There’s been a lot of online talk these past weeks about the ways in which Substack is reproducing some of the worst tendencies of the existing for-profit media structure — how it’s become a haven for white men with bad opinions who don’t want to be edited and just want to shout into echo chambers. I agree with a lot of this, and think there’s much, much more to say about how even a brief look at the top earners will tell you something about what readers have internalized about what sort of content is worth paying for (and how many writers, especially women, have also internalized the idea that they shouldn’t ask for compensation for this sort of labor). (If you want to read more about this, the best of the genre thus far comes from Clio Chang at Columbia Journalism Review.)
At some point I’ll write more about why I like the newsletter as a platform, about the future plans for editing, about trying to build a community that’s in challenging conversation (if you’d like to part of that conversation, you can subscribe here), about why people crave that sort of online community when so many other places on the internet have become toxic. (And I’m not talking about “toxic to me, personally, because no one will let me voice my TERF feelings in peace” ; more like toxic to people of color, toxic to LBGT people, toxic to women, just because they have voices and even a modicum of power in an online space).
I also think it’s vital to watch how big, already powerful voices have come to dominate this medium. But sometimes that focus can reproduce what those voices are already doing: drowning out all of the other people on this site, people writing wonderful, quirky, voicey, random and beautiful things that can’t find a home in more traditional media. (Part of the reason that CJR piece is so good = that’s the opposite of what it does).
I’m going to list a few of my favorite non-powerful-white-dude Substacks at the end of this piece, and invite you to do the same — but I also wanted to interview the guy behind one of my favorite Substacks, Chris La Tray, who writes An Irritable Métis.
If you’re at all involved in the book world in Montana, you probably know Chris. He has formidable facial hair and the sort of booming voice that makes you pay attention at readings. He is acerbic and, yes, occasionally irritable. He is also one of my favorite people, and a straight up knock out writer. Some of my favorites: this piece on his father’s rosary, this meditation on visiting Montana’s eight reservations amidst the pandemic, and this piece on the federal recognition of the Little Shell. You can follow him on Twitter here, and on Instagram, where I filched the picture above, here. I think you’ll find him as compelling as I do.
Can you introduce yourself a bit? Not just the normal stuff that people say when asked “who are you and what do you do,” the interesting stuff.
This is actually a really hard question, thanks for leading with it. The easy answer of course is some flippant little word-bite like we all cram into our social media profiles, as in, “Loves nature, hates cruelty, watched every episode of Jonny Quest, not human before coffee.” There are a couple poems in my book, One-Sentence Journal, that I think sum me up pretty well, like this one, that I wrote in answer to my friend, the poet Robert Lee:
Inspired by a book of poems, I write,
“I am made of boots scraping on snow,
frost on the inside walls of my closet,
and clouds of breath hanging in the air
of my childhood bedroom.”
But really, I think I’ll just paraphrase something I was reflecting on in my journal the other morning on a good day. The simple truth is that I am someone deeply in love with the world. The naturey bits of course because I’m a diehard tree hugging dirt worshiper, but also—especially!—the cosmic way we are all connected. That sounds kinda cheezy, and white lighty, but it’s true.
It is very quiet in my lair right now and it’s raining outside and I can hear it and I love it. There is a distant train rumbling and blowing its whistle and I love that too. I can hear the soft wheeze of my 21 year old cat in her bed behind me and I love it. There are more people in my life that I love crazily than ever before. EVER before. I’m terrified of what we are facing nationally, and especially in the state of Montana, but I like to think we might get it sorted out. I love it all too much to give up on it. I think there are more people like me than I might think there are on my less good days.
One of the things I appreciate about you is your willingness to call bullshit on various assumptions or assertions (about Montana, about the middle-class, about whiteness, etc). Sometimes you call this just being irritable but I think it’s more being honest and/or seeing things clearly. Please share your most irritable yet cherished positions in this moment.
What is most irritating to me is that it seems our collective courage is flagging and there is no time for that. People were all fired up last summer and out in the streets everywhere and buying all the books to make themselves feel good about themselves and it was exciting. Now support for real progressive change seems to be making people nervous. I saw some statistics from Pew about support for Black Lives Matter. In June, 67% of all US adults said they had at least some support for BLM. Now it’s down to 55%. Strong support is at 29%, down from 38%. Among white and Hispanic people, “some support” is down from 60% to 45%. What the fuck?! What has changed? And don’t get me started that the survey doesn’t even mention Indigenous people. We don’t even get a “Something Else” as a race category in this one.
Every time I see someone say something about how relieved they are because Biden and his (likely) crew of freebooters are people they won’t have to think about every day I die a little bit. Because we have to ride these people hard or nothing is going to change.
