We may never know exactly the beat of the drums inside the Longhouse celebrations that kept the Coast Salish dancing until dawn.
This, as author Sasha taqwšablu LaPointe points out in her captivating memoir “Red Paint,” is a private ceremony. It would be disrespectful to speak publicly about the rituals the Indigenous peoples of Puget Sound had to perform in secret after white settlers banned the traditions generations ago.
But it’s easy to listen to the driving drumbeats of Bikini Kill, whose raucous rhythms have rocked the Pacific Northwest for 32 years. Even if you missed them, they will begin their 2022 world tour next month and return to their hometown of Olympia in September.
It’s the soundtrack that collides ancient and contemporary cultures in a book that bears the subtitle “The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.” The story lives up to its colorful title.
“Red Paint” is an honest and thoughtful look at the history of the Nooksack and Upper Skagit communities told from the perspective of a millennial. It’s more than a search to find yourself, though. It is also a retrospective of the suffering inflicted on generations of Aboriginal people.
LaPointe grew up on the move in a transient family that battled the spirits of a violent past, sometimes settling them in bowling alleys, old churches and trailer parks. Later, she’ll be couch surfing while studying for two master’s degrees and following a partner who toured with a punk band.
The move is also part of his legacy, once nomadic by choice, then by force of white men who land in ships on the shores and begin to rename the countryside in their image.
LaPointe traces a family tradition back to her great-great-grandmother who traveled with her husband, a wanderer on the river, a fisherman, lumberjack and itinerant worker. The great-great-grandmother carried a roll of linoleum with her wherever they went and rolled it out like parquet when they found a place to sleep. It was his way of bringing the comforts of home. This symbolism becomes a theme for LaPointe’s freewheeling lifestyle.
But don’t chalk it up to millennial turmoil. It has deep roots.
“I realized I wasn’t sure what permanence was like because we weren’t supposed to survive,” LaPointe writes. “My family, my tribe, my ancestors, we were something temporary for the settlers. Something that would eventually go away. Whether through disease, alcohol or poverty, our genocide was inevitable for them. I watched the smoke billowing from the metal chimneys of the little stash houses along the highway. But there we were, living in our impermanent homes.
“Red Paint” is a search for healing as well as self-awareness traced through the strength of the Salish women in her family. She descends from tribal royalty in a family tree that escaped smallpox, genocide, chemical addiction and domestic abuse.
LaPointe faces his own monsters. There’s the 40-year-old man who raped her when she was 10, the uncle whose house her family shared when she was a young teenager, the boy who raped her in the woods. LaPointe reminds us of the pain that lingers long after the men who robbed her of her safety and self-esteem are gone.
With encouragement from a college writing professor, LaPointe channels her trauma onto the page. She finds the voice of a poet and in this work a prose narrative that flows like the rhythm of a punk rock party against a backdrop of pop cultural touches “Twin Peaks” and “The Goonies”, as well as the music of Joy Division , Nick Cave and PJ Harvey.
The trauma of the rape also parallels the pain of her ancestors, seeing their homes and lands usurped and plundered by foreign invaders. The details are Coast Salish. But it’s a story shared by communities with names like Spokane, Seattle, Wichita and Kalamazoo, where streets are named after people from faraway lands.
“Everything…”, writes LaPointe, “was named after the settlers, everything but the place itself.”
LaPointe makes you feel the loss of the culture with which she wants to reconnect, rediscover and perhaps discover her own source of strength and healing.
At the end of “Red Paint,” if you feel like burning some sage, listen to Bikini Kill or download “Poison Garden 1” and “Poison Garden 2” by Seattle post-punk band Medusa Stare, you’re not Alone .
“Red Paint” is the kind of story that soaks into your skin and touches your heart.
Ron Sylvester has been a journalist for over 40 years with publications such as Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Wichita Eagle and USA Today. He currently lives in rural Kansas.