For Black Belt Eagle Scout, music expands further than the venues

 By Shirley Griffith

May 2, 2019

The Catawba Nation is an indigenous tribe that settled the piedmont of North and South Carolina over 10,000 years ago. However, after years of forced colonization by European settlers, it wasn’t until 1973 they received recognition from South Carolina and even later until they received official federal recognition and funding to support education programs. Even today the Catawba nation, whose reservation is located in Rock Hill, continue to fight to save their history, culture, and language.

Black Belt Eagle Scout, a moniker for multi-instrumentalist Katherine Paul (KP for short), speaks through her music about loss, grief and anger felt not only as an indigenous woman, but also that of a radical, queer feminist woman who grew up influenced as much by her tribe’s traditional pow wows as the grunge and riot grrrl movements in the Pacific Northwest. Her sound combines the swell and churn of violently crashing waves on the rocky coast with the mournful whisper of ancient despair.  

Black Belt Eagle Scout. Photo: Eleanor Petry

“I talk a lot about my identity in my music. I sing songs about being indigenous, being queer, and the love surrounding those things. I think people can relate to me, whether queer, person of color or indigenous, those identities crave a lot of energy in order to heal from trauma because you’re in a minority group, hated for who you are,” KP said.

KP, who is set to play this year’s Newport Folk Festival and is currently touring across the nation, released Mother of My Children on Saddle Creek records in late 2018 after writing most of the tracks in 2016, when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were taking place just a couple states over from her home. The heartbreak and indignation hit KP even harder as she had just suffered both the sudden loss of her mentor as well as the end of her first serious relationship with a woman. The album’s title is a dedication to that relationship.

“I play music as a way to process things, like therapy essentially. I feel like a lot of people go through hardships, grief and heartbreak, I think those are very easy things to relate to,” she said. “Whether you’re having a tough time at work that week or fighting with a friend, being able to listen to music in a way that can help you heal is really cool. It’s cool that I happened to have created something in that realm.”

The songs on Mother of My Children chronicle a specific and painful time in her life but KP says that once the songs were out of her, she was able to find closure with them. She performs the songs as an act of moving on, confronting and exposing her wounds as a beacon of grace and strength. What may be most impressive about MoMC is that KP recorded and arranged everything on the album by herself. She has studied music most of her life, first learning on a piano. After the piano, she learned the flute, snare drum, and attempted to master the saxophone but got frustrated with the embouchure, before finally picking up the guitar.

Black Belt Eagle Scout, Stevenson, WA, July 2018. Photo by Jason Quigley

“I’ve always been intrigued by music and felt it was such a beautiful thing in the world. Some people look at a painting or go see a play and feel things in that way, but sound conveys feelings to me,” she said. “When I listen to music, I listen to all the instruments mixing together or I’ll pick out certain ones… I love sounds so much and I feel like my brain has always just had a way of separating and arranging them. I hear when certain things need to be there or when they don’t need to be there and I’ll just play it.”

Although the majority of the tracks she plays on this tour were written years ago, KP stays rooted through the foundation she finds in them, which includes adding in a second guitarist for the Black Belt Eagle Scout live show.

“We’ve typically been a three-piece for touring but with this run we’ve brought in my friend Megan who adds so much to these songs… The song grows into a different style than just what I created.”

This tour has introduced KP to many groups throughout the nation. She looks forward to headlining a larger tour so she can uplift other indigenous bands, whether that be by including them on bills or introducing them to her growing, yet still mostly white, fan base.

KP credits her strong familial and tribal upbringing as the backbone of her sense of self. She breathes visibility for indigenous people and the philosophy of community comes up time and time again. “Not everyone wants to be in white spaces, and it is hard for even me sometimes to be on tour constantly singing about my indigenous identity to a white audience. It kind of seems wrong sometimes.”

Black Belt Eagle Scout, Stevenson, WA, July 2018. Photo by Jason Quigley

Between shows, she and drummer Camas Logue pass the time by creating earrings to sell as extra merch options. “We make them in the native style which is really nice to learn. I’m still learning beadwork, what style, colors, stitch that I want to make but it’s very relaxing and essentially, its art.”

Her music videos are shot in collaboration with indigenous filmmakers and feature generous, soothing scenes of her native Swimonish lands. Her most recent music video is for “Loss & Relax” was recently released as part of a special 7” and was directed by KP’s friend Angel Two Bulls.

“I talk a lot about where I come from in interviews and in my music but no one really knows what it looks like and how beautiful it really is. The song ‘Loss & Relax’ is about journeying home and I actually wrote it while I was writing Mother of My Children but felt it needed more time to linger,” she said.

KP is honored that so many have been touched by her music and the opportunities her art affords her. “There is an element of feedback I hold closely and personally that I hear from people who tell me, ‘Thank you for doing what you’re doing.’ I hear you, and I feel that too. I’m happy to be here for you if that’s what you need from my music. I realize I’m one of few indigenous people known within mainstream culture and I want more space for indigenous communities, especially queer indigenous communities. There needs to be more diversity, more stories– particularly more stories from the first people that were in this land.”

Catch Black Belt Eagle Scout at Snug Harbor on Friday, May 3 with local support from Veda Woolf.

Read next:

In this article