Native musicians nominated for awards

By Matthew O. Stephens

The Native American Music Awards (NAMA) nominate artists of various genres each year, and a few musicians from Washington state made the list for 2022.

The annual awards are set in Niagara Falls, NY and have been presenting awards for 20 years. The Grammy’s do have categories for native artists, the NAMA awards are the most prestigious award circuit in the native music community. The award show is set to be done virtually this year.

These artists all play music for the love of the music and have built these dreams through years of hard work and dedication.

Native American Music Awards

39-year-old James Pakootas from Nespelem, Washington has been an active musician since 2002, although his family also influenced his love for music when he was young.

“Whether it was my uncle Ed sitting me next to him on the piano to sing “America, The Beautiful”, or my mom and aunt’s bringing me on stage to sing at gospel songfests,” Pakootas said. “Music has always been present in my life.”
He is living a lifelong dream of taking his “eclectic” style of music to the next level, and has celebrated several accomplishments along the way.

Pakootas refers to his style as eclectic, and said he brings “a hip hop/Spoken Word base, but my voice is extremely dynamic. So, I like to explore styles and genres.”

Corina Thornton is a native artist out of Elmer City, Washington that has also received a nomination. The 60-year-old musician said she grew up on the Colville Reservation in the small town of Keller and picked up her first instrument at age 11.

“Poor reception of radio and tv brought out our creativity, and when the folks saw that my interest in playing music was sincere,” Thornton said. “They provided me with my own guitar.”

That instrument was a little Gretsch guitar Thornton said, and she took it everywhere.

Another hard-working native musician from Grand Coulee has also been nominated to possibly win multiple awards this year.

Faran R. Sohappy is 45 years old and has been involved in the pow-wow music scene most of his life he said, and he is also the lead singer of the White Hawk NW Drum Group from Nespelem.

This year Sohappy’s first album “Not Looking Back” has been nominated for the Best Pow Wow Album, Best Traditional Recording and Best Honor/Tribute Song.

These artists all present their art through different styles played from the heart, and sometimes the music simply orchestrates itself. “There’s really no way to explain how some songs are composed as they just come to you,” Sohappy said. “My grandfather as well as other singers would tell me they are a gift from the creator to you and it’s to be shared with the world to hear.”

Thornton looked back through her musical history, and explained she was the third oldest child and first-born daughter out of 13 children. Her family had lived in the Hillyard area of Spokane when she was younger, but her father Don Ferguson got a job working at the Chief Joseph Dam. That meant her mother Betty Ferguson and the entire family would relocate to the reservation to live in Keller.

She recalled her parents playing country music while on the reservation, and some of her inspiration was born from that.

“I began learning to play and sing the old greats, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride to name a few,” Thornton said. “My song writing began as well and at 60 years old I still remember the first song I ever wrote about a woman in the backwoods who would play a music box and dance in the moonlight while missing her lost love.”

Sohappy thought back and spoke about how much of his musical influence comes from his family as well.
“I feel I’ve always been a musician and as a young child, when we attended pow wows, I would wander off from my parents and grandparents,” he said. “You would always find me by the drum groups and from that day on my grandparents told my parents that I would become a powwow singer because I was always around the drums.”

Sohappy still sings and performs with many of his family members, and said music is something he will work on for as long as he possibly can.

Pakootas said his mother’s side of his family, the Bacon family from Republic, has always been another of his major musical influences. His mother has also been one of his main points of motivation.

“My biggest supporter has been and always will be my mother, Laura Pakootas. She has supported me through every up and down I’ve faced in life and continues to support my love of film and music,” he said. “I look to her for advice as I navigate new spaces my career takes me.”

Each of the artists have had obstacles to overcome, and life changing moments in their musical careers as well.
Thornton was still strolling down memory lane and recalled watching a movie while caring for her daughter.
“A song came on that literally changed my life and direction of music,” Thornton said. “It was a song by Buffy Saint Marie called “I’m going Home.” It floored me!”

She began to research Buffy Saint Marie, and that research led her to reading more and made some changes to her artistic process.

“The more I learned about Buffy Saint Marie, the more courage I gathered to write and sing about what is in my heart,” she said. “I also changed my mind about my education because of her story.”

