Thursday, October 22, 2020

Pandemic Meditations: Eight Nations by Chris La Tray

Pandemic Meditations is a weekly series in which artists and writers share work that responds to the current pandemic. Please welcome Chris La Tray to the series.


Eight Nations

by Chris La Tray

Photo by Chris La Tray, used with permission

[Author's Note: In July I traveled all over Montana visiting each of our resident Indian reservations to report a story I was writing for Montana Quarterly magazine about Tribal responses to COVID-19. I was flying under the radar, talking to people when I could, and just looking to observe. The following are some reflections in the wake of that trip. I've taken sort of a pseudo-Haibun approach to this, combining haiku poetry—sometimes related, sometimes not—with prose. I hope it works for you.

It should be noted that in the time since I made my visits and reported my story (currently available on newsstands around Montana in the Fall 2020 issue of MQ), COVID-19 infections in Montana have spiked dramatically and continue to do so, with Tribes particularly hard-hit. This isn't close to being over.]


Glimpse of sunrise
From haunted overpass
Warm morning breeze

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes

Highway 93 north out of the Missoula valley in the second week of July. The powwow in Arlee—122 years running, created as a 4th of July celebration back in the days when it was illegal for Indians to practice our religions—didn't happen. Nor are they happening anywhere else. For folks who make their living off the summer powwow circuit, it's devastating.

RVs and gigantic pickups towing boats form a long glittering line of metal and glass snaking through the Jocko and Mission Valleys. My friend Shelly Fyant, the CSKT's Chairwoman since last fall, says she'd love to close all access onto their land but that isn't an option. Too much state tourism money is at stake. Instead the CSKT close access to Tribal recreation sites because they are being overrun by tourists and non-Tribal people hiding out from COVID. Now, anyone who can't show Tribal ID at the entrance checkpoint is turned away.

Last January, addressing the audience at the celebration in Great Falls to honor the Little Shell Tribe's federal recognition, Shelly says, "I've only been chairwoman for a couple years . . . I mean, a couple months!" The crowd laughs at her slip. "I guess it just feels like a couple years," she says.

I wonder how many years it feels like now.


Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians

We are a scattered people still figuring out what is next for us. The bureaucracy involved, and the limited resources of tiny federal offices stretched thin in their efforts to serve huge swaths of remote landscapes, makes for glacial progress in determining a way forward for something, likely a newly-recognized tribe with thousands of members, without an established framework. So federal recognition so far amounts to little more than some grandiose words from people having had little to do with it and some nauseating photo ops (like Matt Rosendale, currently running for Montana's single seat in the House, who voted twice at the state level against Little Shell recognition, but has the audacity to show up at our pipe ceremony to grin in photographs with Chairman Gerald Gray).

Fistfuls of clouds
Crumpled tissues over the Hi-Line
Winter evening drive

The upside here is that our recognition means we are eligible for money when the federal CARES Act is passed last June. Our bank account swells. What do we receive, a tribe only recently upgraded from being financed by bake sales and raffles? $25 million. That's $23.5 million more than Chairman Gray, in his wildest dreams, imagined getting. We are able to initiate projects that would likely have taken years to begin. We upgrade the kitchen in our community center, repair facilities in our Tribal offices, and, most importantly, buy our own health clinic. We don't have any other option because if we wait for IHS—Indian Health Services—to provide one, they tell us that, given current level of appropriations vs. Tribes in front of us, repair backlogs, etc., that we will have to wait more than 100 years. We already waited 156 years for federal recognition. We are finished waiting.


Blackfeet Nation

The Blackfeet are in the news for denying access to Glacier Park through their lands. Businesses are closed. I am struck by how much of a ghost town East Glacier is as I roll through town, particularly stark after the experience on the other side of Marias Pass where Glacier and its surrounding towns, like West Glacier and Polebridge, are overrun with tourists. A man holds a sign along the highway, beseeching the Tribe to open Glacier National Park—that he is not afraid of getting sick. He is not Indian, but tells me he loves the town and he loves the Tribe. But he also tells me that he doesn't believe the disease is real—that it's a hoax.

At the park entrance I see a gaggle of rangers, all white guys with buzz cuts and beards, loitering out front, armed and armored and laughing, as if preparing to deploy to Portland, Oregon, where protests are raging and federal thugs are engaged in the 200+ year American tradition of violence aimed to keep the plebes in line, whatever it takes.

Browning looks hot and tired, but the drive I make to pass through Heart Butte on my way south, with the Front Range of the Rockies before me, during a July where the rolling landscape is still surprisingly green, is one of the most beautiful routes I've ever chosen.

