Arlo Iron Cloud (Oglala-Sioux)

Multimedia Artist and Radio Broadcaster
A man in a radio studio looks at the camera.

Photo Credit: Greg Latza

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the CD Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed:  Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.  This week, we go across the country to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a conversation with multi-media artist Arlo Iron Cloud.  Arlo is a photographer, filmmaker, radio producer, station manager of Pine Ridge’s KILI Radio and, with his wife, Lisa an activist in the sovereign food movement.  Because of his long experience in radio broadcasting, it made sense to me have him to tell you the rest.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I'm Oglala Lakota, I'm also half Dine, my father is Oglala, and my mother is Dine, and I grew up till 12 years old on the Navajo reservation, and then at about 12 or 13 we moved up here to Pine Ridge, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and that's where I've been ever since.  I'm a father, I have four beautiful children, and I am married to a beautiful woman, Lakota woman, that is from the Pine Ridge Reservation, her name is Lisa, and I currently live in Rapid City, South Dakota, and we're currently moving down to the reservation again, and I've been commuting every day back and forth from the reservation so it's like a 90 mile commute one way, so a total of like 180 miles every day.  I work for KILI Radio, I'm the station manager, I'm producing a documentary right now, and then I'm also doing a lot of side work with my wife, and she's helping in leading the food sovereignty movement with her work with the Tatanka bison.   

Jo Reed:  The name Iron Cloud has such a long history, do you mind sharing that with us?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  The name Iron Cloud goes way back,  we can identify our lineage to even past the Battle of Greasy Grass, and it's a really beautiful story, and it starts with a man who basically took on two wives, and I think what a lot of people misinterpret these days is that when a man in that time took on two wives it had nothing to do with sexuality, and I know that whenever people hear that he had two wives they're always like, "Yeah, all right!"  And it's not even that at all, and I always like to educate people on this part that it was about responsibility that whenever our people needed help there was that one thing that we always had and that term is waunsila that we had this compassion, this love enough to take this also on in your life, and it was admirable.  So it goes back to him where a grandma named Runs for the Hill, and Red Necklace, and they called them Tall Grandma and Short Grandma, and they were sisters, and that's who they were married to, and that's where we come from.  I always like to really talk about the matriarchal part of my history because that's really the backbone of who I am today.  So there was an original Iron Cloud, and that was his life, he had two wives, and he was a great man, and I would say that's, what, eight generations back?  Yeah.  Crazy, huh?

Jo Reed:  Your radio station, KILI, I want to know all about it, when did it begin, how did it begin?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh gosh.  Okay.  This is my favorite subject.

Jo Reed:  Oh good.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  KILI Radio is the beacon for communications on the Pine Ridge Reservation, social media has not kept up.  Like everywhere in the world communications is super important in everybody's livelihood, and it's so taken for granted, and for us we haven't climbed down to that Iktomi's web, that worldwide web of information, we haven't climbed into it yet, the most of us haven't anyway, and KILI Radio is the hub for communications on the reservation.  If you want information out you go to KILI Radio, you want to learn something you go to KILI Radio, you want to laugh, you want to enjoy yourselves, you go to KILI Radio.  We've been in operation for well over 40 years, we have a birthday coming up here on February 28th, and it's just been this wonderful place, this amazing, great place that was born because we didn't want to be forgotten, or we wanted to ensure that our way of life was continued and moving forward in this new generation, and so that's why it was born. We designed our radio station so that it's owned by the people and for the people.

Jo Reed:  And the slogan of your radio station is..

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I got to get some water in my mouth for that one.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, go ahead.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  We're the voice of the Lakota Nation.

Jo Reed:  I was so surprised to read you're a community radio station, but talk about your wattage, I mean your reach is really massive.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right.  We are heard in three states, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and we kick out 100,000 watts of vicious Lakota airwaves, that's what we say from time to time, and we have two signals, one on the reservation, 90.1 FM, and then the other one is in Rapid City, South Dakota, and that is 88.7, and that one doesn't kick out as much wattage, however the community is all the same.

