The Missing: On Sasha LaPointe’s “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk”

By Ellen Wayland-SmithJune 10, 2022

The Missing: On Sasha LaPointe’s “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk”

Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

IN MAY 2021, the bodies of 215 long-missing indigenous children were discovered in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, one of Canada’s forced boarding schools for native children that operated between the 1890s and 1970s.

The news grabbed national headlines both in Canada and the United States, but it came as little surprise to indigenous women activists, for whom the grim discovery merely confirmed what had always been abundantly clear: indigenous people, and in particular indigenous women and girls, go missing or murdered at near-epidemic rates. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native American girls and women, yet those missing-and-presumed murdered among this population rarely make it into official crime statistics. The Urban Indian Health Institute estimated that while the National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing Native American women in 2016, the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database for that same period recorded only 116. Elizabeth Cook, senior staff attorney for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, reflected, “We’re a lost population of people and we’re invisible because nobody knows we really exist. Everyone thinks we died out and that is what the government wanted us to do.”

The thing about being part of a population that the government spent nearly four centuries murdering, fleecing, sickening, relocating, kidnapping, and reeducating is that, when you go missing, that same government is unlikely to register your absence: you don’t count as missing if you weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, a Tacoma-based writer descended from the Nooksack and Upper Skagit Indian nations, is not among her community’s literal missing. Yet in a new memoir, Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk, LaPointe recounts the story of her own life as similarly marked by displacement and homelessness, both physical and spiritual. In writing this book, LaPointe has given her audience a precious gift: a searing, fine-grained portrait of how centuries of cumulative historical trauma and neglect conspire to make it easy for indigenous girls to, quite simply, vanish into thin air.


The first time LaPointe goes missing from her life, she is 10 years old. Asleep on a waterbed in a family friend’s doublewide trailer on the Swinomish Reservation in her native Washington State, she is startled awake by the smell of “Uncle’s” sour beer breath on her neck. To survive the assault, she absents herself from her body, focusing instead on a line of imaginary little boats sailing along the yellowed ceiling, rising and dipping with the rippling bed beneath her. “My tribe believes in a kind of spirit sickness,” LaPointe explains. “When your spirit is angry, or distressed, it can leave you. It abandons you, and when it does you can sometimes lose consciousness. Over time you become sick. […] Eventually you lie down and never wake.”

Growing up, LaPointe’s homelife had already been marked by impermanence. Her parents continually moved their large family from place to place in search of better paying jobs, more space — a peripatetic life that mirrored, she notes with dark irony, the nomadic rhythms of her Coast Salish ancestors who once traveled up and down the Skagit River, moving with the salmon and the seasons and berries. When they find out about Sasha’s assault, her family abandons their trailer next door to Uncle, taking up temporary residence in the attic of the reservation’s church. Imagining she is somehow responsible for her family’s homelessness, young Sasha is filled with guilt and shame. And so, “after that night on the water bed,” she writes, “I learned to run away.”

When she is a teenager, LaPointe’s disappearances take the form of flights into drugs, alcohol, and the local punk scene. She remains days away from home, sleeping in bowling alleys and on friends’ couches; on stacked wooden pallets on construction sites; in hotel rooms with pink walls and “orange carpet dotted with old cigarette burns.” Punk shows introduce the 14-year-old Sasha to the “poisoned” euphoria of a Jack Daniels high. But they also open up exciting possibilities for reinventing herself, and for turning her rage and sorrow into art. Decked out in fishnets, black lipstick, and a diamond-studded tiara, Sasha listens transfixed to Kathleen Hanna sing out her story of sexual assault in “Star Bellied Boy.” Hearing Hanna’s “singsong voice go into a shrieking, guttural scream,” LaPointe recalls, “felt like being in the presence of power, which I wanted so badly to possess.”

As she grows older, the disappearances take on a more ghostly shape. Upon the death of her beloved great-grandmother and namesake, Violet taqʷšəblu seblu Hilbert, LaPointe goes to sleep — and finds herself unable to wake up. “I could almost get back to the world,” she recounts of this period. “But a wave would crash over me and my room would fill with water again and again, reminding me I was still asleep.” The spell is only broken when her mother calls in a medicine worker; with the aid of a burning ceremony, Violet releases her grip on Sasha’s soul and passes peacefully into the spirit world. Sasha returns to the land of the living.

