Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is a poet, musician and 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 prominent linguist and storyteller Lushootseed, nature nomad of her teenage years, surviving trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and finding love, hope, resilience and beauty in her own life and in the line of women from whom she comes.
The Seattle Times spoke with LaPointe about the meaning of home, permanence and security, 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 did your relationship to the idea of home change during the writing of “Red Paint”?
Home is such a deep thread throughout the book, and it changes. It felt like such a big thing – this idea of having stability and a safe place was something I was looking for. In early childhood, my family moved around a lot. It was really shocking when I was a kid because of different things that happen throughout the book. We were living in these places temporarily — with a neighbor who let us live on his land while our land was cleared; there were times when we stayed with family members, like a grandma’s basement; the attic of the church. That was all when I was 10 and 11. I think having the idea of a disturbed home at such a young age definitely rooted that search.
After going through trauma at a young age, I started running away as a result, then I had a bunch of different types of houses. I remember sleeping in abandoned buildings as a teenager with other teenagers, sleeping with friends, 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 became an adult, I realized that I had this deep hunger for a safe place.
On a larger scale, I think of my ancestors and what home meant to them. I started to explore this deeper connection of my ancestors who literally lost their land and their home to 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 my displacement. I wanted this security, I wanted this house.
Can you talk about this tension between permanence and impermanence, and how it relates to your exploration of home, security, and even your legacy?
It’s such a difficult thing, especially in terms of growing up on a reservation where I can’t disconnect the idea of looking around the earth here and thinking back to the generations before me and my ancestors, and their relationship with 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 changed so drastically [when] the government stepped in and relocated a group of tribes to these places that I think seemed impermanent to them, with the idea that they would eventually go away one way or another. So the idea of impermanence in this way haunts me because we haven’t left.
You weave multiple timelines together – of your Comptia Koholowish ancestor, your great-grandmother, and yourself. How important was it to you to craft the narrative that way?
I started writing “Red Paint” after writing a completely different manuscript in my graduate program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I wrote a much longer memoir that examines the difficult parts of painting. childhood and the things I had been through – teenage homelessness, surviving multiple sexual assaults, traveling the world, discovering music. There were all these things. But even though this relationship and these moments with my grandmother kept coming back in the first manuscripts, it seemed to me that something was missing. Writing my first manuscript dislodged these things from me, and I was in dire need of healing.
I set out to write the first book thinking that I wanted to tell the story as a Coast Salish woman, as a survivor of an assault. But I didn’t realize that by doing this, I would then need to heal and explore deeply what it means in my culture, in the family where I come from.
Comptia’s story kept coming back to me, like through conversations with my mother. I kept digging into that and researching her. I began to understand that I was learning from these women and their lives. I wanted to point out to the reader that this is not just my story, it is 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 believe I found the tools I needed to heal. When I heard about Comptia when I was younger, from my mother, it was almost a scary story. I was so traumatized to learn that someone we were directly descended from was being kept in the back of the house, treated like they belonged to something; this disturbed me deeply. But as I learned more about her and saw the different strengths in her, I looked at her less as a victim and more as this beautiful strength and this beautiful story.
I think the way 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 came from the force. The more I learned about them, the more it helped me through PTSD and panic attacks.
You write about your great-grandmother’s involvement in revitalizing the Lushootseed language. Can you talk about your relationship to language as a poet, 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 going to her storytelling events, even just running around her house as a kid where she worked with linguists and worked on transcriptions. Growing up in this world, you kind of think it will always be there.
At each family gathering, she addressed the table and spoke first in Lushootseed, then in English. I don’t want to say I took this for granted, but looking back I know how incredibly privileged I was to have this around me. So when she passed away and it was no longer part of my daily family connection, I was truly grieving and realized how special it 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’m so excited to see that because of her language work that she did, because of the Lushootseed dictionary, there are all these immersion programs. I see nieces, nephews and cousins who can speak fluently because young people are learning it now.
Like its namesake, it’s hard not to speak fluently. My mother speaks Lushootseed. My mom is sort of the head of the Lushootseed research program now. I sometimes help out with the Lushootseed book or the knowledge sharing conference she hosts once a year, and I try to engage with it that way. But as an adult, I try to learn these things. I’m in my thirties and I need to learn basic phrases like introducing myself, who I am, where I’m from, what tribe I’m from. It’s so difficult. They say that as you get older, things like language are harder to pick up, and that’s so true. But I’m starting to. I’m starting to incorporate Lushootseed words into my poetry. It was really stimulating, it was really beautiful.
A few years ago, I was reading my first poem at an Indigenous women’s poetry event and had practiced several times with my mother reviewing the words. I felt confident, I had put them in my poem. And then I went up there and I saw old people there, I saw young people I knew speaking fluently, and all of a sudden I was like, “I can’t read this poem . I will slaughter these words. But then I thought of my [great-]Grandma and I thought about what she would do, and I probably didn’t pronounce them perfectly, but I remember an elder came up to me afterwards and said she knew my great-grandmother -mother and thanked me. She said it was really beautiful to see her namesake reading this poem.