Jo Reed:  Tell me sort of what the programming is like that you do when you say it's by the people and for the people, what are the people programming?  What do they want to hear?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  So we have a wide variety of programming from talk shows to  federal information.  Because we're a reservation, we work with the federal government, it's supposed to be one on one but the kinks of that are still getting worked out, but we do work with the federal government and so there are federal government messages that get out, and then we have-- like a show I have is called the Wakalapi Chit Chat Show, and they're just talk shows.  So in between all that there's a variety of things going on, and it's just like the music, we go from traditional Lakota song all the way to techno, what's happening on with the most recent hip hop right now, that's how wide we are, I mean we go from reggae to rock, and then we'll go from country to heavy metal, we cover all these things because the people that run the radio station develop sort of like a following, and we have that consistency well enough down that if anybody who is into classic rock, they know that they need to listen to the radio station from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m.  You know what I mean?

Jo Reed:  Yep.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  So it's one of those things that like it's really at this point and I'm so thankful for, it's a really well rounded radio station, and so I wish I could explain it a little bit more, but the thing is that you have to listen to KILI and then learn that the complexity is reflecting the people.

Jo Reed:  I have to say, I listened to your show, the Chit Chat Show, to get ready for this interview.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh, I-- okay, all right.  Thank you.

Jo Reed:  No, you're welcome, which was fun, I mean I love radio, I really do, and it's so nice when there's a combination of talk and music because now everything is so much in its little slot, and even with your show, and really that was the show I listened to, there was such a diversity of talk as well as music.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Totally. The Chit Chat Show began because a cousin of mine, we got together one morning, we were sharing information about the casino, and we started talking, and we were just tossing back our own ideas like how could we improve the casino?  And we just threw out some outrageous ideas, and then the casino started getting a buzz just from us talking.  So we were really, you know, it became other things, it just grew from there.

Jo Reed:  So you and your cousins were disc jockeys and started talking about this between songs…and a show was born.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right.  and I don't think there was ever a talk show on the radio show before that, and that was over 10 years ago, too.

Jo Reed:  Wow.  I wonder, did programming change during the pandemic, Arlo?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  The programming changed enormously at the station.  One of the things that our programmers and radio hosts loved doing was sitting down in a room and communicating with somebody at the station, and it was like I said a place for communication, if anybody needed information that's where they went, that's who they called.  So when the pandemic hit the first thing that we did was do our best to inform the people, and I got to tell you that's one of the hardest things I've learned in my history of working, communicating with everybody to ensure them that we are providing accurate information about pandemic issues, and so our work in this area was totally dependent upon national information, and the trouble with that is the information was so mixed up that we had such a hard time communicating with the people about what was truth. So nobody's right now still currently allowed at the radio station, only the deejays are, but yeah, before people used to love to come in, get on the mic, and we used to have live performances too, those are all gone as well.

Jo Reed:  But I'm sure will return at some point, and you’re the station manager. Tell me a bit about what that job entails.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Yes, my job is to help coordinate the schedule, write for things, keep up on reports, do some programming, look for underwriting, a little grant writing.  I mean I have a pretty healthy responsibility at the radio station, I'm also a deejay too so it's one of those things, you know?

Jo Reed:  It is, yeah, and I'm sure you're deejay if somebody is sick and can't make it, because we all know the one thing you can't have is dead air.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right.  Absolutely.

Jo Reed:  I'm curious, is some of the programming in Lakota and some in English?  Do you go back and forth?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Back and forth.  We are in a process of reviving the language in our communities and so looking for Lakota programming is always a search for me, and to improve it.  I ask my deejays and myself, we're in the process of revitalizing the language within our own selves and so that's what we do, we just incorporate as much as we can, here and there, and we also make sure that English is also there as well.

Jo Reed:  Was Lakota spoken at all in your home when you were growing up?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  So my mother is Dine, it's also known as Navajo, and that's where I grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and because my father's the wonderful man that he is he supported the language, and he also spoke Lakota to us, it's just that I've learned more Dine than I have Lakota at this point still, but I am in the massive, massive-- I mean it's like one of the things I think every true blue Lakota man wakes up with is that they want to revitalize language, it's always on their mind, it's like take care of your children, language, you know, I don't know how else to explain it, it's really one of those big things that just kind of sits on our shoulders.  I only speak that because I only know a perspective of a man, and so I'm not talking about women or children or anybody in between them, I'm just saying that as a man it's a heavy thing that we think about.

