Think Out Loud

New memoir ‘Red Paint’ draws inspiration from punk rock and Indigenous ancestry

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
July 21, 2022 10:25 p.m. Updated: July 29, 2022 7:52 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, July 22

Poet and writer Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s new memoir is called “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.”

Poet and writer Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s new memoir is called “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.”

Blaine Slingerland


Poet and writer Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s new memoir is called “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.” In it, she explores intergenerational trauma and healing as well as the connections she feels to the Indigenous women who have come before her. She also includes her love of 1990s punk rock and her changing ideas of what it means to feel at home.

Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the poet and essayist Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe. Her new memoir is called ‘Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.’  It’s about the ongoing practice of healing from trauma, about melding Indigenous culture with punk’s anti-authoritarian energy and about finding strength in being part of a lineage of remarkable women: healers and storytellers and language revivers and teachers. Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Miller: Thank you so much for being with us. In a lot of ways, you explain that this book only exists because you wrote an earlier manuscript, a whole book that was never published. Can you tell us about that earlier book, ‘Little Boats’?

LaPointe: Absolutely. For folks who haven’t read ‘Red Paint’ I reference it often throughout the story. During my graduate program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I tackled this pretty big project. I knew I wanted to leave with a draft, and I did. It was some 400-something pages. I think we’re often told that as long as we tell our story, that is the thing that is healing. But when I finished the draft of ‘Little Boats,’ I didn’t realize all of the things that it would sort of awaken in me. In a lot of ways I came undone. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I had sort of come back to this memory and into my body recklessly and, in doing so, realized that that was the work that I needed to do in order to face that I had a lot of healing to do. So after I finished that, I took a big break from writing. I kind of put it aside and joined a punk band. I got in a crappy tour van and drove across the country and actively began doing the work of healing. I don’t think I would have arrived at ‘Red Paint’ had I not gone through that.

Miller: What kinds of feedback did you get from editors or publishers or agents or readers when you’d finished ‘Little Boats’? Because what you just described and what you write about in the book is the ways in which writing it, itself was traumatizing. You wrote, ‘I was reckless with memory and trauma.’ But I’m curious how people responded to what you’d written?

LaPointe: It was such a strange year because the manuscript did, it kept getting attention from possible publishers and agents. They would ask for the first 30 pages, they’d be into it and they’d ask for the full manuscript. Again and again, they all kind of came back and said the same thing. They were like, ‘There’s something really beautiful here. You have a story to tell, but this isn’t it.’ Of course at first, as a writer, as a little fragile like, baby writer, I was like, what? I sort of pushed back against that. And it wasn’t until I put it down and took a big, big break from it, I realized that they were right – this critique that ‘this wasn’t really it,’ this wasn’t the story. When I finally looked at that and accepted that, I realized they were right. There wasn’t a lot of strength in it, right? There wasn’t this active healing on the page that I think is present in ‘Red Paint.’ It was rather just this kind of sad catalog of every bad thing that had happened to me, and there was no healing in it.

Miller: What did you learn from ‘Little Boats’ – from that first book that wasn’t published – followed by working on this new book that has been published, ‘Red Paint’? What did you learn about how to write about trauma?

LaPointe: That’s a lot, that’s a big one. That’s a big question. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was that it isn’t enough to simply put it down on the page. In fact, I think that in doing so, if you’re not ready to do that work, if you’re not ready to kind of … and you don’t have the support or the tools to really carry you through that, it was as I said, kind of reckless. I think looking back, when I did take that year and a half off from writing at all, I discovered that the work of healing wasn’t just to tell our story, right? It’s to actually confront the ways you need to heal and how you can heal. For me that had everything to do with joining this wild punk band and physically learning how to use my voice in the microphone to speak, to kind of fight against silence. I think that I learned a lot about what I needed in particular to heal.

Miller: This was after you had written a manuscript, gotten an MFA, pronounced yourself and been a writer. For that year and a half, if someone said, ‘Who are you, what do you do?’ – a kind of annoyingly reductionist question – would you have said, ‘I’m a writer.’ or at that point you were a punk musician? I mean, what was your self identity at that point?

LaPointe: Right. Absolutely not. People would ask me that and I would say, ‘Oh, I’m a waitress, I’m in a punk band.’ I mean, I think even several times the singer in our band would be like, ‘You’re a writer. That’s how you answer that question.’

Miller: That’s why we hired you.

LaPointe: Yeah. But I was so reluctant to own that title. So yeah. During that time, that break, I didn’t refer to myself as a writer even though that’s what I was doing. Yeah, I put away the memoir and walked away from ‘Little Boats,’ but I was still writing lyrics and spoken word pieces for our project.

