Cat Clifford and the Art of the Indian Cowboy
Cat Clifford is a self-described Indian cowboy who's been rodeoing since he started riding calves at age five. Nowadays when he's not riding bulls, recording singles, or starring in indie films that wow the crowd at Cannes, he's doing rodeo-inspired leatherwork on his Flying High Leather label.
It's a lifestyle he knows. He's been to the four corners of the nation and Canada on the Indian Rodeo circuit — qualifying five times for the Indian National Finals Rodeo — as well as some PRCA and PBR events riding bulls and bucking horses.
For him, rodeo, pow wow and Indian relay are integral to what he calls, the “modern Indian summer.”
“If I was to make a short film or something, the three main things would be rodeo, the pow wow and Indian relay — and the culture that surrounds all three.”
He has starred in two films by director Chloe Zhao. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), which is available on Netflix, received rave reviews. The Rider won the Art Cinema Award this year at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. The film has been picked up by a distributor and is scheduled to hit US theaters early next year.
Meanwhile he's decorating the saddles for the all-around cowboy and cowgirl awards at the upcoming Oglala Lakota Nation Rodeo.
SDPB stopped by his workshop near Sharp's Corner on Pine Ridge.
SDPB: How did you transition into doing art and leatherwork?
CC: I’ve always had inspirations to be an artist since I was a kid. My dad, he’s a bit of a sketcher himself. The first artist that really inspired me was Les Pourier, my Grandma’s older brother. He was an artist for Hanna Barbera before they moved to Japan. So there was all these Smurf drawings in my Auntie’s house when I was a kid. They would tell me, ‘Grandpa Lester drew those.’ And my Grandma had a few paintings and some prints of some buffalo kill paintings he’s done and I would get lost looking at those and would try to imitate them.
Then my Grandma’s sister’s husband, Hot Shot Jacobs [aka Wesley Jacobs, father of six-time INFR bareback champ Jim Jacobs] — he got into leatherwork because he had so many boys, and they all wanted to rodeo, that he just decided to make all their rodeo chaps for them. So by the time I was born, he’s been into leatherwork for quite some time and pretty well known throughout the area, or the nation. So growing up everywhere I went I had Hot Shot Jacobs chaps, and people would see ‘em and say, “Hot Shot Jacobs make those?”
Ya, that’s my Uncle I’d tell ‘em, and they would tell me stories and oftentimes show me an old belt they were wearing. But he was another inspiration I had early on. He still does leatherwork. He made a pair of chaps for me when I was a kid riding calves and stuff and I think that was probably the first time I looked at any kind of leatherwork and realized that I might be able to do something like this.
I remember the very instance he brought the chaps over. I was sitting at my Grandma’s and he pulled in and had the chaps. I was real excited. I put ‘em on and I remember my Grandma saying, “You know this boy right here, he’s an artist. He’ll be able to make some of this stuff if you teach him one day.”
My Grandma was always pushing me to keep practicing. I would sketch stuff out for her, usually eagles — from probably six to ten I was infatuated with eagles. She would throw these drawings in a big chest. “One day I’m gonna sell these for hundreds of dollars,” she’d say. The last bit of advice she give me pertaining to art — I was telling her about establishing this company and she said, “Good. You know you always stray off from art. Art keeps pulling you back. You need to stick with art.”
I didn’t get into leatherwork until 2014. As kids we would draw out designs, but I didn’t actually make anything. Before that I tattooed for four years. Then those skills kind of flipped over to leatherwork, cause it’s almost the same idea, just a different medium.
SDPB: Hermis Tall was a horseman from around here and of course a big star in relay. How do you think his recent passing effected the rodeo and relay community?
CC: He was hard to miss. He’s kind of a celebrity of course, because of his accomplishments, on the reservation. So there’s definitely that aura. He was a different feller. [Clifford pronounces the word ‘fell-er’]
It’s tough that a lot of our heroes that we have on the reservation have passed on. Like since Hermis has left, there’s been a void of course because he was a character that can’t really be imitated or matched, but at the same time, there’s all this inspiration to fill the void. I think as far as the youth having to deal with something tough like that is kind of both good and bad.
