says Katherine Paul, the artist who records under the name Black Belt Eagle Scout. “I grew up where my people have lived since time immemorial.”
Raised on the Swinomish Reservation located on the eastern side of Fidalgo Island in what is now known as Washington State, Paul talks about the landscape of her youth as an interlocking ecosystem of cedar trees close to the Pacific Ocean. But it’s the simple statement that she uses to describe where she’s from that both gets at her own past and the ancient history of the land around her: “It feels like home because it is,” she says.
Paul’s emotional connection to the earth is strikingly captured in the video for her 2018 single “Indians Never Die.” Roaming the ancestral lands of Chinook, Chinnuk Wawa, and Tillamook tribes, she taps out a rhythm in time with a wood block – on a rock, on a tree, on the tip of a stick. “It just made me feel connected to where we were,” she says of the mesmerizing visual thread. “It made me feel like I was present with what was going on. We just let nature guide us, I guess.”
It’s a breathtaking video for multiple reasons: Paul’s voice is a wisp — quiet but not remotely fragile. It’s the kind of voice that makes you stop what you’re doing to reckon with your surroundings and the world at large. It’s also breathtaking because of the work of her close friend, the queer Diné artist Evan James Benally Atwood, who directed the video. Atwood has a clear reverence for the land on which they filmed, an understanding of the power of nature, and an eye for capturing the wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
“Indians Never Die” comes from Paul’s debut album Mother of My Children, a raw record that is not only about the well-worn musical tropes of love and loss, but also what it means to be an indigenous person in the United States of America.
When Paul left the reservation for college in Portland, Oregon, the transition wasn’t easy. “I had a really hard time in school. It was weird to be one of very few people of color in my classroom and one of the few people who are on financial aid and scholarships,” she says. “I was beginning to realize...holy shit, where am I? Why am I here? It was that total imposter syndrome of, like, I don’t deserve to be here. I was struggling, and then it hit me that it was because I had moved away from where I come from. I no longer have that direct connection to my roots. I couldn’t just step outside my door and be surrounded...be part of the community I was from.”
Though she’s always been deeply in touch with her heritage, it took leaving the reservation for Paul to understand her connection to her land. “I started realizing how much I missed home and how much I missed being surrounded by people like me. How much I missed being Native American, essentially,” she says. “I was walking in a different path.”
“Native people have this phrase that’s called ‘walking in two worlds,’ where you’re walking in your indigenous world that’s with your family, and you’re walking in the white world,” she explains. “I feel like there are some problems with that statement, but for the most part I can understand why people think that way. It’s because you are immersed within this culture that not a lot of people know about. Every tribe has their own way of doing things. Every tribe is different from one another. We have our own customs, we have our own traditions and no one except [the] people in the tribe and those who are invited to witness know about that stuff.”
Whether she’s exploring the parameters of the emotions that come from losing an important person in your life, or processing what it means to grow up indigenous on colonized land, all of Paul’s work as Black Belt Eagle Scout is imbued with a strong sense of place — her home and history on Mother of my Children, and her newfound community of friends on the follow up, At the Party with my Brown Friends.
Through it all, the music is ragged but beautiful, intimate but impossibly expansive – a sonic world of unending vistas, treacherous terrain, and a frayed, wild understanding of self. It is an encapsulation of Washington State both as it is now and as it once was, long before colonizers gave it that name.