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Coming Into Their Own

The Oglala Lakota, alt-rock duo behind Scatter Their Own releases "Taste the Time."

Scotti Clifford and Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (Oglala Lakota) of Scatter Their Own.

Scotti Clifford and Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (Oglala Lakota) of Scatter Their Own.

By Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota)

Somewhere in the Badlands of South Dakota lives a band defying definition.

Self-described “alter-Native” rock duo Scatter Their Own doesn’t depend on traditional flutes, feathers or hand drums for its look and sound; instead, husband-and-wife team Scotti Clifford and Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (both Oglala Lakota) mix their old-school rock-and-roll and bluesy sounds with deep, contemporary lyrics about love, overcoming obstacles and environmental advocacy.

Celebrated among tribal audiences across Turtle Island, the popularity of Scatter Their Own transcends cultural boundaries, evident in their recent appearance at SXSW, one of the largest music/film/tech festivals on the planet. It drew an estimated 70,000 people to Austin, Texas, in March. The band followed its appearance there with the release of their second album, Taste The Time, which came out May 1.

While mass appeal is the band’s aim, the Cliffords often note their spiritual foundations, cultural belief systems and dedication to family, which help guide the direction of both their music and their lives. For all that, Scotti and Juliana maintain an effortlessly cool and familiar vibe about them, one that can jump from a serious tone discussing the music business to a teasing jab about the hairstyle Scotti rocked in the ’80s. It’s easy to forget that these two aren’t your cousins or best friends, but instead are rising stars releasing popular, radio-worthy records and playing major venues across the country.

“Things are moving at a good pace for us,” Juliana says. “We want to be known and played on a big, contemporary scale. That’s why our songs—the meanings behind them—are so fierce, but we play them loose enough that everyone, regardless of background, can get into it.”

Scatter Their Own discuss the song-writing process with writer Taté Walker. The band's new album Taste the Time is available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotif and CD.

Music was a constant growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Scotti says. His parents owned a general store in Sharps Corner, S.D., and Scotti was the second youngest of five children. He was 4 years old when his father sat him down at his first drum set, and his grandmother Olivia Black Elk handed him his first acoustic guitar when he was in fifth grade to replace the one he had made using cardboard, a ruler and rubber bands.

Scotti’s mother, Phyllis Pourier (Oglala Lakota), says her son taught himself to play on that guitar and used his keen ear for notes and melodies to cover Journey or Rolling Stones songs he heard on the radio or cassette tapes. “There was always a lot of music coming from his room,” Pourier says. “Pretty soon it was him playing the music on his guitar and I couldn’t even tell the difference.”

He became so good and so confident in his musical prowess that at 13 he started playing bass in the cover band Arrow Space for $50 per night—despite never having played bass guitar before.

“Richard Iyotte came into my family’s store one day, and he was on the phone firing his bass player,” Scotti says. “I told him I could play bass, even though I never had. It was Monday and he told me to learn 50 songs by Friday.”

And Scotti did. He continued playing professionally for several bands, including the popular Native blues band Indigenous, through his teens and later years. Now the front man, lead guitarist and vocalist for Scatter Their Own, Scotti, 39, recently became an endorsed Grosh Guitars Artist, joining the ranks of Steve Miller, Randy Jackson and Keith Scott.

Clifford and Brown Eyes-Clifford explore Colorado while on tour. Photo by Taté Walker.

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Compared to Scotti, Scatter Their Own’s bassist is a musical newbie. Juliana, who is 23, taught herself to play bass guitar when she was in high school, around the time she was first introduced to Scotti in 2005. Juliana was more interested in academics than she was in music, however, and she graduated as the valedictorian from Red Cloud High School and used a Gates Millennium scholarship to attend a pre-med program at Creighton University.

But Juliana craved an outlet for her artistic tendencies and transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she majored in photography, a skill she uses today to promote the band on their website and on social media.

In 2009, she met Scotti for a second time, and soon after the pair started dating.

“He asked me to be in a band then, and I said I didn’t know how to play anything,” Juliana says with a laugh. Scotti saw something band-worthy in Juliana anyway; he gave her a bass guitar to practice with when she returned to school after summer break in 2010. “We had our first gig that same year on New Year’s Eve.”

Scatter Their Own was born. The name pays homage to the couple’s tribal roots and is a loose English translation of the name Oglala, one of the seven bands of the Lakota.

The Cliffords point to family and their tribal community as major influences on the band, whose touring drummer is Santa Fe artist Ehren Kee Natay (Diné/Kewa Pueblo/Cherokee). After long-distance travels to perform at venues in New York, Texas and other faraway places, Juliana and Scotti, who exchanged vows in the summer of 2013, return home to the Pine Ridge reservation. When they’re not performing for paid gigs locally, they’re doing benefit concerts for the tribe or advocacy groups or teaching reservation kids to play guitar.

