tribes in Montana or North Dakota, odds are his tribal identification would have identified his race as “Chippewa-Cree.” He was part of a large family of La Trays scattered all across the northern plains. Whenever asked about any of these other La Trays I would hear about who live in Montana—Havre, even Great Falls—my dad would deny any relation. I never heard him utter the words “Little Shell” or “Rocky Boy” or “Turtle Mountain” ... or even Chippewa, that I can recall. Nor Métis. He spent his life denying his Indigenous blood, and, through his choice, mine as well. Sometimes vehemently.

I’m certain the source of much of my father’s anger was his stubborn refusal to accept his Native heritage. His reaction to being called “chief,” for example, which was, and remains, a derogatory term to many Indians, is another symptom. He carried that hair trigger his entire life. To refer to him in any way as being Indian, in most contexts, bordered on fighting words. If pressed, his calmest response was to refer to the entire idea of any "Indian-ness" at all as being complete bullshit. When he passed away in 2014, Dad left me with a lifetime of questions about who he was and where he came from. No, who we are, where we come from. I'm certain he had the answers to many of my questions, but he chose to take them with him to his grave. I decided I'd do what I could to find out on my own. If not from him, then through people who lived a similar experience. Through the story of our People.

This book is an attempt to answer some of those questions. To tell the story of my own family heritage, certainly, and what it was that made my dad feel the way he did about where he came from. If I have learned anything at all, it is that I am not the only one to grow up in these kinds of circumstances.

I am not a scholar. I am not a historian. I don’t have an academic bone in my body. I am a storyteller, and this is a story that needs telling. I feel compelled to share with the world the story of the Métis people of Montana, at least as much as I am able. To tell the story of the Little Shell Tribe, Montana’s long-time landless Indians. Because it’s clear we are largely unknown, not just to the wider world, but even in Montana, the first state to recognize us as a legitimate tribe. Like the stories of all Indigenous tribes of the Americas, it is a sad story. Yet it is a story brimming with grit and determination.

It is a story still unfolding.

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