Book Review: A “Coast Salish Punk” Tells Her Own Story

There are many reasons white narratives have long shaped our understanding of Native history and even contemporary Native lives. One, of course, is the lack of pre-contact writings by Indigenous people. Another is the suppression of Native voices during the white conquest of the two American continents. A third is the presumptuousness of even sympathetic white writers—from James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) to Margaret Craven (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, 1967)—in depicting Native life while featuring white protagonists.

A fourth, less-obvious reason is the concentration of a white-dominated publishing industry in the Northeastern part of the United States, where few of the country’s 7 million Indigenous people live.

One result of the U. S. government’s early cruelty toward pre-existing populations, including the vile Indian Removal Act of 1830, was a concentration of Native people west of the Mississippi, where the writers among them had fewer chances to hobnob and network with editors and agents.

Sunset on Puget Sound, Edward Curtis, courtesy of Northwestern University Libraries, Digital Collections

Fortunately, the development of the internet, the assertion of marginalized voices in recent years, and a rising awareness of the need to expand and diversify the American literary conversation have led to more Native authors being published today than ever before. And the writing they’re publishing is less concerned with elder wisdom or lamentations for the devastation wrought by white conquest than sharp-eyed critique of contemporary life.

While elder wisdom and lamentations still inform this new work, the writing is wider-ranging and harder-hitting, bolder and yet subtler, more engaged with the broader culture while retaining a personal connection to the histories and customs of particular tribes and regions.

A prime example is Red Paint, a memoir by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, whose subtitle—The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk—tells you right away it isn’t a conventional narrative. Although LaPointe has spent her life on her ancestors’ traditional lands, she has lived most of it within the American cities and cultures laid on top of them. In fact, at times her story becomes a Schliemann-like excavation of artifacts from the many historical periods in her native Northwest.

Author image from inside the book.

LaPointe isn’t interested in being a representative Indian, however, or even an interpreter or defender for her ancestors. Although, in places, she explores the lives and struggles of those who came before her, she mostly tells her own story—one that includes sexual and substance abuse, homelessness and rootlessness, betrayal and loss, but also hopefulness, friendship, love, and underground music.

LaPointe’s referents are as likely to be the Twin Peaks TV show or the punk group Bikini Kill as the healers of her mother’s Lushootseed tribe or the Chinook ancestor who survived her people’s destruction by marrying a white man. She isn’t seeking a return to some mythic past but rather a home, a permanence, a self-definition that seems to have eluded not only her but her people.

After finding the reservation trailer she lived in as a child in ruins, for example, she muses on what a permanent home for someone like her might be. “Reservations should not have been a permanent home,” she writes. “Like trailers, like campgrounds, like prisons or hospitals, they felt temporary, like some place you go between places. I realized I wasn’t sure what permanence looked like, because we weren’t meant to survive. My family, my tribe, my ancestors, we were something temporary to the settlers, something that would eventually go away.”

Later in the book, after visiting an even older abode, she realizes she’s sick of trying to fit a white world’s expectations of what a Native American woman should be:

“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.”

In the end, Red Paint is mainly what any good memoir should be: an exploration of the self—how it’s built from intention, experience, malice, carelessness, heritage, family, love, and belief, as well as the accidents that impact each of us as we navigate our broken world.


Related links:

“Coast Salish People & Languages” from Seattle’s Burke Museum (scroll down for a map of the Coast Salish lands)

Edward Curtis’s early 20th-century photographs of the Coast Salish people (click on any picture to enlarge the image)

Information (& an artist’s drawing) on a Coast Salish tribes/Western Washington University plans to build a Coast Salish-style longhouse

Institute of American Indian Arts (where LaPointe earned her MFA)

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe website


Red Paint

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Counterpoint (Berkeley, CA)


$25 (hardcover)

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Lewis & Clark Revisited: The First Americans to “Write the Northwest”

Receipt for Wine and Kegs Purchased by Meriwether Lewis for the Expedition to the West; 6/1/1803; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Consolidated Correspondence Files, 1794 – 1890; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, November 15, 2021]

The first Americans generally credited with “writing the Northwest” were Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark, who reached the Pacific Ocean on this date 216 years ago. The journals covering their approximately-two-and-a-half-year journey, written by them and four of the three dozen men in their Corps of Discovery, stretch to over a million words. Not all of them are about the Pacific Northwest, of course, but a fair number are.