Miller: You call this new book, ‘Red Paint’ – and it’s in the subtitle to the book – an ancestral autobiography. What does that phrase mean?

LaPointe: Yeah, this is a memoir, right? But, it didn’t feel right just calling it a memoir because I think that the stories that are so present here… This wasn’t simply my story to tell. It’s also the women of my Coast Salish lineage. It’s my grandmother, my great-grandmother, this ancestor, Comptia Koholowish. It was all of our stories and what I was learning from them. So this idea that, yes, I’ve written my personal narrative, but I sort of anchored myself to the women who came before me in order to feel safe, to find strength. And, in doing so, I’m sharing just as much of their story as my own.

Miller: One of them you just mentioned is Comptia Koholowish. Can you tell us about her life?

LaPointe: She’s a woman that I had been hearing about from my mom since I was young. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with PTSD, took that break from writing, that I started to really remember her and think of her and wanting to know more. She was the sole survivor of the smallpox epidemic that wiped out her entire village when she was only 9 years old. What I knew about her was that she married a Scottish settler who came over with the Hudson Bay Trading Company and sort of settled the Chinook region of what would become Astoria and Ilwaco. He built this grand house there. He was considered one of the founding settlers of that town. He married her, but at that time Natives weren’t allowed in the houses. So he built this little four-wall shack with a dirt floor. And even though she was the mother of his two children, he made her live out there. She was never allowed to enter the main house. That house still stands. I visited several times throughout the writing of ‘Red Paint.’

Miller: Actually, do you mind reading a part from the book where you are visiting outside this shack where she was forced to live?

LaPointe: Yes. This is the first trip that I took to her home.

“I sat down and lit a candle. I placed a bundle of cedar on the concrete. In my hands I rolled a piece of red clay I had found on the beach earlier. I felt it dust my fingertips. I was trying to heal. I was trying to honor her, to say, ‘I know you were here and that you were brave.’ I hate the word brave. Like I hate ‘victim,’ ‘survivor,’ or ‘squaw.’ I was tired of the names white people had given us. Jane was my ancestor’s English name. Did she forget her Chinook name? Her Indian name? Did the English erase it? Did she forget she was called Comptia long before she was ever called Jane, or Indian, or Wife, or Mother? I was tired of being brave. I would rather be something else. Carefree? An aging millennial. Someone who enjoys listening to the Cranberries and Cyndi Lauper on road trips down the coast. Call me a writer. Call me a riot grrrl. Call me Coast Salish or poet. Call me a girl who loves Nick Cave, and night swimming, and ramen, and old Bikini Kill records. I no longer wish to be called resilient. Call me reckless, impatient, and emotional. Even Indigenous. Call me anything other than survivor. I am so many more things than brave.”

Miller: That’s my guest, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, reading an excerpt from her new memoir, ‘Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.’ Did you feel the same way, say, a decade ago? Would being called a survivor or brave, would it have rubbed you the wrong way then as well?

LaPointe: I don’t think so because in order to arrive in the place I was to write ‘Red Paint’, I had to go through these things and confront these things. In writing ‘Little Boats,’ being diagnosed with PTSD, I really had to look at how these things, how trauma can live in our body, how it can impact us. And I started to sort of resent these ideas, this expectation put upon Indigenous women in particular to only tell our trauma stories or the ways we’ve had to survive. I was more interested now in bringing the focus around our strength, and our healing, and bring that actively to the page. Not only write a survivor narrative or a story of generational trauma, I wanted this to be a celebration of generational strength and wisdom and kind of a love letter to my Coast Salish ancestry. Because ultimately their stories and their lives are what saved me. So to identify only as a survivor felt like it wasn’t the whole picture.

Miller: Well let’s turn to another of your forebears. You talked about Comptia. Another family member who figures really prominently in this book is your great-grandmother, an extraordinary woman named Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert. Can you tell us about her life?

LaPointe: She is one of my favorite humans. She was one of my heroes. As her namesake, I felt deeply connected to her throughout my life. She had an extraordinary life. She did many things when she was young but later in life had this calling when she realized our traditional Lushootseed language was disappearing, and the elders who spoke fluently were passing on. So she linked up with a linguist, I think in the 60s and 70s, Thom Hess. Together they worked to create the Lushootseed language dictionary. And from that point on she devoted the rest of her life to the revitalization of our language. She was a storyteller. She always spoke first in Lushootseed then in English, and that’s how we grew up hearing stories.

