By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
James Pakootas (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) is a motivational speaker and hip-hop artist. He coordinates events, mentors youth, and provides a fresh look into the world of addiction and substance abuse. A certified First Peoples Fund trainer and 2019 Artist in Business Leadership Fellow, James lives in Spokane, Washington.
“I make a living by telling my story,” James says. “I open up about the childhood abuse I suffered as a little boy, the neglect of my father being in federal prison, through to perpetuating that cycle of criminal activity and going to prison myself and falling into addiction.”
In the spring of 2017, James sat among prominent Native artists during a gathering in his community at Coulee Dam on the Colville Indian Reservation. He wondered if the others would even consider him an artist.
The Northwest Native Development Fund had invited First Peoples Fund (FPF) out to explore interest for local artists in a potential Native Artist Professional Development (NAPD) Training. A week out of treatment, James got a call from his best friend, who works at Northwest Native Development Fund, encouraging James to attend the preliminary meeting.
There he sat, uncertain, as accomplished artists began introducing themselves. His turn came and, for the first time in his life, James’ art — hip-hop music — was validated by other artists, and also by FPF. It was life-changing, marking a moment that put him on a road to healing.
“When I started doing criminal activity, my music changed into emulating a street lifestyle,” James explains. “Before I went to prison, I put music and everything from the streets away. But I was still drinking and using when I came out and got into a car accident. I lost the use of my right arm below my elbow. I was broken. I started looking for a beat because I needed to write, I needed to let this pain out.”
That writing session eventually became the first verse on his latest music video, “Break These Chains.”
Over the past two years, James attended First Peoples Fund’s NAPD training on the Colville Indian Reservation, then helped pilot the performing arts version of the NAPD curriculum before becoming a certified FPF trainer in October 2018. With his 2019 Artist in Business Leadership fellowship, he partnered with an audio engineer to launch a studio in Spokane. He’s reaching out to troubled youth and to those well on the path to living their dreams.
Though he left that first NAPD training overwhelmed — questioning himself and struggling with doubts — the belief poured into him pulled James through rebranding his music business.
“First Peoples Fund is foundational in me thinking of myself as an artist,” he added. “To say I’m an artist, to feel good about the word as it leaves my mouth, is empowering.”