Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is a poet, musician and creative writer from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian tribes. Her new memoir, “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk” (Counterpoint Press, March 8), recounts her childhood as the great-granddaughter and namesake of a prominent Lushootseed linguist and storyteller, the nomadic nature of her teens, surviving trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and finding love, hope, resilience, and beauty in her own life and the lineage of women she is descended from.
The Seattle Times spoke with LaPointe about the meaning of home, permanence and safety, ancestral research, and the importance of art and language.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does home mean to you, and how has your relationship to the idea of home changed over the course of writing “Red Paint”?
Home is such a deep thread throughout the book, and it does change. It felt like such a big thing — this idea of having stability and a safe place was something I looked for. In early childhood, my family moved around a lot. It was really jarring as a kid because of different things that happen throughout the book. We were living temporarily in these places — with a neighbor who let us live on his land while our land was being cleared; there were moments where we stayed with family members, like a grandmother’s basement; the church attic. This was all when I was 10 and 11. I think that having the idea of home disrupted at such an early age definitely rooted this search for it.
After experiencing trauma at a young age, I started running away as a result, and then had a bunch of different kinds of homes. I remember sleeping in abandoned buildings as a teenager with other teenagers, sleeping at friends’ houses, just this very nomadic existence for such a young person. I don’t think I realized at the time the impact it would have on me. When I grew into adulthood, I realized that I had this deep hunger for a safe place.
On a bigger scale, I am thinking about my ancestors and about what home meant to them. I started to explore this deeper connection of my ancestors who literally lost their land and their home in the face of settler-colonial trauma, and how this idea of generational trauma is rooted in us. Everyone always talks about the beauty of the Northwest, the mountains, the dense forests, the ocean, it’s so striking here. I saw similarities between the displacement of my Coast Salish ancestors, and the displacement of me. I wanted that safety, I wanted that home.
Can you talk about that tension between permanence and impermanence, and how that relates to your exploration of home, safety and even your inheritance?
It’s such a hard thing, especially in relation to growing up on a reservation where I can’t disconnect the idea of looking around the land here and thinking back to the generations before me and my ancestors, and their relationship to the land and how it was always going to be this permanent thing — their relationship to the land, their relationship to the resources, and how that shifted so drastically [when] the government came in and relocated a bunch of the tribes to these places that I think for them felt impermanent, with the idea that they would somehow just go away eventually. So the idea of impermanence in that way kind of haunts me because we didn’t go away.
You weave together multiple timelines — of your ancestor Comptia Koholowish, your great-grandmother, and yourself. What was the importance for you of crafting the narrative this way?
I started writing “Red Paint” after writing a whole different manuscript in my graduate program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I wrote a much longer memoir that examines the hard parts of childhood and the things that I had gone through — teenage homelessness, surviving multiple sexual assaults, moving through the world, discovering music. It had all these things. But even though this relationship and these moments with my grandmother kept coming up again and again in the first manuscripts, something felt like it was missing. Writing my first manuscript dislodged these things in me, and I deeply needed healing.
I set out to write the first book with the thought that I wanted to tell the story as a Coast Salish woman, as an assault survivor. But I didn’t realize that in doing that, I would then actually need healing and need to deeply explore what that means in my culture, in the family I come from.
Comptia’s story kept coming to me, like through conversations with my mom. I kept diving deeper into that and researching her. It started to become clear to me that I was learning from these women and their lives. I wanted to signal to the reader that this isn’t just my story, it’s the story of the women I come from. Through my exploration of Comptia’s life, my great-grandmother’s life and my relationship with her, I think I did find the tools that I needed to heal. When I’d heard about Comptia when I was younger, from my mom, it was almost a scary story. I was so traumatized hearing that someone we had directly descended from was kept in the back house, treated like she was something owned; it deeply disturbed me. But in learning more about her and seeing the different strengths in her, I looked at it less like victimhood and more of this beautiful strength and story.
I think the way that I took care of myself had everything to do with just thinking about these women and thinking about them in terms of my own story, and letting that remind me that I literally come from strength. The more I learned about them, the more that helped me move through the PTSD and the panic attacks.
You write about your great-grandmother’s involvement in Lushootseed language revitalization. Can you talk about your relationship to language as a poet, a writer and as a descendant of someone who had such a vital relationship to language?
It’s hard when you’re young, certainly for me, to really understand what’s in front of you and what it is. Growing up being able to do things, like go to her storytelling events, even just running around her house as a kid where she was working with linguists and working on transcriptions. Growing up in that world, you kind of think that it’s always going to be there.
At every family gathering she’d address the table and speak in Lushootseed first and then English. I don’t want to say I took that for granted, but looking back now I know just how incredibly privileged I was to have that around me. So when she passed away and that was no longer a part of my daily family connection, I was really grieving that and realizing just how special that was.
Me and my siblings, our generation, didn’t grow up learning Lushootseed. It was just around us. We didn’t learn it. And now I am so excited to see that because of her language work that she did, because of the Lushootseed dictionary, there’s all of these immersion programs. I see nieces and nephews and cousins that can speak fluently because young people are learning it now.
As her namesake, it’s hard to not be fluent. My mom speaks Lushootseed. My mom is kind of head of the Lushootseed research program now. I’ll sometimes help with the Lushootseed book or knowledge-sharing conference that she does once a year, and I try to engage with it in that way. But as an adult, I’m trying to learn these things. I’m in my 30s having to learn basic phrases like to introduce myself, who I am, where I’m from, what tribe I’m from. It’s so challenging. They say as you get older, things like language are harder to pick up, and it’s so true. But I’m starting to. I’m starting to pull in Lushootseed words into my poetry. It’s been really empowering, it’s been really beautiful.
A couple years ago I was reading my first poem at an Indigenous women’s poetry event, and I had practiced with my mom a few times going over the words. I felt confident, I had put them in my poem. And then I got up there and I saw elders out there, I saw young people I knew were fluent, and all of a sudden I was like, “I can’t read this poem. I’m gonna butcher these words.” But then I thought about my [great-]grandmother and I thought about what she would do, and I probably didn’t pronounce them perfectly but I remember an elder coming up to me afterwards and saying she knew my great-grandmother and thanking me. She said it was really beautiful to see her namesake reading this poem.