Jo Reed:  Well you actually did some work on an app, didn't you, that would help teach Lakota?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Yeah, oh my gosh, I forgot about that.  Yeah, I did.  It was years ago, this was way before any language app came out, and I can probably say that we were the first.  The thing was is that we did not know the trials and tribulations of what was to forecast over this, and we hit a major one, we had infringed on someone's property, and it wasn't intentional, but it really put the brakes on, because it was a team effort. But we actually did launch the app for a second or two, it was kind of cool.  I was so proud of it, but it never happened.

Jo Reed:  Oh, it's a good idea though.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh, awesome idea.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, a really good idea.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right.  And now there are like 15, 20 other applications online that you can download and get applications pertaining to language.

Jo Reed:  Were you raised in traditional ways?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I didn't even know that it was called traditional ways.  It's so funny, it wasn't called traditional ways, I guess I was in the position of growing up during a time that didn't even identify as traditional ways, it was just the way I guess, and so when I grew up I was totally immersed in Dine culture, and because my dad is such a great dad I was totally involved with Lakota culture as well, and it was just living, and then like one day that had to be proven for some reason, <laughs> and so I guess yeah, I'm fully immersed in my indigenous reservation ways where I'm that ahigi [Ph?] little boy, in Dine ahigi, this is like this, ooh, this one you want to ahniya in Lakota it's the same term, that ahigi, ahniya, it's like that, you know, you're just this precious little thing that you just want to squeeze.

Jo Reed:  <laughs> You actually co-produced an episode of a podcast series called Out of the Blocks, that the NEA funded and you introduced the Pine Ridge Reservation to listeners across the country.  Tell me about how you thought that through and how you chose whom to speak with and just that experience.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh man, first I got to say Aaron Hankin and Wendel Patrick are some of the most beautiful humans ever.

Jo Reed:  And they’re the producers and hosts of Out of the Blocks.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right. Out of the Blocks is such a great podcast.  My process was I just want people to be included and the only way to do that is to make sure that my choice was unbiased, and I had to make sure that we're fully represented.  Like I said, I have all these issues of representation of our people, and I don't want to go at it from a perspective of where like, standing in front of the stadium getting mad at the people doing the tomahawk chop because all that's creating is anger and violence.  I like to get in front of it, like be a little bit more proactive, and I want to be that person that gives information and hopefully planting a seed, that's where I like to be, and so I guess the way I look at it is that I'm just real particular about who's who, and I just want to be fair and as common as possible, I want to be a common man about this and make sure that all my relatives especially the woman side get represented of who Oglala Lakota people are. There were so many interviews that we got, and there was just so many people that were a part of the program. it was really a good variety of people.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, it was a good mix.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Yeah, thank you.  I feel pretty confident about who I selected.

Jo Reed:  You're also a photographer, speaking of representation.  What got you interested in that, and just tell me about-- it's so different from radio where it's just the voice, but then here you have this whole visual side of you as well.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh, I'm a multimedia artist, definitely, for sure. I've never called myself that but, yeah, I'm also a photographer.  I got into photography by it was this image I saw, and I think I was like four, whenever Hale-Bopp, you know what I'm talking about?  That Hale-Bopp Comet?

Jo Reed:  Yeah. That was 1997, I think.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Right! So I was living in New Mexico at the time, and that was cruising by our Earth at that time, and there was this friend of the family came to our table, and it was early morning, they were drinking coffee, and he brought some photographs for my mom and dad to see, and it was a picture of Hale-Bopp over one of our monuments, Shiprock, and I looked at that image with amazement because I could not figure out that photograph.  I knew what it was, I knew that it was the Hale-Bopp, and then I knew it was the Shiprock, but I couldn't figure out like because at nighttime you couldn't even see the rock.  So come to find out it was an astral photograph, a night photograph, and holy smokes, I got into astrology, I got into star knowledge, and I just learned as much as I could about that, and I started doing night photography initially, and after I found out how difficult night photography is, everything else came as a breeze, and then I've always had an eye, and so I like finding those intimate moments, I just love candid photography, and I have a lot of shots that I've never shown anybody, and my children are my biggest inspiration, they're just doing wonderful, beautiful things, and if I have the opportunity to capture it I'm all over it, including my wife who is just amazing herself.

