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From Nespelem to Niagara Falls, James Pakootas of the Colville Confederated Tribes is a portrait of resilience

James Pakootas, a hip-hop artist based in Spokane, sits in his basement studio on Wednesday. He and his collaborators recently won an award for best video at the Native American Music Awards. The video of the song “Break These Chains” is on YouTube. Pakootas is originally from Nespelem on the Colville reservation and went to prison for drug dealing and other crimes before rediscovering music and building his home studio with a grant from a nonprofit. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
James Pakootas, a hip-hop artist based in Spokane, sits in his basement studio on Wednesday. He and his collaborators recently won an award for best video at the Native American Music Awards. The video of the song “Break These Chains” is on YouTube. Pakootas is originally from Nespelem on the Colville reservation and went to prison for drug dealing and other crimes before rediscovering music and building his home studio with a grant from a nonprofit. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

From being incarcerated in federal prison to taking center stage at the Native American Music Awards, James Pakootas of the Colville Confederated Tribes embodies the power of the human spirit.

On Nov. 2, Pakootas and fellow tribal members Tony Louie and Daniel Nanamkin were honored with a Nammy for Best Hip Hop Music Video at the 19th Annual Native American Music Awards in Niagara Falls, New York.

But the road from Nespelem to Niagara Falls was paved with death-defying detours and roadblocks that seemed insurmountable. Born in Spokane and raised in Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation, Pakootas endured horrific trauma as a child.

Abused and bullied

“As a small boy, I was sexually abused by two older cousins,” he said. “I wanted my dad to save me, but he spent most of my childhood in federal prison. I didn’t have that strong male presence I longed for.”

Afraid to tell his mother or anyone else, he endured the abuse in silence, and the resulting emotional scars haunt him. “At 37, I’m still fighting for my mental health,” Pakootas said. “I’m still battered, but my journey today is about healing.”

School provided a mixed bag of torture and triumph. “I was bullied a lot,” he said. “I acted out. I spent three-quarters of my time in in-school suspension. I was angry at myself and the world. And I wanted someone to save me.”

Words and music offered solace. “I was enamored with the English language,” Pakootas said. “I was good at spelling and went to the State Spelling Bee. I played drums in marching band and wrote poems and composed songs.”

As freshman year approached, he heard about a scholarship to Gonzaga Prep. “There was just one Native American scholarship, and I got it,” he said. A new school gave him a chance to reinvent himself. He went from being the bullied kid who wet himself during track to an athlete on a winning football team. He played basketball, joined the jazz band and discovered tennis.

“I picked up a racquet for the first time my freshman year,” he said. “In 2011, I finished seventh in state.” For two years, he thrived in his new environment, but, in his sophomore year, his uncle got sick and died.

“To me, Uncle Dick was the glue that held our family together,” Pakootas said. “My mom had moved her life to Spokane for me, but, when my uncle died, she wanted to go home.”

He finished high school in Nespelem, but he didn’t return as the bullied, battered boy. His years at Prep had installed a new confidence. “I became Mr. Popular,” he said, laughing.

Music and addiction

After graduation, he moved back to Spokane. His cousin was a hip-hop artist, and one of his songs was featured in the soundtrack for a Miramax movie. That grabbed Pakootas’ attention. Hip hop, with its mix of poetry and rhythm, was a natural fit for him. Pakootas formed a group and within 18 months created two albums.

“We got some radio play and played a lot of house parties,” he said. Everywhere he performed, people bought him drinks or offered him drugs. “They loved my music,” Pakootas said. “And I’ve always searched for belonging.”

For a young man who’d never dealt with the trauma of his abuse, the attention was addictive. So was the alcohol. Once he started using, he couldn’t stop, and soon he couldn’t pay his rent. “I had to move back to the rez with my mom.”

It wasn’t long before he started selling drugs to feed his cocaine habit, something he’ll always regret. “I sold drugs to my own people. I held my own community hostage,” he said.