“They know to hold themselves with respect and good character,” says Ronnie Brings Plenty (Oglala Lakota), Juliana’s mother. She is the band’s social-media manager and says the couple has chosen to abstain from all drugs and alcohol out of respect for the Lakota ceremonies they partake in and for the people—family, friends and fans—who hold them in such high regard. Alcoholism is blamed for many of the social struggles in communities on Pine Ridge and reservations throughout the state of South Dakota. “They know people are always watching, and they want the world to see a proud Native band ….”

The role of cultural and social advocate is one Scatter Their Own has stepped into with style. They released a video for the powerful title song off their new album months before the record dropped in April. “Taste The Time” was a hit with environmental groups and activists—especially those protesting regional uranium mining and the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota—for its unflinching look at water pollution.

Appropriately, the inspiration for the “Taste The Time” video came from a nightmare Juliana had about three months after Scotti had written the song in the fall of 2012.

“In my dream, there were a lot of thirsty people … and I was among them. I licked my lips, and they were cracked and dry and bleeding,” Juliana says. “I came across this table where a bunch of really wealthy people sat. I was excited and went to drink from a cup on that table, but it wasn’t water, and I spit out money and oil and blood. I woke up terrified.”

The band launched a campaign on the crowd-source fundraising website Indiegogo to produce a music video based on Juliana’s concept for “Taste The Time.” Roughly $3,000 in donations came in, and the duo produced a low-budget, high-impact visual with rented equipment and several local, eager extras.

“We felt like it was our responsibility to educate people about these water and oil issues the best way we know how,” Juliana says. “Through our music.”

Scatter Their Own's music video for Taste the Time.

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Likely the strongest aspect about the group is its ability to communicate and connect not only with audiences, but with each other.

As self-taught musicians, neither Juliana nor Scotti can read traditional sheet music. Instead, melodies come to Scotti in his head, which he plays on guitar until something clicks with his alt-rock foundations. Then he takes the skeleton sound to Juliana, who learns her bass part by ear. Together, they write the lyrics, and a song blossoms.

“We try to find a comfort zone between both of us. Music is us dancing together, finding a rhythm that works, and then we add lyrics on top of that,” Scotti says. “It’s really a natural process.”

The band’s newest album, Taste The Time, features eight tracks, four of which were on the debut EP, Catch A Fire. New tracks include road-trip must-have “Just Breathe,” which moves through an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony with beach-style, funk-rock sounds; and “Don’t Fear to Tread,” a song that demands head-bopping and toe-tapping with its dialed-up distortion and punkishly upbeat rock sounds in honor of Native activist Russell Means. The band will have six more songs produced within the next year.

“We are trying to raise awareness, but this is the 21st century, and we—as indigenous people—should be deciding how we are represented in the media."

Scatter Their Own’s broad appeal is intended; being pigeonholed as a certain type of band with a certain type of sound isn’t their goal.

“Sometimes we show up to venues or schools and you get the feeling everyone was expecting an ‘Indian’ band,” Juliana says. “I think we maybe shock some of the people who hire us, with my crazy hairdo and our urban clothing styles. People are like, ‘Where’s the braids? Where’s the tomahawk?’ That’s not us. We’re just a band that happens to be Native American.”

Exposing Colgate University students to contemporary Native American music was the goal when senior Melissa Gámez-Herrera (Mexican-American) brought the group to the Hamilton, N.Y., campus for a performance and discussion in February. Gámez-Herrera is an active member of the Native American Student Association at Colgate.

“Although traditional Native cultures and practices are very important to preserving indigenous ways of life …, I believe students need to have a better understanding and exposure to Native cultures and artists in the current day,” Gámez-Herrera says, adding that Scatter Their Own was described by at least one audience member as “amazing.”

“I always prefer to experience music in live performance because it is kind of a test to really get a sense of how musicians work together, if at all,” says Gámez-Herrera, who was a fan of what she heard of the band online before seeing them live. “I was very happy to hear how in-sync Scotti and Juliana are in terms of performance and musical harmony.” 

For the Cliffords, being Native American means living the spirituality and culture daily, which inevitably spills into their work.

“We are trying to raise awareness, but this is the 21st century, and we—as indigenous people—should be deciding how we are represented in the media,” Scotti says. “Whether we’re talking mascots or peace or justice or the environment—those things are important to us, and we realized we could reach more people through our music without having to give up what we believe in. It’s about us deciding who we want to be.”