We are at a point in history where it seems, for all of us but the super wealthy, that there is literally nothing to lose. Maybe we aren’t all at the precipice yet looking over the edge, or clinging by a greasy vine while dangling completely over the lip, but we’re close. One stiff wind and we’ll be high-fiving each other while we plummet to oblivion. There is a freedom to that and an opportunity for real risk taking. And by risks I mean things like going hard for abolishing student loan debt. Going hard for universal healthcare. Going hard for universal guaranteed income. Going hard for the Green New Deal. And more! All of these bold changes that we talk about and argue about and then when the time comes we get timid. No more getting timid! We have real leadership in D.C. right now in the form of a group of BIPOC folks, almost all women, who are advocating this stuff and rattling a lot of cages. I love that. These are cages that need rattling. All these entrenched establishment politicians who have been there for a lifetime, they’ve had their shot. Let’s get rid of them. The time is now!
I know there are people who read this kind of rant and shake their heads and think it’s foolish and that I’m naive, blah blah blah. And it’s probably some 30-something or 40-something white guy too and to this I say, “Fuck. You.” I’m here with over half-a-century of living in the real world, interacting with white collar assholes at every level of big companies and small companies, and I’m telling you you guys have it all wrong. We may not be able to make these progressive things happen because the status quo is dug in pretty deep, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the right things to do, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t try.
When I emailed you to do this interview, I told you that I didn’t want to run it next week, because it’s cliche to ask a Native person to write something about Thanksgiving. (Or, you know, exclusively about Thanksgiving). With that said: if you have Thanksgiving thoughts, go for it, but I also want to hear more about your book project, Becoming Little Shell, and anything else you want to talk about spiraling off from that.
I don’t really get too worked up over Thanksgiving. Do many people still really think about it as the “traditional story of Thanksgiving” anyway? It seems to me it’s mostly a football-watching, fart-into-the-couch-cushion-and-blame-it-on-the-dog holiday anymore, and since I don’t care about football I don’t care about that. For me it’s mostly been an excuse to eat myself into oblivion at my mom’s house and for the second year in a row I don’t get to do that and I’m pissed. A friend of mine on Twitter today posted some graphic depicting favorite side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner based on region, and people in Montana — and Idaho too! — supposedly like salad best. What? Since when? Do mashed potatoes count as salad?
If they’re still talking about that stupid “first thanksgiving” in elementary schools and things then it’s dumb and they need to stop, but if they are, I’m sure there is a long list of other stupid things they’re doing too.
This is maybe a long way to getting to the point that while Thanksgiving is kind of an Indian issue, it isn’t one of the big ones to me. Because Indians aren’t erased from that narrative, and we are happy and friendly in that story, and then we disappear back to the forest and later all the little white kids look around and are like, “Wait, what happened to those nice Indian people who gave us corn and taught us how to survive and gave us a great idea for a nice constitution that complete dipshits can cling to without context for two hundred fucking years?”
Yeah, people want to argue about it but it’s dumb. There’s the right way to look at it, and then there’s the other way that is totally stupid and racist and if that’s how you feel there’s not much I can say to you about it. Go watch your football game, you meathead.
The things I do get angry about as an Indigenous person are many and more recent … as in 200 years rather than 400. There’s stuff that seems like ancient history to most of us, especially the whites among us, but it’s not. My grandfather was born to parents who weren’t even allowed to be US citizens but could sign up to go die in war. My great grandparents were of a generation where they had to hide who they were or risk being deported as “refugee Indians” from Canada even though they’d been born on this side of the Medicine Line. That shit is recent. People don’t think about that. It is why I get so outraged at these all-hat, no-cattle cowboy politicians and their ilk who brag about how many generations their family has been in Montana. The higher the number, pard’ner, the more likely your family had direct involvement in taking stuff from mine, so get bent.
The book I am working on (that will be available for pre-order, if all goes well, about a year from now) is called Becoming Little Shell. It is roughly about my family and our relationship to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which I am an enrolled member of. We just got federal recognition almost exactly a year ago, after 156 years of being denied by the US government.
What I’m trying to do with the book is tell the larger story of who we are — call us the Landless Indians of Montana, the Montana Chippewa, the Chippewa-Cree, or, as I prefer, the Métis — because we have largely been erased from history and we have been in this area since at least the 1730s, and probably longer. The narrative thread is my dad’s side of the family; my dad, and his dad, denied their Native heritage for many reasons. My book explores those reasons — at least what I think they are — and why they’re common with so many Native people of those generations ... and then the effect they have on people like me.
This exploration of what happened to us, and how it is being reflected in events happening in the world today, has entirely changed my view of the world … down to how I look at what I see out my window. It has also served to radicalize my political views from “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice,” to “Let’s fucking do this!” It’s made me angry and joyful, hopeless and bursting with love, all at the same time. It’s exhausting, frankly.
