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Native Sun News: Del Iron Cloud brings Lakota history into art

The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Cutline: Del Iron Cloud, surrounded by the artistry of his contemporaries, is now one of the artists in residence at Prairie Edge on Main Street in downtown Rapid City each summer.

Del Iron Cloud: Crossing the rivers of time
By Ernestine Chasing Hawk
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY –– When viewing Hunkpapa artist Del Iron Cloud’s panoramic murals, one feels they have transcended time and are enjoying life with the Lakota’s that once roamed the Northern Plains.

Iron Cloud accomplishes this spatial continuum through his use of life size 3D images of Indians, buffalo herds and horses emerging from the past through walls at such places as the Royal River Casino in Flandreau and the Grand River Casino in Mobridge.

The Lakota artist’s portrayal of living history comes from a closeness to his subject matter. Iron Cloud spent his formative years on the Standing Rock Indian reservation along Little Oak Creek, near the home site of Tatanka Iyotanka, Sitting Bull. He even lived for a time in a log cabin once occupied by Battle of the Little Big Horn war hero, Chief Gall.

Sitting at an artfully painted table, listening to soft melodic flute music inside Prairie Edge on Main Street in Rapid City, Iron Cloud shares his story.

He begins with a humorous recollection of his first attempt at drawing a mural. He was attending the first grade at Little Eagle Day School where murals, created by the late Hunkpapa artist Ambrose Shields, graced the walls.

“I used to stand there and just look up at them and I could see it and feel it. On one side he had this buffalo hunt scene where the Indians were chasing buffalo. As a little kid you get into those things. I could hear the thunder and see the dust flying. On the other side was this wagon train and the Indians were sitting on horses and they were looking at them with their hair blowing in the wind,” Iron Cloud reminisced.

At home, his grandmother Mable had given him a box of Crayola’s and drawing paper to keep him occupied while she left to haul fresh water from nearby Little Oak Creek.

“As soon as she went out the door with her pails, I checked to see if she was gone. Sure enough she was wobbling the other way,” he said. “I pulled a chair up to the door and I got my Crayola’s and started doing what I assumed was a mural, like the one I was seeing at the Little Eagle Day school.”

He was anxious to show his grandmother his race car mural, however her reaction wasn’t quite what he expected, “Eeeee, he canu sni, do ka, (you shouldn’t have done that),” she said.

“Then she proceeded to give me a small bucket of water with soap and a sponge and told me to take it off. There I was scrubbing those Crayola’s and they were hard to take off,” Iron Cloud said laughing. “I always tell people that was my first rejection in the art world.”

In 1956, Iron Cloud lived for a time in the Indian Community situated along Rapid Creek in Rapid City with his aunt and uncle and attended second grade at Wilson Elementary.

It was in the third grade at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain where Iron Cloud would win his first art/essay contest; “What you want to be when you grow up.”

“I drew this army guy standing behind a truck. He had binoculars and off in the distance these bombs were going off, bright orange, red and yellow. My paragraph was the sentence, ‘I want to be an Army man to protect my country,’” he said.

Dennis Eagle Horse and Henry Lafferty were his top competitors and when their names were called for second and third place Iron Cloud was astonished.

“Those two guys could really draw and when they called first place and it was me, talk about being excited,” he said.

Positive reinforcement from teachers and close friends encouraged Iron Cloud to continue to draw and improve. Iron Cloud’s art found him acceptance from peers and a small book mobile would provide him a glimpse into the works of the masters, Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, Russell and Remington.

His talent soon earned him the title, “School newspaper illustrator” at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Mission in Wakpala were he attended middle school.

After a fire destroyed the dormitory at St. Elizabeth’s, Iron Cloud attended McLaughlin school for a while before returning to the small Episcopal School run by Father Chapman.

Chapman would later write a book titled “Forget Not the Wind” about the 12 to 15 Indian students who attended school there, including Iron Cloud.

Artist Stan Kruger of Mobridge recognized the teenager’s talent and as his mentor, encouraged him to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

After studying at IAIA for two years, 1968-1970, Iron Cloud attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago where he studied Commercial Art. His move to Chicago was part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program for American Indians.

But it was Uncle Sam who would hone his skills and establish him as a master artist.

In 1971 after receiving his draft notice, Iron Cloud chose the Air Force and was sent to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas where he specialized as an Air Force Security Policeman.

It was during this time that he met and married Nancy Chiltoskie, a real Cherokee Princess from the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina.

Although 90 percent of new recruits were being sent to Vietnam, Iron Cloud, along with his wife, was stationed at RAF Greenham Common in England where he served as a USAF Security Policeman.

But Iron Cloud’s artistic abilities soon got noticed by his commanders and he became an illustrator for the base newspaper. He spent the next four years in England where in 1972 his daughter Sonia was born.

Then in 1975 Iron Cloud returned with his family to the U.S. and was stationed at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, Calif., where his son Christopher was born.

“While we were there, my commander found out I could paint,” he said. “So after working as a Security Policeman for five months, he called me into his office and asked, ‘How would you like to be my personal artist? I have several projects that need to be done that require artwork.’”

