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Sasha LaPointe balances Indigenous traditions and the modern world in her memoir ‘Red Paint’

UPDATED: Tue., March 29, 2022

In a world bent on deciding other’s identities, author Sasha LaPointe did not forget, nor choose. She can navigate the salmon songs of her Upper Skagit and Nooksack ancestors and recite the lines to Bikini Kill’s debut album.

The journey to this harmonious duality is explained, deepened, in her latest book, “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.” It’s a peaceful walk that embodies nostalgia, heartbreak and pride – growing pains of LaPointe’s experience as an Indigenous woman as she heals throughout her life. LaPointe will discuss the book during a gathering Tuesday of The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

Not only is “Red Paint” a metaphor to LaPointe’s family traditions, it is also an active transcript of her healing. LaPointe sprinkles in family motifs to express the ancestral pride in her identity, but also the generational healing that many Indigenous lineages endure.

“I was experiencing these mental health issues and struggling with PTSD, struggling to heal from the traumas that are lived and experienced, as well as passed down generationally; I was deeply seeking to heal,” she said.

The title “Red Paint” honors the Indigenous traditions specific to LaPointe’s Nooksack and Upper Skagit tribal ancestry. During Skagit Valley longhouse ceremonies, LaPointe’s family wore red paint to signify their community contributions as healers and medicine workers.

“The more I talked with my mom about this and remembered my experience as a child and going into the longhouse, red paint became this deep image of healing,” LaPointe said.

LaPointe received her Master of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2017. She began the first drafts of “Red Paint” there, testing how her experiences as an Indigenous girl and an American, and her crafts of both creative nonfiction and poetry, would coexist in “Red Paint’s” DNA. LaPointe’s impeccable execution of the prose-poetry dynamic texturizes “Red Paint.”

LaPointe’s pacing walks the tightrope of cultural aspects and modern storytelling styles in English.

In some pockets of prose where LaPointe reflects on her Upper Skagit values and traditions, she shaves off sentence excess and leans into the passive voice, where the speaking rhythms, common in folklore, shine. Visions are best told in past tense, and the reader moves with LaPointe as she reminisces through family memories. LaPointe returns to this style when speaking on her ancestor, Comptia Koholowish. In “Prologue: Winter Dances,” LaPointe frolics in past tense to construct clear images, pinpointing moments for which she had not been present.

“In the longhouse, people gathered. They built a great fire, they banished spirits in an opening ritual, and then they danced. They danced to the pounding of drums. On dirt floors, with bare feet, with smoke thick in the air, my ancestors danced until dawn broke,” she writes.

LaPointe credits her writing style to her grandmother’s storytelling tactics, something she watched closely as her grandmother’s namesake. LaPointe reflected on memories of her grandmother and how she would command the room’s attention while sharing ancestral stories in the Lushootseed language and English. Witnessing her grandmother’s seamless duality for the sake of storytelling “makes Red Paint the story that it is.”

“She was such a guiding force for me throughout this book but throughout my life and I wanted to honor that, that’s why I start the book with her words,” LaPointe said. “Her storytelling tactic was very intense, beautiful with a lot of power. It was impossible to not listen to her because she was so powerful, and it drew you in.”

On her individual journey, LaPointe immerses herself in cultural signifiers of Seattle’s music and television. References to the ’90s crime drama “Twin Peaks,” where LaPointe sees the endless, ominous woods similar to the forest areas around the Skagit Valley reservation, or her need to channel Audrey Horne for her “dark, smart and most of all fearless” behavior shine throughout “Red Paint.”

Outside of her Indigenous values and in her teenage years, LaPointe lived in the punk aesthetic. The punk identity represents a cultural anarchy where the outsider feels safe in emotional taboos like heartbreak, traumatic yet melodic accounts of violence and an outright refusal to assimilate to the status quo.

“I include punk in the title because it carries weight, because, yes, I grew up close to my (Indigenous culture) and that’s my culture and heritage of my identity, but so are these underground, underworlds and the friend-family intersection where my identity is, is a powerful one,” LaPointe said.

It is no surprise that LaPointe, an Indigenous woman in one of the whitest regions in America, expressed the difficulty of grappling with not fully fitting in the punk space. LaPointe successfully arrives in the punk atmosphere, but the targeting that white spaces can enforce on Indigeneity creeps into her midnight mosh pits.

“I do have a lot of nostalgia and sentimentality of ‘Twin Peaks’ and the Seattle music scene, but I look back and these are predominately white. I was the only Native person there,” she said. “Sure, I had my community, but whenever I turned on my TV or listened to music, I never had that reflected back at me.”

Yet, the punk identity still left enough room for LaPointe to express her angst toward the cultural impacts of white supremacy.

“I remember being in our trailer’s crappy little bathroom, playing Nirvana and Bikini Kill and being a little kid, and it just resonated with me so hard. The power, the anger was something I felt deeply connected to, and felt less alone,” she said.

With music thickening LaPointe’s story, she curated an official playlist for “Red Paint” that’s available wherever you stream music. Ranging from iconic punk bands like Wipers, Bikini Kill and Nirvana, the 37-song playlist features over 20 acts from around the Pacific Northwest.

“This playlist mirrors the arc of my experience but also reflects what I was listening to while writing,” she said. “It’s not awesome, but sentimental.”

With music, heritage and the feeling of not fitting in one’s own skin, LaPointe tells a deeply personal story with a sense of familiarity.

“I set out to tell my story about growing up on the reservation and the things that happened there, things I experienced fighting against silence for so many survivors, especially Indigenous women,” LaPointe said. “We have to work against the silence and get our stories out there.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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