You are a bookseller and a writer and you used to travel a lot for a very different job that you hated. You and I have talked a lot about work, its purposes, its black hole qualities. How are you thinking about work these days? How have your thoughts shifted over the years?
I’m essentially unemployable because the level of bullshit I’m willing to accept probably doesn’t work in the modern workplace. I have no problem freezing to death in my car rather than answer to some over-mortgaged asshat boss again, or some pasty-faced IT dork or hungover operations manager at a customer site. I have a part-time gig at Fact & Fiction in Missoula, but that only works because the woman who runs the show, Mara Panich, is my friend and we respect each other and we make the gig bearable for each other, I think, in the ways it wouldn’t be otherwise if for different reasons. I teeter near the brink of total meltdown sometimes when it comes to the idea of what constitutes “customer service” but I’m still easy going enough that I roll with it, though I must confess it is getting more and more difficult. Retail sucks, and the ground we have ceded to customers is often untenable.
But our notions of work need a complete overhaul. Capitalism is an enormous contributor to our problems. It is the high fructose corn syrup in the fat of our misery. To elaborate, I copied this quote from an essay in Jacobin magazine where Joseph M. Schwartz writes:
“The capitalist argument that individual choice in the market equals freedom masks the reality that capitalism is an undemocratic system in which most people spend much of their life being ‘bossed.’ Corporations are forms of hierarchical dictatorships, as those who work in them have no voice in how they produce, what they produce, and how the profit they create is utilized. Radical democrats believe that binding authority (not just the law, but also the power to determine the division of labor in a firm) is only valid if every member of the institution affected by its practices has an equal voice in the making of those decisions.”
This sums it up pretty well from what I have experienced over many years out on the factory floors of the world. So many jobs are bullshit. So many middle managers are unnecessary. So many decisions are made without the knowledge of the people who actually make things work being involved. I’ve been an IWW guy for years before I ever even heard of the IWW, for crissakes. I could really go on and on. Hell, I could rant for quite a while just in how certain decisions made in the publishing world lead to me feeling as dirty selling a particular book to someone as I did sitting in a conference room helping some asshole figure out how to frack the shit out of Canada more efficiently.
What small or evanescent things are giving you pleasure, relief, and/or temporary solace right now?
My solace comes as it always has, on saunters out in nature and wilderness. It doesn’t even have to be BIG wilderness. Sometimes just standing in my yard looking up at the sky when the stars are out and I can achieve complete mental reboot. A breeze pushing rain or snow in my face. A walk through a forest or along wild, moving water. Not to mention all the Animal People we share our world with. Again, as my son would say, all that “hippy shit.”
But it’s hard, isn’t it? I can be brushing my teeth in the morning and a little voice reminds me, “You are in the middle of a global pandemic, many people all over the world are dying right at this moment, and millions of other people flat out don’t give a fuck.” It isn’t to the point where I’m telling my wife she better hide the guns from me but sometimes it feels close.
People talk about how emotional they got the night the election was declared for Biden, and he spoke, and Kamala spoke. I guess the emotion was relief that our Trump days are numbered, and that there will be a black woman in the second highest office in the land for the first time ever. I get that, but I wasn’t that moved.
Then later that night, some wiseass on Twitter posted the greatest GIF I’ve ever seen. You know that meme where there is the little dog sitting at a table in a break room or something, with his coffee, and everything is on fire and he’s saying, “This is fine”? Well the GIF was a clip from the firefighter movie Backdraft, and this firefighter emerges from a cloud of smoke all grim and filthy and there, clutched in the crook of his arm, is that little fucking cartoon dog, with his little cup of coffee, and he looks so happy. I friggin’ LOST it. I’m halfway losing it now! It’s like, we are all that little dog, you know? We just want our safety and our coffee. And that’s about it. ●
Subscribe to Chris’s free Substack here.
Other Substacks I enjoy (and please add your own favorites in the comments):
Kaitlyn Greenridge’s What It Is I Think I’m Doing
Meg Conley’s Stay at Home Meg
John Paul Brammer’s ¡Hola Papi!
Delia Cai’s Deez Links
Allie Jones’s Gossip Time
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"...We have to ride these people hard or nothing is going to change." Amen, Chris.
This is maybe one of the most important things I have learned about civic participation in this whole mess of 2020, Etc. You can't elect people and feel relieved and forget about them. You can't elect people and feel despair and think "well, we'll just have to see." I mean, you CAN do those things, but they're so much a part of why we're in such a mess right now. You elect people you think you can push to do the right thing, and then you push them.
When I stop to think about things I'm grateful for, top of the list is not only this understanding, but the community that's pushed ME into learning it.
Lovely interview - thank you! I read Chris' One Sentence Journal in a single evening at my parent's house after discovering it at Fact and Fiction. Would recommend it wholeheartedly to Culture Study readers and as a present for lovers of nature, poetry, and true Montana.