The Art of Professional Development

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015




Two years ago James Pakootas found himself starting the next chapter of his life. Less than a month out of treatment for addiction, James was considering focusing his energy on his lifelong passion: writing and performing hip hop. Encouraged by one of his closest friends, an uncertain James attended one of First Peoples Fund’s Native Artist Professional Development (NAPD) trainings. From there, the next chapter began to unfold.

Fast forward to today –– James is not only using everything he learned during his very first NAPD training, but he is now a certified NAPD trainer for First Peoples Fund. James has also helped pilot the recently developed performing arts component of the NAPD, teaching the curriculum to other artists in his community. He enjoys being able to encourage artists who, like he felt two years ago, might be uncertain about their capacity to pursue their dreams of being a full-time artist.

James teaching an NAPD training.  Photo courtesy of Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

James teaching an NAPD training.
Photo courtesy of Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

“We’re trying to grow that arts ecology,” James explains. “It goes from the individual to the community, to the world. It feels like it’s growing because First Peoples Fund validated me as an individual, and now I’m starting to bear fruit, without intentionally trying to live out their purpose or mission. It’s naturally aligned: My mission is their mission, my values are their values. It really is a family.”

Experiences such as James’s are at the core of why First Peoples Fund’s developed the NAPD training and curriculum –– to connect artists to skills and resources that would help them support themselves while affirming the value they bring to their communities. Rooted in traditional values, the curriculum allows participants to build a foundation for their business that resonates with their deepest sources of inspiration and motivation. Approaching business development through the lens of artists’ Indigenous values helps them to maintain the fortitude needed to take on the challenges of being an entrepreneur, full-time artist or community leader.

“We’re trying to grow that arts ecology. It goes from the individual to the community, to the world. It feels like it’s growing because First Peoples Fund validated me as an individual, and now I’m starting to bear fruit, without intentionally trying to live out their purpose or mission. It’s naturally aligned: My mission is their mission, my values are their values. It really is a family.”
— James Pakootas (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation)

“NAPD is the only professional development training that’s specifically for Native artists, and it is rooted in Indigenous perspectives,” says Tosa Two Heart (Oglala Lakota), FPF’s Program Manager of Community Development. “We’re dedicated to continuing to honor those perspective by incorporating artists’ feedback into the new components of the NAPD curriculum.”

Through site visits, online webinars, and getting in the room with Native artists, we listen as they express themselves, the challenges they face, and their ideas for creating greater impact. Working with artists like James is essential to making sure what we create will meet the needs of the artists we serve, and our trusted partners and certified trainers offer valuable input as well. They work with hundreds of artists across the mainland, and Alaska and Hawai’i, which prompted the recent performing arts revision to the curriculum and are informing the next component to be introduced to the NAPD: leadership.


Culture Bearers Leading a Movement

Though the NAPD recognizes the importance of artists need to support themselves in a cash economy, we also emphasize the importance of every community’s cultural capital, composed of the wisdom of our ancestors. This approach often resonates with artists and culture bearers since for many of them, their primary motivation for creating their work is not monetary, but rooted in much deeper connections to culture, land, tradition, and family. The NAPD wants to support the fact that measures of success for our artists and culture bearer are not solely connected to monetary wealth, but rather to sustaining themselves and their families culturally as well as financially.

Ben Sherman instructing an NAPD in Niobrara, NE. Photo courtesy of FPF.

Ben Sherman instructing an NAPD in Niobrara, NE. Photo courtesy of FPF.

Our Community Spirit Award (CSA) honorees embody these efforts and we look to them as guides as we develop the leadership component of the NAPD, written by Ben Sherman (Oglala Lakota). With the larger movements in Indian Country to reclaim and revitalize Indigenous economies, the leadership component is one way FPF can support and affirm the contributions of culture bearers and artists to these processes. The strength of culture bearers and artist-leaders in every Native community we serve shows us at that they are a driving force in the movement to reclaim lifeways, and are critical to ensuring the perpetuation of ancestral knowledge and traditions for future generations.

“When I think of leadership, I think of the idea of how leadership and culture-bearing and being an artist in the community all tie together,” Tosa says. “We are using examples of our CSAs as models for what leadership looks like in the community and how it benefits not just the artists, but perpetuates culture.”

CSA honoree and FPF trainer, Theresa Secord (Penobscot) hosted some of the live webinars FPF has offered this spring. One of her webinars served as a practical guide on how to diversify income as an Indigenous artist, recognizing that mainstream business models do not fulfill all their needs. Participants posed questions in the chat feature, creating opportunities for learning from Theresa’s extensive experience. Those questions and answers also help inform how we will create tangible guidance for artists through the leadership component of the NAPD.

Marketing component of the NAPD training manual, featuring NAPD trainer and CSA honoree Theresa Secord (Penobscot). Photo courtesy of FPF.

Marketing component of the NAPD training manual, featuring NAPD trainer and CSA honoree Theresa Secord (Penobscot). Photo courtesy of FPF.

“Success looks different for every artist, and we’re just laying out all the avenues that they could potentially take if they want to pursue a certain path,” says Tosa. “We’re gathering more information from artists and fellows, trying to update resources and think of other professional needs. Say your medium is film, what does your artist portfolio look like? Or how does an author approach publishers? These are things I think about, making sure we eventually touch all these to a certain extent. It’s an incremental process.”

The trainings already scheduled for this year will also provide more opportunities to gather feedback and continue informing the trajectory of the curriculum. NAPD trainings are scheduled in North Dakota, Hawai’i, Montana, Minnesota, and Washington, just to name a few, with regular requests coming in from all across the United States. FPF hopes that with each NAPD training, we are helping an artist guide how the next chapter of their life will be written.

“First Peoples Fund continually validates the importance of me being an artist, and the path I’ve chosen and being a leader in my community,” James says. “They validate me as a human being. It’s powerful.”