An exploration of identity with Montana’s Poet Laureate.


Breaching capacity of the Whitefish Community Library’s small classroom, around 45 people cram into an unruly scattering of chairs to listen to Montana’s Poet Laureate Chris La Tray. He bellows, “Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin!” the traditional Anishinaabe greeting that means “Hello, all my relatives!” La Tray, a Métis storyteller and enrolled member of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana, smiled in return when several in the audience responded, “Boozhoo.”

Barrel-chested and bearded with his long hair combed into a ponytail that strikes midback, La Tray commands the room even though minutes before the presentation he sat quietly in one of the chairs with the crowd. Now upright, he jokes that he’ll “bloviate” for the next few hours about poetry, stories about his tribe, and how we are truly all connected. He freely admits that he doesn’t always know what he’s going to talk about beforehand but La Tray, a consummate and enchanting storyteller, needs no script.

The mantle of poet laureate fits La Tray well, although he laments as of late, he’s become “the poet laureate of emails.” He’s on the road a lot traveling to communities and schools across large swaths of the state. He also has another responsibility claiming his writing time: promoting his upcoming debut memoir, Becoming Little Shell: A Landless Indian’s Journey Home. Becoming Little Shell is the story of his lifelong quest to discover his Indigenous identity and the vivid history of the Little Shell, the most recent tribe to be granted long-overdue federal recognition in 2019. The Little Shell are the 574th federally recognized tribe in the United States and La Tray has the number tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand.

La Tray asks the audience if they’ve heard of the Métis. Most in the room raise their hands, which surprises La Tray, who’s used to speaking to crowds who are unfamiliar with his ancestors, a mixed-race culture and ethnicity of people resulting largely from intermarriages from French fur trappers and explorers with Chippewas, who lived west of the Great Lakes and into Canada and Montana. He laughs, “And this is why we’re in a library.”

Perhaps those who elected to spend their Friday night, one saturated with sunshine and warm temps inciting spring fever, are familiar with the Métis people because of La Tray, one of the state’s most lauded writers.

He’s the author of two books of poetry and a popular weekly newsletter, “An Irritable Métis.” In 2018, La Tray’s first book One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large launched the freelance writer and part-time bookseller into critical acclaim. The collection is accessible and immersive, infused with a Jim Harrison-esque style for marrying the profane to the sacred. It’s as much worrying about scraping enough cash to refill the propane tank during the winter as it is observations of his non-human relatives during his jaunts at Council Groves State Park, his hallowed ground located near his home in Frenchtown. One-Sentence Journal garnered the Montana Book Award and High Plains Book Award.

The book’s success became a turning point in La Tray’s life and allowed him to concentrate fully on writing and what he calls the “writing adjacent life:” teaching writing workshops, bringing poetry to 4th graders on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and attending speaking engagements throughout the West.

Fueling his burgeoning writing life was the lifelong quest to uncover his Indigenous heritage and his insatiable curiosity about the history of the Métis, as well as joining the Little Shell’s struggle for federal recognition.

Born in 1967 in western Montana, La Tray grew up believing he was Chippewa because his grandmother Ruby told him so and he wanted to be. His dad repeatedly denied the connection but while attending his grandfather’s funeral in 1996 in Plains, La Tray marveled at the number of Indians in the nave of the tiny St. James Catholic Church. He left the service with even more questions about his identity. In 2013, he began an earnest search to understand his heritage and unravel his family’s history.

Becoming Little Shell is part personal history, part tribal history, and encompasses his decade-plus investigation into his identity, a confrontation with his father’s complicated relationship with his own Indigenous heritage alongside discovering the rich history of the Métis and the landless Indians belonging to the Little Shell tribe. The memoir solidifies La Tray as a storyteller—it is written as if he were speaking, infused with his brash humor when he curses the roaming wildlife crossing the highway at twilight. He highlights the connections between Métis and European culture, and how they influenced each other in terms of dress and travel, revealing that all of us, despite race and other binary categorizations, are connected. It’s a living history that La Tray wisely illuminates as he travels the state, finding solace in the landscapes that his ancestors traveled to hunt bison.

The book opens with La Tray’s reflections as a kid growing up in western Montana. He loved rock music and writing. “I always wanted to be a rock star and write books on the side,” he said while sprawled out on the quiet bank of the Stillwater River in Kalispell. He and I are meeting alongside the braided section of the river a few hours before he’s due in Whitefish.

Likely not many can say they are living out their childhood dreams, but La Tray is—although writing books is no longer a side gig. He plays in the hard rock band American Falcon and has played in a band since 1983. La Tray is not formally educated as a musician or a writer. He has a high school diploma from Frenchtown High School and believes his writing is well received because he captures the lives—the anguish and the joy—of everyday people.

“It’s just normal life,” he explained. “People like to see their own lives reflected in the things they read. How many of us love to do what we’re doing right now, sitting on a riverbank watching for the eagles, watching f*****g geese, and big ol’ cottonwoods. We are all capable of these kinds of observations.”

La Tray frequently punctuates his speech with profanity, either to add reverent emphasis or to hammer across a point, usually to confront injustice. He seeks joy and celebration, particularly in the natural world. But when it comes to discussing federal Indian policy, he minces very few words. “I exist in the world with a big middle finger to anybody telling me what to do,” he said.

He also exists in a world that repeatedly tries to deny, erase and marginalize his Indigenous heritage. In researching and writing Becoming Little Shell, La Tray still feels the trauma of America’s bloody dealings with his ancestors. “You can’t immerse yourself in federal Indian policy for a decade and come out the other side not feeling at war with the world.”

While writing Becoming Little Shell after the death of his father in 2014, he became more aware of generational trauma, like the kind his dad experienced, resulting in the blatant refusal of being an Indian. Centuries of assimilation tactics and widespread effects of settler colonialism was a deliberate effort, La Tray explained, “to make generations of Indian people hate themselves and their history.”

Despite the ongoing anti-Indian racism, La Tray is determined to not let this heartbreaking history break him. “I try and live my life happily despite that,” he said. Becoming Little Shell embodies that, a story brimming with pride and a staunch refusal of erasure against a vital part of the story that shapes all of America.

Part of that happiness includes celebrating being Poet Laureate and having the platform across the state to talk about the Little Shell. It’s a celebration leavened by responsibility, too. “It’s not so much about me, it’s about me being a representative of a people who have been erased,” he said.

No matter the number of awards or honorifics he’s received, La Tray is impervious to pretension. Irritable, certainly, but he’s also open to expressing the breadth of humanity—and feeling it. I’m strapped to remember one of Chris’s speaking occasions where he was not brought to tears.

As he told me on the riverbank before we spotted a bald eagle arcing across the tops of the cottonwoods, he sees himself joining a thriving community of writers and storytellers who’ve shared their Indigenous heritage. “There are many who have done so much of the heavy lifting to raise Indigenous awareness and make Indigenous people proud to be Indigenous people. I want to be part of that. I want to be part of making people feel good about themselves.”

Maggie Neal Doherty is a freelance journalist, opinion columnist, and book critic and lives with her family in Kalispell, Montana. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Washington Post, LA Times, SKI, and more.