By the time LaPointe turns 30, she has begun to build a stable life for herself, one from which she hopes she will no longer be tempted to go missing. She has found her passion as a writer, pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and is engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Brandon. She imagines she is at last ready to build a “permanent home.”

Such a fix, however, sealed by Le Creuset wedding dishes and the four walls of a warm Seattle apartment, is not to be had. In the course of writing her thesis, LaPointe finds herself reliving the scene of her early sexual trauma; combined with the discovery, a few days after the wedding, that Brandon has secretly used her savings to book a tour to Australia with his band, she feels once again unmoored, flees her apartment, and slips back into the past. Red Paint is LaPointe’s chronicle of how she must first revisit the past — both her own personal history, and that of her ancestors — before finding the safe harbor of home.


After Brandon betrays her trust and takes off for Australia, LaPointe drives north to visit the Swinomish Reservation where she grew up. She walks through her family’s old trailer, now thick with ferns and mold and streaming sunlight. She is transfixed by the ruins of a past life:

Blackberry bushes climbed the rusted walls of the trailer, encasing my childhood home in thorns, like some dark fairy-tale spell. A tree branch had crashed through the living room window. Vines covered the tin rooftop, and the shed where we stacked firewood was swallowed by sword ferns.

In the trailer, she gains new clarity. Everything about her life — and the life of her tribe since colonizers first came, wiping out the majority with smallpox and forcing those that remained onto reservations — has been temporary, ad-hoc, hand-to-mouth. “Reservations should not have been a permanent home,” she realizes. “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.” Her family, her tribe, her ancestors had all been temporary to the settlers, “[s]omething that would eventually go away. Whether by disease or alcohol or poverty, our genocide was inevitable to them.” And yet, they hadn’t entirely disappeared. Some had survived, albeit often in spectral, attenuated, or broken forms. “I looked at the smoke pluming from the metal chimneys of the small reservation houses along the highway,” she narrates. Contra the settlers’ wishes, “here we were, existing in our impermanent homes.”

Red Paint is at its most moving when LaPointe explores the ghostliness of this state of internal exile experienced by Native American survivors. The natural beauty of her surroundings — the Cascade Mountains; the Skagit River, from whose banks her community gathers red clay for their ceremonial makeup; the sacred salmon and the salty ocean; the blackberries, pine trees, sword ferns, and pebbly beaches — form more than just the story’s backdrop. Unhoused on earth, LaPointe often finds herself longing to join her ancestors on the other side, making her “permanent home” in the spirit world. But the draw of the natural world helps bring her back to the land of the living. As if the landscape is a palimpsest, Sasha learns to squint to make out the original beauty beneath the thick, accumulated layers of colonial history. The Skagit River, in particular, becomes a crucial character in helping LaPointe navigate her way back from the seductive shores of the spirit world, into which she is tempted to disappear.

LaPointe watches a stranger she recognizes as Coast Salish walking down a Seattle street one day. He holds a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand, his face creased with age and grime. He wears a bandana across his forehead to hold back his thick black shoulder-length hair. Downing the bottle, he reaches into his bag for another and continues on his way. He reminds Sasha of her uncle Ron, a painter who also struggled with alcoholism and died, young, of diabetes. “He was born in the wrong time,” her grandmother would mournfully say. “He would have carved canoes, and made beautiful artwork. If he had been born in the old days he would have been happy. Handsome Indian man like that, but this world wasn’t right for him.” LaPointe finds a kindred spirit in the stranger, imagining him — like her Uncle Ron, like herself — as a kind of temporal refugee. “I stood at the window and closed my eyes. I tried to imagine the land when it was still forested, before the river was polluted, before the settlers and the factories.”

Ultimately, family stories suggested in old photographs, embedded in texts her great-grandmother translates from Lushootseed, and uncovered in family lore and in her own research help LaPointe build a bridge from the spirit world to the present world of flesh-and-blood. Armed with a genealogy of strong women, from her 19th-century ancestor Comptia Koholowish to her great-grandmother Violet and medicine-worker Aunt Susie, LaPointe joins these women in confronting the temptation to disappear and deciding, finally, to remain firmly rooted where they are.


Ellen Wayland-Smith is a cultural historian, essayist, and associate professor of Writing at USC Dornsife College. She is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (UChicago Press, 2020), and her memoir in essays, The Science of Last Things: Essays on Endings, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press.

LARB Contributor

Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of two books of American cultural history, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Her essay collection, The Science of Last Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press in 2024. She is a professor (teaching) in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California.


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