Open East Glacier!
Beseech the unemployed
$1M RV rolls by

Crow Nation

Photo by Chris La Tray, used with permission

The town of Crow Agency is completely locked-down. Has been for months. The tribal headquarters was already condemned and vacated when it burned down over a year ago, but its blackened shell lingers—right next to where people in crisis are supposed to seek aid, delivered as best as the social workers can manage under the conditions of a global pandemic. It breaks my heart to think of someone at their lowest, driving up, seeing these remains, and wondering why bother to hope when their own people can't seem to get their shit together? This is harsh, I know, but in coming weeks the Crow Tribal Chairman will take the stage with Vice President Pence to endorse President Trump in his scorched-earth campaign for reelection. He—Chairman Alvin Not Afraid, Jr.—also endorses the other shithead republicans running for office. This is unconscionable, as his people die and die and die from COVID. The Crow are in the most stricken part of the state. What is so damaged in Not Afraid, Jr. that he can't see that this Trump administration is the epitome of everything bad that has ever come from colonial motherfuckers in America, all the way from the tip of Patagonia to the Arctic Circle?


— License plates in parking lot of a non-Native owned tourist trap on a locked-down Indian reservation

Photo by Chris La Tray, used with permission

Northern Cheyenne Tribe

It is 105°, the first real heat wave of summer, as I visit Lame Deer. It is tense. There is conflict between the Tribal council and groups of traditional Northern Cheyenne warrior societies who have been engaged to help police the reservation, enforce curfews, and keep out-of-state traffic moving. Life is complicated on these remote reservations, and resources are stretched. People need help. A man at the Tribal headquarters offers me a blessing, won't tell me his name, and says I should probably go. I don’t linger long. It is not my business and I don't need to be warned twice.

North out of town I pick up two hitchhikers, a young man and his uncle. It's no time for standing roadside when the pavement is shimmering with wavy distortions of heat. I give them a lift to the town of Colstrip where the younger man has plans to visit his Grandfather. The wind blasting through my car, with all the windows down, is furnace-like and stifling and I love it. This is a part of the state I've never visited before, and it is good to have companions if only for thirty minutes or so. The young man is very grateful. So am I.

The breeze
Calls the flag to dance
Pole knocking on wall


Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes

In Wolf Point, the county seat of Roosevelt County, the only places even requiring masks are the corporate chain gas stations and grocery stores. I'm told it is because mandates out of the governor's office in Helena require masks only for counties with more than four active cases. I'm pretty sure this county has more than that, but who am I to argue? I'm wearing my mask. I consider driving farther onto the reservation, to the Tribal headquarters in Poplar, but I don't. I'm road weary and even though the day is cloudy I still feel the effects of the previous day's blazing sun and heat. I'm also depressed. On the way back west on Highway 2 I stop to take photographs of pelicans and cormorants hanging out in a wetland just off the highway. This cheers me.


Photo by Chris La Tray, used with permission

Fort Belknap Indian Community (Assiniboine/Gros Ventre)

My Great Great Grandmother, Susie Moran La Tray, was Assiniboine. She was adopted and raised Catholic by a white family after she was found on the plains as an infant in the wake of the US Cavalry chasing a band of Indians who had escaped the reservation. Of her biological parents—were they killed? did they simply abandon her in their flight?—I know nothing. But I also question this narrative. There is so much going on along the southern borders of the United States right now with echoes of how our government has always treated the vulnerable, whether it is murder, forced sterilization of women, or the trafficking of children, that I don't know what to believe. All that matters is she survived. Which is all it feels like we can try and do these days ourselves. More history, echoing.

Fort Belknap is also on lockdown. I chase a media contact via phone for a couple hours but then I move on. I don't hear from her until the day after I file my story. She fears I will list her as "unavailable for comment." I assure her that isn't my view. "We are all pretty overwhelmed right now, aren't we?" I say, and she says yes.

Two quotes in my journal from this trip:

 "I contain love as if it were a warhead." — May Sarton

 "The world appears beautiful so that the living may love being alive in it." — Carl Safina

Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree

Rocky Boy has been locked-down since early in the pandemic and today is no different. There is a checkpoint set up just off the highway at the town of Box Elder. A small group of excited, chatty young women are checking cars moving on and off the reservation, taking names, destination, etc. This is my last stop and I am still hours from home, but I am uplifted by my conversation with them. It is good to encounter wry humor and curiosity at the end of what has been a bleak journey.

My tribal ID lists me as Chippewa-Cree, though I identify as Métis. There is close relationship between the people of Rocky Boy and my Little Shell Tribe. As the most simple of definitions, one could say that the Little Shell are people who didn't fit on this land allocated as a reservation for all of the displaced mixed-race Indians of the high plains. In some ways, Rocky Boy is as close to a reservation as I will ever have.

I could live here, but I never will. That doesn't mean I won't fight for it. We are all in this together, no matter where we live.

I am a fat,
barely employable, middle-aged Native guy
with a chip on his shoulder
and no health insurance,
living below the poverty line
with huge love for much and many,
and you can believe I have a stake
in all of this



Chris La Tray
Chris La Tray is a Métis writer and storyteller. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large (2018, Riverfeet Press) won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award. His next book, Becoming Little Shell, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2022. Chris is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and lives near Missoula, Montana. 

Learn more about La Tray by listening to this interview at Mountain and Prairie: You may also read him semi-regularly via his newsletter, An Irritable Métis, at