Jim Boyd, a noted singer-songwriter and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, died Tuesday of natural causes, his family said. He was 60.
Boyd began playing guitar as a child in a military family, graduating to cover and rock bands. He began writing his own music when he was in his 30s, and contributed songs to the soundtrack of the 1998 film “Smoke Signals.” In 2014, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Native American Music Awards.
Closer to home, he has been tribal chairman since 2014.
“This is a very, very sad day for the Colville Tribes,” Colville Business Council Vice Chairman Michael Marchand said in a statement. “Jim was a guy that was very focused and intelligent, a great storyteller. He lived life to the fullest and his good nature and sense of humor were infectious.”
Poet and novelist Sherman Alexie met Boyd in 1992, and the men soon began writing music together, Alexie said Wednesday. He called their collaboration an easy one.
“The first song we ever wrote together, I sent him lyrics. This was before email. I actually typed them, printed them out and handed them to him. It was really just a poem,” Alexie said. “A week later, he called me and I went over to where he was working and we sat in my car playing a cassette. It was the song ‘Father and Farther.’ Immediately, it was there.”
That tune was one of four the two men co-wrote that appeared on the soundtrack for “Smoke Signals,” the 1998 film based on “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” from Alexie’s debut story collection, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” In addition to writing music together, they frequently shared a stage.
“Being onstage with him was easy,” Alexie said. “Musicians onstage are usually so intuitive and generous, the good ones, and he was like that in his whole life. Intuitive. He just knew what to say.”
Alexie last saw Boyd a year ago, when the musician sang at the funeral of Alexie’s mother, Lillian. Boyd also sang at Alexie’s father’s funeral a decade ago, and at Alexie’s wedding.
He said he’d seen the musician really grow as an artist.
“His songs just got better and better and better, and more personal,” Alexie said. “He spent most of his young life in cover bands, then he found his own voice – that mix of folk and rock and blues and tribal rhythms. He was a beautiful hybrid.”
Alexie, a Spokane Indian, also found something else interesting about his longtime friend: his skills in both art and politics.
“Our most creative, artistic people leading the tribe? I think that’s unprecedented even in the Indian world,” he said. “That a person with an artist’s heart could be leading the tribe feels like an idea that’s 500 years old.”
Boyd was a member of the Arrow Lakes Band, one of the 12 tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. In a 2014 interview, Boyd said his work for the tribe had curbed his artistic output somewhat, although he continued to write and perform when he could.
“I haven’t really played as a musician the way I used to for probably five years, but I still record and write and produce,” he said. “I write about the same things, but I don’t put everything out.”
Boyd had run for a third term in the most recent tribal council election, which was held Saturday. Votes are still being tallied.
“He was fine being a citizen, but when people wanted him to run and serve, he did it out of love,” said John Sirois, a former council member. “He honored that request from elders and from people in his family.”
Boyd brought understanding and strong listening skills to the role of chairman of the 9,000-member tribe.
“It’s a unique position, because you’re serving a tribal government that’s highly democratic and interactive,” Sirois said. “You’re on 24/7. … You’re the spokesperson for the tribe and you’re the one that’s garnering consensus among 13 other members of the council.
“I think he always carried that in his heart, what the will of the people is,” Sirois said.
Boyd enjoyed those interactions with people, said his wife, Shelly Boyd.
“He was so proud of the young people stepping into leadership roles,” she said. “He told them that they could do anything – if they wanted to be artists, or if they wanted to be musicians or if they wanted to serve the tribe.”
Boyd also had a deep feeling for the land, she said. During his growing-up years in an Air Force family, he frequently visited Inchelium on the Colville Reservation, where his grandmother lived.
“He always asked himself, ‘What is best for the land?’ ‘What is best for the people?’ And ‘What is best for the natural resources?’ ”
Last year Boyd traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for money to fight the wildfires that ravaged the Colville reservation, and to help families rebuild.
In addition to his wife, Boyd is survived by his mother, Violet Boyd; brothers Lanny and Michael; sisters Pam, Luana and LaDonna; sons Joel, Dakota, Brian and Michael Carson; and daughter Stevey Seymour; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter