SANTA FE – Eighteen-year-old John Pepion was waking up. Gradually, he remembered scenes from the night before – an evening of shooting pool and drinking Jack Daniels at a Bismarck Bar. But now, he didn’t recognize any of the faces around him. Soon, he would realize these were the faces of career criminals.
Pepion had blacked out and been arrested. Charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, he now found himself in a jail cell in Bismarck, N.D. He was also a student at United Tribes Technical College.
“I was in shock,” said Pepion, a Blackfoot from Browning, Mont. “I couldn’t believe I was in there.”
Now 25, Native rap artist Pepion reflected on his young life from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. In July, Pepion, whose stage name is Nomadic, released his second CD entitled, “Relentless,” on the Native Organization Entertainment label.
Pepion said he started out rapping about partying, sex and money. But with his second CD, he wanted to create music with a positive, inspiring message that all people could relate to – especially Indians living on reservations. He described “Relentless” as a personal album, born from his troubled life but also reflecting his growth as an artist and a man.
“I was one of the types who thought I knew it all,” he said. “I really didn’t know who I was.”
Pepion grew up in Browning and Missoula with his mother, stepfather, and sister. He never knew his biological father. As a boy, Pepion and his sister often witnessed alcohol abuse and domestic violence in their home.
“Me and my sister would always have to clean it up.”
Even when he was a boy, Pepion moved a lot from place to place, adding to the instability in his life. Today, he is a formidable presence at 300 pounds and standing nearly six feet tall. But as a child, Pepion was often forced into fights to stand up for himself, both on and off the reservation.
“I had to defend myself because I was different.”
Pepion started hanging out with an older crowd. At 13, he began using alcohol.
The booze was easy for Pepion to get. He salvaged it from the leftover bottles of adult house parties.
“There were other kids like me.” Pepion figures he lost close to half of all his peers due to alcohol-related accidents.
He went through four different high schools, including Flandreau Indian School, where he was expelled for fighting. By age 16, Pepion was growing into adulthood without a father, and he was ticked off at the world.
“I felt there was nothing for us as Indian people.”
He dropped out of high school for the final time.
“Partying was more important,” he said.
During this dropout period, Pepion said he spent most of his time drinking and fighting. Then, when he was 17, he received a gift from his aunt that would eventually help change his life – a traditional Chippewa flute made from cedar.
“I was fascinated by the sound I was able to make.” In the flute, he found the voice to express his sorrow. Music became a way to relieve the stress and anger he felt.
“It was my way of crying.”
Pepion plays from the heart. He has no formal music training.
“I still don’t know how to read a note.”
At 18, Pepion joined Job Corps and managed to earn his G.E.D., but again, he was expelled for fighting. He thought he could never attend college with a G.E.D., but an aunt encouraged him to apply to United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.
The seeds of anger and despair that led him to a jail cell had actually been planted early. Pepion had suffered physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather.
“I had no help,” he said of the abuse. “Nobody knew. I kept my anger inside.”
But jail also marked a new beginning for Pepion. He served 30 days and underwent treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management. And he had time to think of the father he never knew, a man who spent his life in and out of prison.
“I was going to end up like my father. Some of my friends were already in prison,” he said, drawing upon the words of his grandfather for strength. “He always told me not to give up. He was a strong believer in education. He always told me education was the only way out. I knew I had a chance.”
Pepion went on to finish his Associate of Arts degree in Art/Art Marketing at UTTC. But the tough times for him weren’t over yet.
In 2005, a drunk driver killed his 17-year-old cousin. Within a year, Pepion also endured the loss of an aunt and a grandmother.
“I really wanted to give up.”
Still, he emerged from that year of mourning stronger and more determined than ever to persevere. In May 2008, Pepion completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Museum Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“We studied everything from repatriation to preservation.” Pepion’s studies instilled pride in his heritage and solidified his interest in American Indian history. “I really have a deep passion for my culture. I’m a proud, strong Native American.
“‘Relentless,’” Pepion said, “is about overcoming roadblocks. I chose not to give up.”
In addition to his music career, Pepion is now an aspiring educator and next plans to pursue a Master’s Degree.
The next musical roadblock Pepion would like to conquer is the label, “Native rap/hip-hop.” Pepion said he doesn’t want to put himself “in a box” as an artist but aspires to make music all people can relate to without compromising his Native identity.
He says he is pleased with the response “Relentless” has received. Though he is without a national distributor, he sells his music on the Internet, at pow-wows, Indian Markets and through word of mouth.
Earlier this summer, Pepion returned to his Montana roots to promote his CD at the 2008 North American Indian Days Celebration in Browning.
The man who calls himself Nomadic now describes his life as peaceful and said he finally has a reason to stay in one place. He and his girlfriend are preparing for the arrival of their first child in December.
“I never had a father,” Pepion said. “I choose to be here.”