After agreeing to the job, he was given all the equipment, materials and art supplies to set up an office studio.

“What he actually did was take me off my police duties and gave me an office job. It was right across the hallway from his office,” Iron Cloud said. “And that’s all I did for the four years I was there. I really enjoyed it because it was an eight-to-four job, and I didn’t have to work night shifts.”

After his father became ill, he was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on a humanitarian assignment.

“Again I continued to keep drawing and even entered some shows down here in Rapid City. I did a mural up at Ellsworth at the old NCO leadership school,” he said. Some of the paintings are housed in the South Dakota Air and Space Museum on the base.

While at Ellsworth, Iron Cloud retrained as a graphics illustrator and in 1986 when the US Space Command Headquarters was looking for an illustrator, he answered the call and moved to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.

However while still at Ellsworth and thinking ahead about the arrival of the B1B Bombers, Iron Cloud had designed a logo. “I forgot all about it. My ex-boss Vern Johnson called me from Ellsworth and said, ‘Del I’m calling to say congratulations.’”

When he asked, “For what?,” Johnson replied, “Well when you left we were cleaning our graphics section and when they pulled the cabinet away from the wall, your sketch of the logo was back there. It just so happened that they were having a B1B logo contest and I entered it for you and it won.”

The Air Force made arrangements to fly Iron Cloud back to Ellsworth for the arrival of the B1B and the ceremony because his logo was going to be displayed on the aircraft as well as on t-shirts, jackets and caps.

“That was an awesome ceremony,” he said.

After returning to Peterson, Iron Cloud continued to paint and enter contests. Again he became the illustrator for the base paper.

“As illustrator at Peterson it was a pretty big area that we had to cover. We had to cover anything from cartoons to caricatures, illustrations of the GPS satellite, architectural renderings and 3D point perspectives of buildings,” he said.

His job included painting portraits of dignitaries, and one in particular he remembered is when he was asked to do a portrait of Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian politician who led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War.

In 1991, after more than 20 years, he retired as a staff sergeant from the Air Force, “It was a good 20 years,” he said. It was during this time that Iron Cloud and his wife Nancy were divorced.

However Iron Cloud continued to make Colorado Springs his home and opened an Art Gallery where he would meet his soul mate.

“Frieda comes in and wanted to know if I taught watercolors and she says, ‘I still don’t know how to paint watercolors,’’’ he laughed playfully. The couple married shortly thereafter.

“She was also in artist, we had a lot in common I think that is why we connected. We did a lot of the art shows together and we would travel to the Northern Plains Art Show in Sioux Falls,” he said.

And then came the opening of the Grand River Casino in Mobridge. His aunt, while playing slots, overheard a conversation about someone doing a mural in a concave area above the casino floor. “I know just the guy for you,” she said and they contacted Iron Cloud.

“By then I had already done a mural at the Denver International Airport. They had sent out 1,500 calls for entries nationwide and 10 of them were selected and I was one of them, Wow!” he said.

He painted an 8 by 12 foot mural of an ancient buffalo hunt that is currently displayed in the International arrivals terminal.

In 1994 he completed his first mural at Grand River of a winter scene with tipis and hidden images in the trees, and when requests for his murals started to come in one after the other, he and Frieda made the decision to move Mobridge.

Iron Cloud’s more than 100 depictions of early life on the plains adorn the walls of the Royal River Casino in Flandreau, the Lode Star Casino in Ft. Thompson, the Golden Buffalo Casino in Lower Brule, the Rosebud Casino near Valentine, Neb., Prairie Knights in Fort Yates, N.D. and the Prairie Winds Casino in Pine Ridge.

They are also in County Courthouses in North Dakota, on walls in Gettysburg, the V.A. Center in Sioux Falls, the S.D. Hall of Fame in Chamberlain, Al’s Oasis on Oacoma and in Newcastle, Wyo.

In 1997, he and Frieda made the decision to move to the Black Hills of South Dakota in Rapid City where they reside today.

For several years, during the summer months, Iron Cloud was a staple at Crazy Horse Memorial until staff there asked him to commit to unreasonably long hours and made other unrealistic demands.

He then started doing the editorial cartoons for Native Sun News and as it turned out he became one of the best Indian cartoonists in America. He no longer has the time to do the cartoons, but Native Sun News occasionally digs into the archives and reproduces one of his cartoons to fit a particular editorial Then in 2013 Teresa Fugate, manager of the Fine Arts Gallery at Prairie Edge in downtown Rapid City, offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Del would you be interested in setting up down here at Prairie Edge,” she asked. “We’ll give you a table, you can come in when you want and leave when you want. You can start anytime, whenever you’re ready.”

The award-winning muralist, surrounded by the artistry of his contemporaries is now one of the artists in residence at Prairie Edge each summer.

“It works out real well. People come in from all over and in the summer it gets really busy. I enjoy setting up here,” he said with a smile.

Iron Clouds presence at Prairie Edge has been nothing but positive said Brenda Beal, “He’s a great asset, it’s just great to have him in the house, and we feel it’s a privilege.”

(Ernestine Chasing Hawk can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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