Spirit Songs

Shortly after 9/11, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s great-grandmother, troubled by the state of the world, commissioned a symphony. A Coast Salish elder and Indigenous language activist, Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert had no prior connection to classical music. Yet her belief that our broken world desperately needed healing resulted in “The Healing Heart of the First People of This Land,” which was performed by the Seattle Symphony in 2006. The work was built from the sacred “spirit song” of Chief Seattle, whose treaty with white colonizers resulted in the building of the city of Seattle on top of the ancestral estuaries and salt marshes of the Coast Salish people. Writer, poet and musician LaPointe believes that if her great-grandmother were alive today, she would say, “We need these healing songs again. We need to do something.”

Book jacket image for Thunder Song by Sasha LaPointeSasha LaPointe’s incandescent Thunder Song is shaped by Vi Hilbert’s life, work and legacy, as well as by the more complicated influence of Chief Seattle. LaPointe’s own connection to her hometown features in many of the essays collected in this volume: “I have this complicated relationship with Seattle,” the author tells BookPage, “[with] my experience of being enamored with the city and then realizing what it means to exist in [Chief Seattle’s] namesake city as a Coast Salish woman.”

While LaPointe’s 2022 memoir, Red Paint, focused more on her individual story of trauma and healing, Thunder Song turns her gaze outwards. “Out of the stormy sea of writing Red Paint, I felt better for the first time in many years,” she says. “But when it was all done, I washed up on the shore and looked around and was like, what is wrong with the world right now?” It was the summer of 2020, and among the Black Lives Matter protests, the severe wildfires in Washington state and the pandemic, LaPointe felt spurred to action: “None of this is good, none of this is right. The sky doesn’t look right. And I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In the title essay, LaPointe considers Hilbert’s healing influence amid political chaos and Indigenous erasure. “There is this collective trauma and collective grief and collective anger,” she says. “And the thing that really grounded me emotionally was looking to all the amazing things that our grandmother did around that symphony.” Other essays in the book cover the colonial erasure of Indigenous identity, the loss of ancestral lands and the violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Like her great-grandmother, LaPointe turns to music to alchemize grief and sorrow—in her case, the electrifying rage of punk.

“I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe makes a pointed but ultimately loving critique of the whiteness of punk. Listening to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna sing about assault and survival was a pivotal turning point for a young LaPointe, who left home at 14 to make her way to Seattle’s punk scene. “Finding that misfit chosen family absolutely saved my life,” she says. The Riot Grrrl movement in particular offered her strength and empowerment. But LaPointe grew to feel that her Native identity was “submerged” in the whiteness of the punk scene, a feeling brought to a head when two white punks questioned LaPointe for wearing the red paint of her Native ancestors while performing with her band. She writes that their assumption that she was not Native “rattled me to my core,” threatening her Indigenous identity in a venue meant to offer safe harbor for misfits of all kinds.

The concluding essay, “Kinships,” was one of the last essays that LaPointe wrote for this collection. “It really was the medicine that the collection needed and that I needed while writing it,” she says. “I was this charged ball of anxiety and anger and fear for the world, for our Indigenous people, for our sacred land.” As described in the essay, she learns that the antidote for these feelings is connection with other Indigenous writers and activists across the globe. She writes movingly of her friendship with Maori poet Tayi Tibble, with whom she bonds over the links between their canoe-based cultures, as well as through their shared work as emerging Native writers. With Julian Aguon, an Indigenous human rights lawyer and the author of 2022’s No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, she finds another important relationship, especially when he asks LaPointe to deliver a petition to save sacred Indigenous lands in South Africa from development by Amazon. In these kinships, LaPointe finds seeds of hope: “We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water,” she says.

Also in “Kinships,” LaPointe found herself once again guided by her great-grandmother’s spirit. Hilbert spent time in Hawai‘i working with Indigenous language revitalization groups, and when LaPointe visits the islands with her partner, she finds herself coincidentally and profoundly retracing her elder’s footsteps. Indeed, both Red Paint and Thunder Song are powerfully animated by the “spirit songs” of LaPointe’s matrilineal line; her writing is both a celebration and continuation of the work of her foremothers, in a Native punk mode all her own.

“We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water.”

When I asked LaPointe who she was writing for, she immediately thought about “14-year-old Sasha out on the rez who desperately needed this book.” The response to Red Paint from Native readers was particularly gratifying: “When I consider an audience, I think of the folks who have reached out to me from tribal communities saying that reading my book helped them in some way.” Although LaPointe is primarily focused on these readers “who motivate me and bring me to the page,” there’s a larger audience for LaPointe’s work as well. By transmitting the healing songs of her great-grandmother through her own creative work in prose and performance, LaPointe offers all readers a chance to acknowledge and be changed by Indigenous voices and values.

Photo of Sasha LaPoint by Bridget McGee Houchins

Visit BookPage.com to read our starred review of Thunder Song.

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