Through the years her music has also become a form of meditation and helps her to stay balanced in life.
“I would one day be living with how I lived with how I did and becoming a person in recovery from alcoholism,” Thornton said. “Some of my songs make folks cry, it opens hearts, every one of those songs truly made me cry first when I wrote and sang them, sometimes at first, I was not able to get through the song, the healing tears coming constantly.”

She had a lot of support from other musicians along the way, and referenced Jim Boyd as the advice he passed along to her gave her the courage to go out and play her songs in new places with new crowds.

Thornton has also personally worked with Faran SoHappy, and recorded her song “Straight Up” in his studio. She said she had initially produced the song to be played on a mandolin, but eventually arranged it for the guitar. “Straight Up” was the song that she was nominated for this year.

Faran SoHappy has three nominations, and said he feels like the hard work is paying off. The musician and engineer said his songs and efforts are competing with world class artists, and that is a great accomplishment in itself. His goal is of course to win at least one of the categories he was nominated for.

He said he records and mixes all of his tracks, and then goes through and adds sound effects.

SoHappy said he has some close colleagues he works with to finalize his productions as well, and their support has helped him along the way. Raleigh Brown is an engineer from Cut’um Loose Productions helps him prepare his music for mastering, and then the tracks are sent to 2 Track Mastering for the final steps.

He has a large musical support system, and said his girlfriend Michele and his mother are his two most dedicated backers.

“When I am feeling stumped or frustrated when I am mixing or even just doubting myself any one of them talk to me and they pick me up,” he said. “I get to feel better about my projects which kind of rejuvenates me to keep on working and following my dream.”

That’s one reason he encourages new and starting artists to go for their dreams and never give up.
“There’s going to be hard times and going to be frustrating times but keep pushing forwards and follow your dreams and heart and lean on your loved ones,” SoHappy said. “They are the ones who will really help you and find a strong support system that will help you and again don’t give up because every artist starts out sluggish but over time things smooth out and it’ll eventually get better so keep shooting for them stars.”

James Pakootas echoed this sentiment and said, “The biggest advice I can give any new artist is, do it. Practice that instrument, don’t be afraid to try new things, play with other people as much as possible, record that song, play that show, get out there and tell your story to the world. Art embodies culture, and these two things are what build community. It’s the artists that influence the world more than anyone on the planet.”

Of the three musicians, Pakootas is the most familiar with the awards process, as he and his partner Tony have been to this stage before.

“In 2019, we won a Native American Music Award as artists. In 2020/2021, as a producer, an animated film I was a part of won some awards on the festival circuit,” he said. “This year, Tony’s Film that I directed is now gaining its Laurels.”
Pakootas said it is an accomplishment for him to become an award-winning artist, producer, and director.

“It’s not something I aimed for or even tried for, but it feels really good to have the world accept the projects that I’ve become a part of,” Pakootas said. “My greatest work comes from collaboration.”

The 39-year-old musician is set to go on tour in South Africa in October, and said he feels like his lifelong dream is finally becoming tangible.

“This nomination means everything to me,” he said about his project with his partner. “DreamCatcher Visions was a project we did all by ourselves. We made the beat, we wrote the song, we recorded ourselves, our engineer mixed and mastered the track, we shot the video ourselves, I edited everything into a polished project. From the idea to the video, you can see and hear today came directly from our minds, and carrying out of this vision with our own hands. I’ve never had that happen before. It’s truly an amazing feeling.”

Pakootas also looks forward to these opportunities helping the native music industry both in his efforts and as a whole for this region.

“The visions we have for each project grow with the knowledge and experience we gain from the music and film industry. The flip side of this conversation though, is that our budgets for each project grow at the same time. We’re developing larger teams to create entire experiences. It’s bigger than recording a song or a video that’ll hopefully win an award someday,” he said. “We’re trying to create sustainable practices that will feed our families and other members of our community. The awards and accolades help in the way of grant writing, and fellowship or residency applications. This allows us access to pools of money and professional resources that will ensure our ability to make our work and retain creative control in that process which is paramount for our particular business model. Creative control over our own stories is absolutely paramount from an Indigenous standpoint, in my opinion.”

All of the artists share the same sense of supporting and helping the up-and-coming musicians in the area, and look to help these artists reach new heights as well.