Miller: You write in the book that you visited your great-grandmother right before she died and that as you drove away you said, ‘I’ll never hear her tell me a story in Lushootseed again.’ We lose access to a lot of things – so many things – when a loved one dies. But you focused on, at least at that moment, on hearing those stories. What did hearing those stories mean to you?

LaPointe: I think it was really interesting. After we lost her… I have these recordings, CDs and cassettes of her storytelling, and I would just, throughout the grieving process, would just listen to them on repeat over and over because I think I hadn’t considered the ways, as a Coast Salish woman, that I’ve grown up very privileged to be connected to those stories. From as long as I can remember, at every family gathering, I was immersed in language. I was immersed in Grandma’s stories. And when she passed, I think I all of a sudden had to face that that was something I was so lucky to be around and that reminded me and kind of grounded me in our tribe’s language, our stories, our teachings, and it felt like such a huge loss.

Miller: You actually sent us a video that’s available online of your great-grandmother telling a story, as you said, going back and forth: in Lushootseed first and then in English, back and forth. I want to play a minute of it now. It starts where she’s talking, she’s actually in the voice of a cedar tree who is talking to a little girl who needs guidance.


“[Speaking in Lushootseed]

I’m going to teach you how to make a cedar root basket.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

This girl listened to what the tree was saying to her.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

You’re going to take my roots.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

You’re going to split them. You’re going to fix them.


[Speaking in Lushootseed]

And you’re gonna weave the roots from my tree.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

And you’re going to put a design on your work.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

A design?

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

I wouldn’t know how to do that.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

Yes, you could do that.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

You see all of the things on my earth?

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

You see the silhouette of the mountains? Uh huh.

[Speaking in Lushootseed]

You see the form of the trees out there? Uh huh.”

Miller: You noted that you have CDs and tapes, you have access to these videos online. When do you find that you turn to them?

LaPointe: I didn’t realize that, and of course hearing that made me emotional, but thank you so much for playing it. I guess to answer this question, I opened ‘Red Paint’ with one of the stories that was coming to mind a lot after I had written ‘Little Boats’ and after I had been wrestling with some really hard… like the PTSD, going to the hospital, fainting, these things. I kept turning to her stories then, to kind of remember that... And it’s why I chose to open ‘Red Paint’ with her short story about advising you to be like the cedar: to be flexible and pliable and you yourself will not break. I think in moments where I was really struggling to find my strength or to find connection or this safe harbor in the storm, her stories, her voice was just sort of on loop in my mind throughout that process.

Miller: This is a woman who, as you noted, helped revitalize an Indigenous language that now, I think I’ve heard you say in the past, that nieces and nephews are bilingual now because they’re in immersion classes. Things that would not have happened without her work over decades. She had a symphony commissioned that was played by the Seattle Symphony. There’s a student apartment complex named after her at Seattle University. What was it like to grow up with the expectation that, as her namesake, big things were expected of you as well?

LaPointe: Yeah, that was overwhelming at times. Being a 14 year old little goth teen [with] my shaved head and blue lipstick, and here’s Grandma being like, ‘You’re gonna do really important things.’ That was a lot. That was sort of like big shoes to fill. But even in my most lost moments of teenagehood, my grandmother would find me. And as hard as I was trying to maybe derail and be like, ‘I’m gonna go. I’m literally gonna go run away and join the circus.’ Whatever I was trying to do, she would sit down and kind of get me back on track in this way that was like, ‘No, you have work to do.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ I think that I have a bigger appreciation for that, like a massive gratitude for what she saw in me even back then.

Miller: [00:18:29.680] If you’re just tuning in, we are talking right now with Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, she’s the author of the new memoir ‘Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.’ I want to turn to that punk in the [book’s] title now because to me something that is so central to rock and punk is a kind of ‘f-you’ to authority. Basically: Don’t tell me – especially don’t tell me, older people – how to be or what to wear or what to think. How do you reckon with that, something that’s so deeply embedded in punk, in the context of tribal elders and Indigenous culture?

LaPointe: For me it’s so layered because of course there’s that element of being young and living way out in the woods in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, far away from the city, in a trailer. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the cool things that were happening in Seattle, but I sort of fell in love with listening to the college radio alternative stations and making these mixtapes. There’s that, I definitely sort of attached myself to everything that was happening in that way. But then when I really stop and think about it and sort of zoom out, also the things that my great-grandmother did – this standing up and reclaiming a language – that, in the face of settler colonial trauma, in the face of erasure, she actively fought to save it, that’s super punk. I think that it made a lot of sense to me that my great-grandmother was a language activist and a traditional cultural activist in the ways that she had to actively fight to save these things from erasure.