The entry for November 16, 1805, their first full day in view of the Pacific, for example, contains these lines:

“We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean .    the waves rolling, & the surf roaring very loud.    on the opposite shore to us we discovered, the Tops of trees which we supposed to be on an Island laying a very great distance in the Ocean. [10]    We are now of opinion that we cannot go any further with our Canoes, [11] & think that we are at an end of our Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and as soon as discoveries necessary are made, that we shall return a short distance up the River & provide our Selves with Winter Quarters, & We suppose that we shall find a considerable Quantity of Game low down on the River.”

It also says: “A Number of Indians staid with us all day.”

The entry was made near the mouth of the Columbia River, almost exactly one year and six months after the Corps left St. Louis. Historians tend to agree that the explorers would never have made it that far if not for the help of many individuals in the estimated 100 Indian tribes whose lands they crossed on their long voyage. The most famous, of course, is Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who grew up among several tribes and served the Corps as guide, interpreter and promoter of friendly relations with those whose lands they traveled through. But there were others too.

For example, a recent article by journalist Will Phinney on the website Underscore News mentions that “[a] Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis helped guide the expedition over the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, persuading her people to befriend rather than kill the weak and starving strangers from the east.” And five Nez Perce teenagers “helped the men cross the mountains and make camp at Lolo Hot Springs.”

Phinney goes on to talk about tribes in the Columbia plateau providing the expedition with dogs for food; Indians near the Columbia and the Pacific supplying elk and deer, as well as blubber and oil from a beached whale; and indigenous people everywhere offering maps and directions and other essential help. Among the NW tribes the article mentions are the Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakama, Wasco, Wishrams, Wanapum, Walla Walla, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Chinooks, Clatsop, Skilloots, Tillamook, Kathlamets, and Wahkiakums.

Phinney’s article, titled “The Lewis and Clark Expedition from an Indian Country Perspective,” is about a reinterpretation of the Lewis & Clark expedition currently being undertaken through a partnership between the National Park Service and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), an indigenous tourism group.

According to Phinney, the two groups are collaborating “to develop online itineraries to promote the tribes that intersected with Lewis and Clark on their way across what became the United States.” In addition to information on tribal events and sites, the online guides will provide stories that “reflect the expedition from an Indigenous perspective, as told by the descendants of those who encountered the explorers as they made their way west.” To find out more, go to the websites and

You can read all of the Lewis & Clark writings online at the “Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” website, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Great Plains Studies, the University of Nebraska Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, and University of Nebraska Press.

You can buy them all too, in 13 volumes, or opt for the 467-page abridged edition. If you’d prefer to have someone else interpret them for you instead of wading through them yourself, there are any number of sites and books ready to do just that. American Heritage, for example, has a handy list of the “The Ten Best Books” about Lewis and Clark. And Amazon offers dozens and dozens more, including many children’s books and at least one book about Captain Lewis’s dog, Seaman.

Nowhere in all of these books, however, do the indigenous people of the Northwest speak for themselves. Some writers have attempted to approximate the Indian perspective–mostly notably (and perhaps regrettably) in fictionalized first-person accounts by Sacagawea in novelist Brian Hall ‘s I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark and Scott O’Dell’s children’s book Streams to the River, Rivers to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea–but these attempts have tended to be awkward or arrogant or merely speculative. Often, all three.

Sadly, we will never be able to read the actual writings of indigenous people from pre-contact times in what has come to be called the Pacific Northwest. We will always be forced to try to intuit their thinking from writings written by others, often for exploitative purposes. But perhaps the project Phinney has written about will help us imagine what their perspective might have been and provide a necessary corrective to the traditional American narrative, in which outsiders like Lewis and Clark are inevitably portrayed as the heroes.

You can learn more about L & C’s brief stay near the Pacific Ocean in this entry: Lewis and Clark Expedition reaches the Pacific Ocean on November 15, 1805.

List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West; 1803; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Consolidated Correspondence Files, 1794 – 1890; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, November 15, 2021]

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