James grew up in Mission, S.D., on the Rosebud Reservation. He trained as a synthetic organic chemist and worked in natural gas power plant development before transitioning to work in Indian Country. Before joining the Center for Indian Country Development in July 2019, James was the 2018 tribal organizing director for the South Dakota Democratic Party, where he worked on voter registration, media, and relationships with tribal governments.
Of Lakota and Nez Perce descent, James received an A.B. in chemistry from Harvard and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.