Miller: I guess I’m wondering maybe how you know, personally, what to burn down and what to celebrate. Not burn down literally, but what kind of authority and history and culture you want to follow, whether it’s Coast Salish culture or any other culture that’s been passed down to you, and what you want to break away from.

LaPointe: I think wanting to break away from, in the context of my writing and the publishing world, breaking away from this expectation of Indigenous identity. I feel like especially non-Native folks kind of have this… we’re locked in a box almost frozen in time. Like, yes, only write the longhouse, only write salmon ceremony. These are the things we want to see from you as a Native writer. I am so happy and way more interested in the stories we haven’t been hearing until recently. The different layers of Native identity and breaking the expectation– I mean, yes, I do write about memories of the longhouse and salmon ceremony, but I also write about loud basement punk shows and being on tour and trying to actively provide a more whole presentation of my own identity. I’m excited for more Native punk memoirs or memoirs from Native drag performers or queer artists. Just kind of like fighting against this idea that we can only be one thing feels really important to me.

Miller: The title of the book ‘Red Paint’ comes from a sacred ceremony that you reference but don’t delve deeply into the details of. And you explain that it’s not your place to share these details with the broader world. How did you navigate those decisions about how much to share, how much to discuss, when it comes to sacred traditions?

LaPointe: It’s a really delicate thing. I feel like as Native people, we have to be really respectful of the cultures we come from. And I come from a lineage of Red Paint Dancers. My uncle danced in the longhouse and wore red paint. My great, great-grandmother did and so on and so on. So, though I come from that, it was important to be really careful and really respectful of those traditions. In a first draft I gave the book to my family to read, and my mom went through it and had a lot of notes and came back to me and was like, ‘You have to take this out, this out, and this out.’ Any time I was talking about even my own memories of being young and being in the longhouse, she said, ‘You don’t come from that family, so you have to keep that out.’ That would be considered a massive disrespect to share this knowledge. So I made those changes. I didn’t even bat an eye at it. I cut them out and  had to kind of wrestle with readers and different editors here and there that were making the critique that, ‘You’re a little vague here. Can you go in and explain this?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ And then I’d have to repeat myself a few months later to a point where I was like, ‘Do you want me to get my mom on the phone here? Do you want to talk to her?’

Miller: Did that shut them up?

LaPointe: Yeah, definitely. But I feel really lucky to have that accessible to me, like to be able to check with my family and my community and be like, ‘Is this okay?’

Miller: Do you remember what it felt like the first time that you put red paint on before a punk show where you were performing poems and songs?

LaPointe: Absolutely. I just got chicken skin, even remembering it just now. Yeah, I do. And I remember feeling really held up for the first time in a long time, held up by this history and this lineage. And for the first time in over a year I felt like I could stand and I could face things, and that was a really empowering moment.

Miller: You write overall that for a long time, for a big chunk of your life, from your early childhood into at least your 20′s, maybe your 30′s, you were in various ways seeking a sense of safety and a sense of what you call a permanent home, a place that wouldn’t be yanked away from you. Have you found what you were looking for, or did you change your idea of what you needed?

LaPointe: Yeah, I think in the process of ‘Red Paint’ and this ongoing, I think since, yeah, early childhood, looking and seeking safety, trying to find my sanctuary… I think for a long time I sort of naively attached that to other folks, specifically the relationships I was in. And I think that, in writing ‘Red Paint’ and sort of landing, I realized that that space existed within me and didn’t need to be attached to this bigger idea of a partnership or a marriage or whatever that looks like.

Miller: How are you doing today?

LaPointe: Great. I’m in my home, in my beautiful house in Tacoma. I’m sitting at my writing desk. Yeah, it’s wonderful. I get to split my time between Tacoma… I mean I even live a little bit in a divided way and it’s okay. My partner lives in San Diego, and I often go down and spend like a month or two at a time with them. They’ll come up here. We split our time. So even living in this divided way, because I have some ground to stand on within myself, I’m able to jump back and forth and instead of it being destabilizing, it’s really empowering and exciting.

Miller: What are you excited to explore next in your writing?

LaPointe: I’m excited for ‘Rose Quartz,’ the collection of poetry to come out with Milkweed in March. I’m also working on a collection of essays. There was an essay in Vogue that I had written titled ‘Thunder Song.’ And I have an essay coming out in Freeman’s: Animals I think in the fall or early next year about decolonizing my diet and our tribe’s salmon ceremonies. So I’m kind of stockpiling these essays right now, and I’m excited to see them take shape in a collection.

Miller: Sasha LaPointe, thank you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure talking with you.

LaPointe: Thank you so much.

Miller: Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is a poet and essayist and the author of the new memoir ‘Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.’

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