Bucky Harjo (Paiute Shoshone) advocates fearlessly for Native causes
November 15, 2017
RENO, Nev. — Bucky Harjo, Paiute Shoshone of Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, is an award-winning photographer and activist based out of Reno.
He is known for his powerful images, Facebook Live videos and involvement with the Dakota Access Pipeline movement.
"I always dreamed of being this great photographer for National Geographic," Harjo said in a May 2017 interview with First Nation's Focus. "I love how photographs tell a story and how they can be so moving."
After spending his elementary years in Oklahoma, Harjo said his mother made the decision to move back home to Nevada.
Harjo went to junior high school in Schurz, Nevada, before attending Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California. By chance, he took a photography class, and that is when he fell in love with it.
Upon completion of high school, Harjo want to go to college in Los Angeles. However, things do not always go as planned, so he instead got involved with the American Indian Movement.
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"I always believed in their 21 points of bringing back the language and spirituality," Harjo said about the advocacy group (learn more at http://www.aimovement.org).
It was at this point in time that Harjo really began to find himself and his voice. His involvement with AIM presented many different opportunities to travel and live throughout the country.
Being surrounded by all of AIM's powerful and inspirational leaders helped mold him into the person he would become, he said.
"We have to have an understanding of who we are, starting from the ground up," Harjo said. "We have to learn the ways from our grassroots people about what it means to be who we are, as Indian people. They are our link between the future and the past."
'WATER IS IMPORTANT'
After spending many years with AIM and similar movements, Harjo returned home to Nevada to settle down and start a family.
It would not be until 2012 that Harjo would get back into the swing of things with the Idle No More movement (http://www.idlenomore.ca).
Seeing how it spread from Nation to Nation in the indigenous world, and how it woke up a lot of people, brought the fire for activism back to Harjo.
"Our leaders spoke of the day we would come together and rise up as one," Harjo said. "It is great to see the youth taking a stand — they woke up the world to what is going on in Indian Country."
That led directly to the recent monumental fight Indigenous peoples have been dealing with — the Dakota Access Pipeline.
It started out small, with the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Then, over time, it grew more and more until it became a worldwide movement to put a stop to the fossil fuel industry, and to fight for clean water.
This movement united the Nations for the first time in history, and Harjo said he was moved by everything he was reading and seeing, so he felt as though he had to help in anyway possible.
He got together with community members using Facebook and organized a rally in August 2016 in downtown Reno to educate the city about what was going on.
"It's not just our fight," Harjo said. "Water is important. It's our first medicine. It's important to all life."
'I INSTANTLY FELT AT HOME'
Within a matter of days after the rally, a small group of four, including Harjo, would make the journey to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to help their brothers and sisters in Standing Rock put a stop to the black snake.
The group arrived to the camp in the dead of night. Harjo recalled seeing the glow of campfires in the dark sky was encouraging, noting the overall feeling of the camp was welcoming.
Having trouble sleeping and being filled with excitement, Harjo set out to get a feel for the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
He climbed the hill that soon became known as Facebook Hill to look over the camp and river. When the sun started to rise, he saw thousands of campsites, and he ventured into the camp to meet with people.
To his surprise, he saw many familiar faces.
"I slowly started seeing people who I had met in my walk of life," Harjo said. "It was like a reunion; I instantly felt at home."
The reunion and fun lasted only a few days, as Harjo and group began learning more about the pipeline and what needs to be done.
A small group of individuals decided to set up a media union, Harjo said. This group came to realize how important its own media coverage was when DAPL's private security force had released attack dogs and pepper sprayed innocent water protectors.
"After that horrific incident, I started doing Facebook Live videos," Harjo said. "I figured people needed to see what was happening."
With little news media coverage being conducted, people in camp took the liberty of broadcasting everything themselves, and Facebook was the platform protectors were using most to get the word out.
Harjo's videos began to go viral, reaching people from across the globe and educating them on what was happening on the front lines. Slowly, more and more people were becoming aware of what was being done.
"I only wanted to stay a week, but with each day it kept escalating into something bigger," Harjo recalled about his time at camp.
'THEY WERE TREATING US LIKE ANIMALS'
In all, Harjo made three total trips to the DAPL camp, each varying in different timeframes.
Each journey back, he couldn’t help but notice how different it had become, he said, adding that the amount of militarized police forces was astounding — with all the machinery and firearms used to intimidate peaceful water protectors.
Harjo noticed a significant decrease in numbers of people when he arrived back in the fall of 2016 for his second trip. With the cold moving in, people at camp were in need of supplies, and Harjo brought winter gear and other necessities. He only intended on staying a few days, but ended up staying nearly a month.
After returning to Nevada the second time, Harjo turned on the news and saw that all hell had broke loose, so he knew he needed to make one last trip, staying as long as needed this time.
When Harjo arrived for the third time, he was ready for the long haul. With his camera in one hand and cellphone in the other, he was determined to show the world what was going on.
"They were not looking at us like we were people anymore," Harjo said. "They were treating us like animals. It was like a warzone seeing everyone crying and hearing all of the gunshots."
Water cannons were brought in and used on people in freezing weather conditions, and police officers were shooting people with rubber bullets, Harjo recalled, causing injuries to peaceful protestors.
"I photographed what I could, live streamed when I could — just trying to find the words to describe the horror of what was going on was hard," Harjo said. "It is sad to say, but it encouraged the protectors to be stronger. These people were fighting against us with our own medicine."
When word eventually came in that pipeline permits were denied, the protectors erupted in celebration.
"Legally, we knew we had won our victory," Harjo said. "But, we knew DAPL would continue, which is why people decided to stay, despite what the word was."
'I DID IT FOR THE CAUSE'
Harjo, who had fallen ill after one intense evening, continued to post Facebook Live updates regularly on what was going on at camp, and he also talked about his situation and how he needed to come home.
Within a matter of hours, he received a message from a stranger saying he had bought Harjo a plane ticket home. Harjo was at a loss for words and didn’t know how he would repay this kind stranger.
The man said there was no need to pay him back, that Harjo had done more than enough. He had kept the world informed with his live feed videos and photographs.
Since returning home, Harjo has continued to spread the word about the fossil fuel industry and its impact on Native peoples.
When asked why he did it, Harjo replied, "I think I was meant to be there. I was meant to be apart of the media. I was meant to show the world what they continue to do to our people."
Harjo has been invited to display his photographs at the Red Nation Film Festival, which takes place Nov. 8-19 in Los Angeles. Visit http://www.rednationff.com to learn more.
He was also nominated for photographer of the year by a small publication in Kentucky, and his photographs have been featured in many different magazines across the country.
"I did not do it for the numbers or the fame," said Harjo. "I did it because it was my way of getting the word out. I wanted to reach out to those who would not have seen what was going on if I hadn't done what I did. I took photos because it needed to be documented.
"I didn't do it for the money or anything like that — I did it for the cause."
Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih) is a journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who worked this summer for the Sierra Nevada Media Group as an intern, writing and taking photos for First Nation's Focus.