Travis Ray ComesLast, an Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux tribal member, grew up near Spokane, Washington. After a chaotic childhood he committed a series of increasingly serious crimes, later explaining to a friend, “I got into as much trouble as possible one day trying to get arrested ’cause I knew that if I did I would get help, and since I didn’t know how to ask for help, that was my way to get help.”
By the time he was an adult a conviction for killing a man had put him in the Washington state prison system for more than fifty years. He would live and possibly die as a prisoner. The system that put him there, the state justice system, cast his imprisonment as compensation for the horrible injury he caused his victim and his victim’s family—a-life-for-a-life being the logical conclusion of a system predicated on an-eye-for-an-eye. Now Travis is forty-five-years old. The victim’s family is still aggrieved; the daughter who never had a father growing up is living with the life-long impact of that loss. And Travis, an entirely changed man in his head and heart, will live most of his life, perhaps even die, as a prisoner.
In the 1990s Travis told his story to a young filmmaker, Heather Dew Oaksen. Over the next decade Oaksen began telling Travis’ story, and the stories of other prisoners, through her films. Anne Focke, in her second piece for the Polity of Literature series, tells the story she learned from Heather’s films and from Travis himself after she joined a team of supporters Oaksen gathered to help Travis in his effort to regain his freedom.
Whose story is this? How should it be told, and by whom? Literature is collective, always. It exists only among writers and readers and never in solitude. Literature displaces solitude by bringing us into the collective space of writing and reading. As such, it is a powerful means for justice, which like its inverse, injustice, is always and only a collective condition.
8 August, 2022