Hermis was one of those characters that brought a new kind of inspiration to the reservation. Looking at that subject of Hermis, it makes me look at myself and who I want to be as a role model and what I want to leave behind as far as a legacy. It really makes me realize how much I have to offer to the youth. It makes me be conscious and aware of myself — that tragic story, if it does teach a lesson — to live on basically, instead of carrying on the tragedy, just take the good bits from it.
SDPB: Would you like to see more non-Natives showing up for Indian rodeo? You mentioned how even the INFR in Vegas is kind of isolated off the main strip and doesn’t attract that many people outside the world of Indian rodeo.
CC: I like to celebrate myself in a whole and I can’t really do that if I only celebrate Native American. I really enjoy just being a human being. I think that if Indian rodeo had the kind of PR that any giant organization has it could probably be a little bigger as far as reaching everybody.
At the same time, I see that Indian rodeo was made because of racism in the sport of rodeo. It was made for that reason so that we could prosper and thrive in rodeo on our own as Native Americans. And now it’s so segregated that it’s hurting itself — for Native Americans but also for the sport of rodeo in general. I think if it welcomed everybody it would be able to thrive.
SDPB: How would you describe "Indian cowboy" culture?
CC: It’s a lot like cowboy culture in a sense but a little more accentuated on the horse culture that was already present with Native Americans. If I know anything about Native American assimilation it’s that we always integrate our own culture into that which we’re bringing in. One common image you’ll see is a cowboy hat with an eagle feather in it. Another one is a war-painted horse in a rodeo event, just because they feel that spirit or that motivation.
Same with Indian relay — the way they dress their horses and themselves. I think what it is, is a yearning of the past. That’s what the culture is revolving around is the [desire] to go back to who we were, cause we almost lost touch with who we were. And through the horse we can carry it on because that was the last thing that we knew. And because the horses weren’t always here. That was one thing that we integrated first into our culture.
Something that we did different than American cowboys is the way that we broke horses in the beginning. I have a good friend, Philip Whiteman Jr. — he’s a Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer [and two-time Indian World Champion Saddle bronc rider] and he has his own technique of desensitizing a horse called the Medicine Wheel model. He ties it into how the culture of Northern Cheyenne people revolves around the four directions, symbolized by the medicine wheel. So he starts off in the West, left side of the horse and works his way around the horse, feeling out all of his insecurities, all of his sensitive areas and becoming his relative. I’ve seen him do it with some wild, wild horses, and at the end they really are like his relative or like his brother.
The Rider is all about horse culture. It doesn’t really advertise horse culture on the reservation but throughout the film you can get the sense that we’re mixed-blood cowboys. We’re Indian cowboys but we’re not full-bloods or completely white Americans. We look like white Americans but you can tell through the setting and characters that it’s a little bit different than rural America.
SDPB: Do people still use the term ‘mixed blood’?
CC: Ya. I’ve heard that since I was a kid just cause of my skin color and living on the reservation. Growing up I was always called a mixed-blood or the [Lakota] word for it here is iyéska — it means interpreter. Then I’d go off the reservation, and I don’t think I look that Native American, but ya I can get spotted as a Lakota boy off the reservation pretty easy. It might just be my accent, I don’t know. (Laughs.)
Clifford been catching some commissions for his work in the rodeo world — a Miss Indian Rodeo sash for the INFR pow wow, the chaps for Miss Rodeo South Dakota [in collaboration with another artist], and is making another pair for the Miss Rodeo Natioal Finals Rodeo (NFR) competition. He’s currently decorating the saddle for the all-around cowboy and cowgirl awards at the Oglala Lakota Nation Rodeo — part of the annual Wacipi/Rodeo/Fair that runs August 3-6 this year — where he'll also ride bulls. The rodeo-world opportunities are helpful but he also credits social media with helping him get off the ground. “If it were twenty years ago, the amount of PR wouldn’t be sufficient to run a business I think. Social media has gotten my work out there.” You can keep with him on social via his Instagram.