Jo Reed:  What I like about your pictures is that they really kind of range from the timeless, you have this gorgeous photo of a buffalo on a hill at sunrise, that is simply a timeless picture, but then you have pictures of everyday life, you know, the way we live our lives, and I just love that juxtaposition.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I really like intimacy, and nobody cares about that these days, and I feel like that's one of the things that is really hindering us as a people, not just Lakota people, but the population in general, we've lost that ability to be intimate with one another, and that's what I cherish the most.  If you ever hear conversations with my wife, my sons, my daughter, it's very, very intimate.  I like to talk about very personal matters, not because I'm trying to expose them or break them out, it's because I just want to make them so common they're not an issue anymore.  I want people to see how beneficial intimacy can be, and so that's why I like to do that, I want to bring the one on one, and I know that I'm capable of doing that, my ancestors did it, and I want to make sure people know that Lakota people are straight up, down to earth, salt of the earth people, and I don't think that's portrayed in media, and so my job is to, like I said, I want to be proactive, I want to plant the seed, and that's who I am.

Jo Reed:  Another seed you're planning with your wife Lisa is food sovereignty.  You both do a lot of work with food sovereignty, and a lot of work about reintroducing the buffalo and bringing it back to Lakota tables, and I know of course the Lakota have a long history with the buffalo, and can you just tell us a little bit about that relationship between the Lakota and the buffalo nation.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Absolutely.  The bison, the Tatanka, pte oyate, there's so many names for this because in Lakota thought we're a part of that, we're a part of them, and you go to our creation stories, you find out that our people have been associating themselves with the pte oyate for all these generations because it's how we identify how to be as humans, how to be as human beings and good relatives because our reflection of the pte oyate, there's never been like a more emotionally supportive groups if you just pay the way they act, it's so hard, and so that's why I think that's what makes us very strong people. There’s nothing romantic about being a buffalo or a bison, it's a hard way, and we've reflected upon that, and because of that, that's where we get our sense of family, our support of each other, belonging, influence, all that stuff is so incorporated within a pack of bison that we don't even as people realize that's how we did it, that's how we did it, we were like okay, let's-- our peoples use nature as the guide of how to be a good person on this planet, and it was very, extremely successful.

Jo Reed:  And the reintroducing, that process, tell me how you're going about it, and the ways you're working with people to implement that.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Holy smokes.  This is a worldwide thing, man.  We have lost connection with our food.

Jo Reed:  Yes, we have.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Whenever I was a ahigi, Navajo boy on the hill, I remember butchering, smelling so sweet, so like mmm, I know what I'm going to eat.  That's butchering to me, that's how it is, and today I can take a chunk of meat in front of some kids and they're not going to think the same thing, Indian people included, they're so disconnected. I've gotten so keen on how our food looks and tastes that I'm starting to rediscover what a palate of our ancestor's looked like, and I still go to McDonald's, I still go to those places, I'm not trying to say I'm better than anybody, I mean it's hard to ignore that stuff in this day and age, it's just that in my work I make discoveries because I care about it, I'm compassionate enough, and I have a partner that friggin' dominates in her passion for the pte oyate, she has so many thoughts and ideas whenever we talk about this, it's like it's enormous, it's a sad thing that we've lost, this connection, and a part of our drive is to revive culture through practicing where our food came from because it reflected us as a people enormously.

