Nonfiction

Becoming Little Shell

Returning Home to the Landless Indians of Montana
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From Montana Poet Laureate Chris La Tray, a singular story of discovery and embrace of Indigenous identity.
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From Montana Poet Laureate Chris La Tray, a singular story of discovery and embrace of Indigenous identity.

Growing up in Western Montana, Chris La Tray always identified as Indian. While the representation of Indigenous people was mostly limited to racist depictions in toys and television shows, and despite the fact that his father fiercely denied any connection, he found Indians alluring, often recalling his grandmother’s consistent mention of their Chippewa heritage.

When La Tray attended his grandfather’s funeral as a young man, he finally found himself surrounded by relatives who obviously were Indigenous. “Who were they?” he wondered. “Why didn’t I know them? Why was I never allowed to know them?” Catalyzed by the death of his father two decades later, La Tray embarks on a sprawling investigation. He takes a DNA test, which offers the first key clue to his heritage: a family tree. He scours the archives of used bookstores, interviews family, and travels to powwows, book fairs, and conferences. Combining diligent research with a growing number of encounters with Indigenous authors, activists, elders, and historians, he slowly pieces together his family history, and eventually seeks enrollment with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

As La Tray comes to embrace his full identity, he discovers the rich history of his people. He learns of Métis origins and border crossings, usurped territories and broken treaties, exile and forced assimilation, poverty and food deprivation. He also encounters the devastating effects of settler colonialism rippling through surviving generations today, from the preservation of blood quantum laws and the trauma of boarding schools for Indigenous children to the ongoing crises of homelessness, addiction, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. And eventually he is moved to take part in their 158-year-long struggle for federal recognition, unflinchingly documenting past and present along the way.

Brimming with propulsive, vibrant storytelling, Becoming Little Shell is a major contribution to the burgeoning literature of Native America.

Keywords
Métis; Little Shell; Chippewa; Indians; Native Americans; Indigenous; Montana; landless; blood quantum; identity; heritage; belonging; home; ancestry; tribe; poet laureate
ISBN
9781571313980
Publish Date
Pages
312
Dimensions
9 × 6 × 0.75 in
Weight
17 oz
Author

Chris La Tray

Chris La Tray is the author of Becoming Little Shell. A Métis storyteller, a descendent of the Pembina Band of the mighty Red River of the North, and an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, he is also the author of One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large, which won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award, as well as Descended from a Travel-Worn Satchel, a collection of haiku and haibun poetry. La Tray is the Montana Poet Laureate for 2023–2025. He writes the weekly newsletter “An Irritable Métis” and lives near Frenchtown, Montana.