Self-determination is very a broad term. It’s not just being able to govern yourself, but also being able to do so independently. A lot of people strive for self-determination, but get caught up. To me, self- determination has to do with being an indigenous person living in this world.
I grew up on an Indian reservation called the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, on Fidalgo Island, near the San Juan Islands in Northwest Washington.
There are about eight hundred people in my tribe. About half of us live on the reservation in a very tight knit community where we often have dinner together, celebrating our elders, our families. We also take canoe journeys—a canoe family is a group of people who may be related to one another. They pull together on a canoe and travel from tribe to tribe. When they arrive, they are welcomed, bringing cultural continuity from generation to generation.
Some families are involved in politics. Others are fishers, crabbers, or cooks of shared monthly meals. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by art and music.
My grandfather and uncles would always be chipping away at totem poles. I remember one time they were making this huge totem pole together. I was about five years old and I would climb up and see all of the curves and wonder how they made them.
My house was also on the main road of our reservation, and my dad had his carving shop right outside. People would come by and see what he was working on. There was always hustle and bustle, and I would hang out and play while he made all of these magnificent carvings, huge totem poles anywhere from twenty to fifty feet, and also wall hangings. He was always working on stuff. This was his passion.
My family also had a drum group called the Skagit Valley Singers, and every year my grandfather would throw a summertime Powwow, which was open to the public, where we would practice our customs, honor the ancestors before us, and live our spirituality. We’d also be on the Powwow trail, going to other Powwows hosted by different tribes around the region.
Growing up, I was immersed in this culture. I also remember hearing about gay and lesbian people, but only hearing negative things, like that’s bad, that’s wrong. And I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, I don’t want that to happen to me and also thinking, That’s probably going to happen to me.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I consciously knew I was attracted to different people and feeling scared, being afraid of what my culture would think of that. There weren’t and still aren’t many visible queer people there. Two-spirit people were something I heard about, but not within my own community.
As a kid, I played the flute and piano, and when I was around fourteen, my parents bought me a guitar because I was super into Nirvana and Hole. I remember learning how to play by watching all of these bootleg CD/DVD things I found out about in online forums. As I was researching, I also found out about a weeklong rock ‘n’ roll camp for girls in Portland, Oregon.
I applied to play guitar, but actually got accepted for drums. When I got there I had an idea of what drums sounded like, but had never played any drumbeats. I had amazing instructors who guided me, taught me fills and beats, how to link one beat to another beat, and how to transition to different sections of a song. It was a really empowering foundation. And in addition to learning music, you could also take workshops like self-defense, zine making, screen-printing, and image and identity.
Within just a week, the instructors taught me how to write a song and form a band—leading up to a showcase where we all performed. Some girls came to camp having never played before, feeling that they couldn’t play, and being afraid or timid. But by the end they all were rocking out on stage. It was a huge turning point in my life. I met all of these people who encouraged me in my identity as a musician, and they empowered me as a multi-instrumentalist.
It was harder for me to come out to my parents. I encountered the riot grrrl scene in high school, and I was surrounded by amazing women who were playing in punk bands and doing all of these things I didn’t realize women could do. I wanted to be a part of it. I stepped out of being native for a second and just experienced being queer. That was something I needed to do to figure out my identity, but in college I saw the urban Indian life and it made me realize I could live in all of my identities.
Today, as a musician I sometimes think about playing my guitar vs. my tribe playing a hand drum. As a guitarist I am playing a colonized instrument that was brought over to this land. But I am mastering this instrument, creating music in my own way, and realizing my own vision of what music is.
I also realize I’m not just making music for myself. I want to make music to help others, to be a support system, especially for queer indigenous people. It’s all in the songs, in this album. I want to be able to say, “Here is what I do, what I think about the world.” It’s music with a bigger purpose: To inspire others to create, to live life. To me, that’s self-determination.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
The Portland-based multi-instrumentalist Katherine Paul records and performs as Black Belt Eagle Scout. She explores love, grief, and radical indigenous queer feminist identity on her acclaimed full-length debut album, Mother of My Children, which Saddle Creek aptly calls “a life chapter gently preserved.” Black Belt Eagle Scout is currently on tour.