As I mentioned in my share to Facebook, when I wrote last week’s “All My Relations” essay I’d originally sent messages to a couple traditional journalistic outlets in hopes of getting it published somewhere “official.” I never received any responses, which isn’t surprising. Those editors are overwhelmed and nobody knows who I am, so why should they look at my email? Still, I was compelled to share my thoughts about the Little Shell recognition, and the politics around it. Time was slipping away and I wanted to strike while the iron was hot, so I decided to just put it out there myself. Since then I’ve been blown away by the response, and I can’t properly express the gratitude I feel toward the people who have shared, commented, and otherwise interacted with the piece. Particularly, thank you to all of you who have subscribed to future updates from this newsletter.
I intend to keep posting, hopefully every week, so I think before getting too much farther I should let all of you know who I am. My name is Chris La Tray, I am Métis, and I am enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I am a writer; I freelance for the Missoulian on occasion, and I’m usually good for a couple articles a year for Montana Quarterly (the best magazine in the state, in my opinion). Sometimes other places too. I left a solid job that I’d held for roughly thirteen years as a manufacturing consultant in December of 2015, because I hated it. My father had just died at the end of 2014, and it was largely the revelation that he’d essentially worked himself to illness and death that spurred me to quit my corporate-ish job. I was burning out and I wanted to write.
I was already middle-aged and surly at this point. I quickly learned that chasing editors and pitching stories and waiting forever to get an answer and then, if a story did run, having to fight to get paid for it simply wasn’t for me. I took a part-time job as a bookseller at Fact & Fiction Books in Missoula instead, because the guaranteed paycheck I’d get for showing up, augmented with the freelance work that came my way here and there, was probably about equal to what I could chase as a (questionably) dedicated full-time freelancer anyway. It’s worked out well so far, and I can say without hesitation that anything good that has come to me as a writer since has been a direct result of that decision.
In 2018 I published a book called One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large. I went with a small press—Riverfeet Press, out of Livingston, Montana—on little more than a handshake deal, largely because I didn’t want to take the time to try and find a bigger publisher who was interested, nor did I think there was really a market for it beyond friends and family. I was wrong. The book has done very well (in a still very small way). It won the 2018 Montana Book Award. I won a 2019 High Plains Book Award as well for Best First Book, and was a finalist for Best Book by an Indigenous Writer.
Even better are the intangible things that have come my way because of the book that I never imagined. Being contacted by folks who have read it in their bookclubs, the emails and photographs. Interviews. Invitations to speak to students, all the way from middle schoolers to university students. The invites to submit to other journals, read at events, judge contests. It is really mind-blowing, frankly. It is cliché to say so, but that book has changed my life. The way I have been welcomed into this community of writers, and lifted up by it, has been one of the most joyful things that has ever happened to me.
Which brings us to where we are today. In the fall of 2019 I signed a contract with Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, Minnesota) to write a book tentatively titled, Becoming Little Shell. In the announcements that have gone out so far, it is described as "the story of his [my] mixed-race, Métis heritage, a father who denied that heritage, and the community he was denied as a result. It is also a history of the state's Métis people, known as Montana's 'Landless Indians,' and their largely unrecognized cultural presence on the High Plains of the U.S. In particular, the book discusses Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and their struggle for federal recognition."
It is an exciting project, and I wanted to do something while I was working on it to focus attention on the Little Shell, maybe process thoughts while I was working on the book, that kind of thing. So when the opportunity came to comment on the successful federal recognition, it seemed the logical opportunity to start, and here we are. That’s the type of thing I intend to write here, and I hope it remains interesting. I hadn’t intended to blather on so long about myself, as there was a big Little Shell-related dust-up this past week involving a moronic Republican politician and the press I wanted to comment on, but that will keep until next week, even if it gets a little stale by then. Thanks for hanging around.
Feel free to forward this along to anyone you think might be interested. My regular website is here; I’ll still post there, if of a more random nature. I can be followed on Twitter here. If you have comments or ideas, I may also be reached here. Happy New Year!
Header photo: photograph I took of a photograph at the Central Montana Historical Museum titled, “La Tray.” There are a number of my family members in the photograph. I like it.