Pakootas said he was raised in a family with morals and values. The more the guilt and shame ate away at him, the more drugs he used to numb it. “At that point, I was inflicting abuse on myself.”

On Mother’s Day, he thinks around 2005 or 2006. He called his mom and told her he wouldn’t be coming over to make her breakfast, as was their tradition. He told her he was high, and he didn’t want her to see him that way.

His mom talked him into going to treatment, but he ran at the last minute. She tried again. The night before he was to enter a program, he got blackout drunk. He made it to treatment – his face covered in asphalt and scratches from a fight he couldn’t remember.

After treatment, he enrollment in Spokane Community College and lived in an Oxford House, a sober living home. “I wanted to change the world. I wanted to become an alcohol and drug counselor,” he said.

Instead, he started drinking again.

Prison and injury

One night, he got blackout drunk and robbed a 7-Eleven three blocks from his house. He doesn’t remember assaulting the owner, but he does remember cleaning out the till and walking out to find the police waiting for him.

A four-month stint in jail wasn’t enough to get him sober. He resumed selling drugs, this time peddling cocaine from Seattle to Browning, Montana.

In December 2009, his father died of a heroin overdose. A week after the funeral, Pakootas was arrested on federal drug charges. This time there’d be no slap on the wrist. He served 3 1/2 years in federal prison.

“Prison saved my life,” he said. “For the first time at age 31, I finally opened up and told someone about the abuse. The abuse had shaped my view of myself and of the world.”

After his release from prison, he was able to live in a halfway house and did an unpaid internship for an HVAC company. When he heard the Colville tribe was offering a welding certification class, he moved back to the reservation.

It wasn’t a good move. In 2015, a night of drinking ended abruptly when Pakootas got behind the wheel of his car and attempted to drive home.

He almost made it. A mile and a half from his house, he hit a guardrail at 90 mph. The rail went through his windshield and out the rear window. “Like a hot dog on a stick,” he said. Pakootas survived, but not unscathed.

“The nerve roots for my right arm pulled away from my spine. Three of the five nerves in my right shoulder were severed. My right arm is permanently paralyzed from the elbow down,” he said.

Depression set in. He contemplated suicide. “My mom came over and sat with me,” he said. “She didn’t poke me or prod me. She just sat with me. I owe her my life many times over.”

James Pakootas, a Spokane-based rapper pictured here on Wednesday, has won a Native American Music Award for best video for the song “Break These Chains,” a collaboration with two other rappers and produced in Pakootas’ basement studio. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Healing and resilience

When Pakootas went to prison, he left music behind him, but the morning after that long, dark night, he started writing again – penning the first verse of “Break These Chains,” the song that would ultimately win a Nammy. “I found a beat from a producer in Walla Walla, and then I sat on the song for three years,” he said.

After a relapse in 2016, he finally committed to living sober, and his creativity flourished. He connected with Tony Louie and Daniel Nanamkin, who wrote the second and third verses for “Break These Chains,” and Louie found the stirring powwow beat that drives the song.

“Every time I do show up and give myself a chance, something beautiful happens,” Pakootas said.

“Break These Chains” went viral in April 2019, and by that time Pakootas had launched his career as a motivational speaker and founded the Empower Our Future Speaking & Concert Series. The series is a multicultural movement featuring keynote speakers and performing artists. The goal is to inspire and uplift youth.

Pakootas also facilitated a three-day drug and alcohol awareness conference on the Colville Reservation and was awarded the First People’s Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship and the National Performance Network Mentorship Initiative.

Last month, he worked with Talon Bazille on a big recording project in Phoenix featuring 16 artists. They recorded 22 songs in four days. Back in Spokane, he created a recording studio in his home: “I’m excited to help give artists a voice in Spokane.”

He said winning the Nammy was surreal and something he’d dreamed of as a young man. From abuse and addiction to award-winning hip-hop artist, Pakootas says he’s simply a survivor.

“Resilience is alive in the human spirit if we allow it,” he said. “Healing is such a beautiful thing.”

James Pakootas / YouTube

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