Jason “Smoke” Nichols has certainly seen and lived some of the darker sides of life.
The 34-year-old Nakota/Chippewa Cree, a former gang member and heavy drug user, now travels across the country trying to keep Native youth on the straight and narrow. Smoke is a motivational speaker and hip hop artist. He’s one of the main attractions of the 2011 Rezolution Tour, which is expected to have at least 250 shows across the United States this year.
“It’s all about the resolution of the problems we are facing on the rez,” he says of the tour.
Smoke, whose company is called RezHeadz Entertainment, believes he’s found the perfect way to get in touch with today’s Native youth. And that’s through hip hop music, a passion for many young people living on reservations.
During his tour events, Smoke touches on numerous topics. He preaches about the importance of education and setting goals. And how kids can dedicate themselves to something they love and how to persevere.
He also runs team-building exercises, and even business seminars, having seen many Native youth receive grants only to spend the money quickly, instead of investing it wisely to help their futures.
“It’s been amazing,” Smoke says of his 2011 tour. “Since January 1 we’ve been on the go the whole time.”
Smoke is confident he’s making a difference. “Through my story I can also inspire change in the lives of young people,” he says. He has been clean—as in drug-free—for 13 years now. He never had a problem with alcohol and was not much of a drinker in his previous life, but he was heavy drug user between the ages of 14-20.
He was also a gang member for most of his teenage years, and as a result, he was incarcerated a few times during his youth. “It was various things,” he says of the charges which landed him in jail. “Mostly just dumb kid stuff. It was mostly being a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was stuff like being in possession of stolen property. And then there was grand theft auto. And there were drug charges. And sometimes it was for breaking probation.”
How did he break out of the downward spiral? “My children are what changed my life,” he says. He and his wife Melissa have six children—three girls, three boys—whose ages ranges from two to 10. Smoke’s wife also plays an integral role on the Rezolution Tour as she’s also a motivational speaker. Her talks focus on issues such as teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self respect, self worth and decision making skills.
Despite his past, Smoke is not surprised to see where he is today, trying to do good and inspire as many people as possible. “Deep down in my heart I knew it was possible,” he says of his hectic lifestyle. “I think it was a fear to succeed though.” He started his life as a motivational speaker in 2008, when he talked at about 50 events throughout the U.S. Since then, he’s spoken at over 200 events each year.
As for his nickname, Smoke says there’s a rather simple story behind it: “Our people used smoke as a messenger for years and years and years in our culture. Before Facebook, Myspace, the postal service and pony express, people used smoke as a messenger. I consider myself a messenger. So just as we used smoke to send messages years before I think Smoke is also a messenger today.”