Gets Real: Washington State Book Award winner shares her truth in “Red Paint”

A memoir that just won the 2023 Washington State Book Award is reshaping what it means to be indigenous.

“We have many facets. I’d hate someone for their takeaway to be - oh this is a Coast Salish woman, super traditional - because that isn’t me,” said author, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe.

KIRO7′s Deedee Sun sat down with LaPointe in her Tacoma home to go behind the scenes of her debut memoir, which is also getting great reviews.

At the end of September, “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk” was selected as the top book in the 2023 Creative Fiction / Memoir category.

“I got an email saying don’t tell anybody yet but you won and I almost cried,” LaPointe said. In fact, LaPointe’s book is getting all sorts of attention.

It has been called, “absorbing” by TIME, “a gripping read” by NPR, and proclaimed as “essential reading” by The Seattle Times.

“The fact that it then did well, it still feels surreal - like a dream,” LaPointe said. “In writing Red Paint, it was my healing process,” she said.

Sasha taqʷšəblu (pronounced tock-sha-blue, as she describes in the book) LaPointe is an Upper Skagit tribe descendant and enrolled in the Nooksack Tribe.

As for the punk part – LaPointe wrote the book while also touring with her post-punk band, “Medusa Stare”. Her arms are decorated with tattoos, and she wore ripped jeans, chunky books, a black tee, and special earrings featured on the cover of her book during the KIRO7 interview.

LaPointe says she was just wrapping up a tour with her band and still staying at a hotel when she found out “Red Paint” was getting published.

“I scrambled so excitedly that I rolled out of the bed and screamed. I was moving around the hotel room like a baby deer,” LaPointe said. “It was just a pivotal moment for me,” she said.

The book details LaPointe growing up on the Swinomish Reservation in the Northwest corner of Washington State. She was named taqʷšəblu after her great grandmother, Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert, a revered elder of the Upper Skagit – which is one of the Coast Salish tribes.

“She used to tell me, ‘You’re my namesake. You are going to do great things,’” Hilbert said.

KIRO7 footage from 2008 shows Vi Hilbert telling a story in the language of Lushootseed. Hilbert also played a massive role in developing a Lushootseed dictionary.

“My great-grandmother is a massive influence on me. Sometimes I think she’s the reason I’m alive and thriving truly,” LaPointe said. “I think all of my storytelling ability comes from her,” she continued.

But before discovering her own voice, LaPointe lived through many traumas – including repeated sexual abuse and heartbreak.

“It’s some of my darkest times throughout my childhood and teenage hood,” LaPointe said.

But during that time, she found a big part of her identity – falling in love with punk during her rebellious teenage years.

“I did have a shaved head, blue lipstick, smoking cloves,” LaPointe said. “As a teen discovering that world, I would hitchhike down to Seattle for shows,” she said.

She was at times homeless, couch surfing, playing and living music.

“It was such a powerful part of my life and had such an influence on me,” she said. Along the way, she discovered how the beat and the lyrics of the punk-goth scene clicked with something more ancient within.

“That storytelling comes from this really important part of my cultural identity. Then sort of falling in love with it through this punk lens too. And learning you can make zines, write songs, and jump around on stage and be angry. I feel like both of those things really represent my style of storytelling,” LaPointe said.

The book not only details the deep pains of growing up but also how LaPointe relied on her roots to hold on to hope.

“When I was experiencing really hard times, my mom would often remind me – you come from a strong line of coast Salish women,” LaPointe said. She shared a photo referenced in the book that shows four generations of women in her family.

“Their blood is your blood. You have that in you. You have the ability to heal,” LaPointe said, recalling her mother’s words.

She learned of red paint from her ancestors, worn in sacred tradition by dancers doing healing work. From her elders, LaPointe earned permission to wear it during her own healing process, while baring her soul on stage. She chose “Red Paint” be the title of her journey on the page.

LaPointe picked an excerpt from the book to share.

“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? “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.”

“What made you pick this passage?” KIRO7′s Deedee Sun asked.

“I think it reminds people - as native people we’re not locked into this idea of… you can only write stories about canoes and salmon. Of course, those are in there, but so are wild punk venues, and falling in love, and going on tour, and riding skateboards,” LaPointe said. “We’re not just these sort of frozen-in-time people – we are still here,” she said.

Now LaPointe is teaching at Evergreen State College in Olympia... with the Native Pathways Program. It’s a bachelor’s program geared towards native students that also brings a focus on indigenous values and traditions.

LaPointe’s next book, Thunder Song – a collection of essays – comes out in March of 2024 and is already available for pre-order.

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