Jo Reed:  And when you’re talking about food sovereignty, you’re not just talking about reintroducing buffalo to the table but also traditional plants and fruits.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Oh, right!   So what we're learning is that I know when you think about what an Indian is on the plains, that Indian is mauling a piece of bison.  The thing is that we're discovering now, like 70 to even like 80 percent of our diet was on the ground or up in a tree, I mean there's so many things that exist on the ground, in a tree, in a bush, that was part of our diet that a lot of people don't even, because of America's fascination with the Plains Indian shooting an arrow through a bison, that we forgot that we were actually people of the land, that we actually ate the majority of the food on the ground, in the bushes, in the trees, and this is part of the discovery of who we are is that like we're not this person that people think, we're actually more complicated because we're ignoring the fact that we would walk along and eat a mushroom, or pick a berry in a tree. There are plants out there that got lost, it really got lost, the information about it got lost, or it wasn't just spread around a bit because there's lots of people out there that would love to know this information, and we're sharing it as fast as possible because it's one of those things that needs to be brought up, it's like we're fighting this idealism of us that we didn't even know existed, and so we're really pushing forward. There's just so many things that we ate and then, of that 20 percent that is meat, I bet you only 5 of that was buffalo or bison. But the thing about it is that one of those suckers was like the-- it was enormous right?  So that's why we probably paid attention to it more, I mean as far as quantity it was a filler. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Yes, indeed it was, but I also understand what you're saying about how that then became romanticized, and there’s gathering as well as hunting and the gathering can get lost. How long have you been involved in food sovereignty?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  So yes, yeah, we've been working this way for about six years now, and it was solely about discovery and my wife helping me heal herself, and all of sudden there became this movement, and we just kind of were in the right place at the right time with that, and people picked up on it and they really wanted to know what she was doing, what I was doing, and I'm already a photographer and media person so I'm always promoting it by sharing stuff, and we have no intent of making this our livelihood, this is just what we're doing and we're showing people, but in that process we've developed quite a bit of relationships and people that we're working with and also learning about reviving food in our communities, and reviving what foods are understood as and our way of life, and that includes the return of the buffalo.

Jo Reed:  I'm curious, Arlo, when you think about food sovereignty for example, and the continuing work about renewing the Lakota language, and yet at the same time it's about embracing and honoring the culture but understanding but it's not like it's going back to the past, it's being in the future, and I'm curious kind of what you would like to see say 10 or 20 years from now.

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Okay.  I would like to see people more in control of what they eat, that's what I want to see.  I want to see more things eaten not just meat and potatoes. I want to see more justice for our food in the future, I want my children to have access to the lands and areas where food grows, that's what I want to see in 10 years.

Jo Reed:  And what about the Lakota language?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I want to see the language spoken-- I want the language to be their primary language, I want English to be secondary again because right now there's probably very little English second language learners today meaning that their first language is Lakota and then English was theit second because today there's very little of that, and that's really our understanding of culture resides in the language, and so in order for us to bring that back or move forward I should say, we're not trying to go back in time, we understand that, we're not trying to go back in time, we're trying to move forward with the same understanding of our ancestors had that the land comes first.

Jo Reed:  And what part do you see KILI Radio playing in this?

Arlo Iron Cloud:  I want KILI Radio to go into the future. I want KILI Radio to be on an application through your phone, I want KILI Radio to be in the ears of everybody that has an opportunity to listen to anything, that's what I want, I want KILI Radio to be on the digital forefront of information constantly while still being there at that level of information for the people.  It's going to be a reflection of them, that's all this radio station is, eyapaha in Lakota culture there is a role called eyapaha, and this person is to share information and make sure everybody gets it so that we move as a people.  I've always loved this quote, and it's by an African tribe, and it goes “if you want to travel fast go alone, if you want to go far go together,” and that's how I see KILI Radio, it needs to include everybody before we can go in the forward direction.

Jo Reed:  And I think that's a good place to leave it.  Arlo, thank you so much, thank you for giving me your time, I really appreciate it,

Arlo Iron Cloud:  Absolutely. Thank you.

Jo Reed:  That is multi-media artist and radio broadcaster Arlo Iron Cloud. I’ll have links to Kili Radio, the sovereign food movement, and the episode of Out of the Blocks from Pine Ridge co-produced by Arlo in the show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.

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Arlo Iron Cloud (Oglala-Sioux) embraces and celebrates Lakota culture through his radio broadcasting, photography, filmmaking, language reclamation, and work in food sovereignty. He passionately embraces Lakota tradition and is deeply committed to its future. Iron Cloud is the station manager (and long time programmer) on KILI Radio—the radio station designed by and for the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In fact, he produced an episode of the NEA-funded podcast, Out of the Blocks from Pine Ridge. He works with his wife Lisa in the food sovereignty movement, which is focused on traditional foodways. And he documents every day life on Pine Ridge through his photographs. Iron Cloud is a dynamic guest, and once you hear his voice, you’ll know why he’s in radio.  In this podcast, Iron Cloud talks about Kili Radio, the weight and joy of language reclamation, and discovering with Lisa the traditional and sustainable foodways of the Lakota.