Standing Rock, one year later: Bucky Harjo (Paiute Shoshone) of Reno reflects on controversial pipeline, protests |

Standing Rock, one year later: Bucky Harjo (Paiute Shoshone) of Reno reflects on controversial pipeline, protests

By Bucky Harjo | Special to First Nation's Focus
Read more 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, among other advocacy endeavors. Click here to read a human interest profile on Harjo, as featured in the November 2017 edition of First Nation's Focus.

RENO, Nev. — What did I learn from being at Standing Rock? To be honest, to be humble, to care for each other, to learn, to teach, to believe, to be strong and to pray and have respect for myself and each other — but mostly, to live life in a very truthful way.

On the day of Dec. 4, 2016, when word came that the permits were denied while we were gathered at Highway 1806 at the entrance to Oceti Sakowin Camp, an elder spoke about these words, then sang the most beautiful song.

A chorus of those who believed in this song joined in, and it brought tears to many of the warriors. When the song was sung and the verdict was read, the whoops and warrior cries could be heard throughout the camp. This is what it must have sounded like when the warriors defeated Custer! It was a powerful moment.

This was one of the moments that could be captured only with the mind, where we had to pray as one to be united in prayer. Earlier in the day, there had been many distractions led by confusion, so if there was anything to bring about the positiveness and beauty of why we are all there, it was that prayer and song.

Those moments are what we were so moved by at Standing Rock — to believe the beliefs, to have respect, to be truthful, to be humble and to be honest.

With the morning prayers at sunrise — be it on a warm summer morning or a bitter winter morning — we went to pray … regardless if I just slept for an hour. I would not miss that blessing. We went through our days in prayer; it kept us close. Prayer kept us strong.



Now one year later, I still pray for the water. We were blessed with so much snow last year upon returning home, and I knew our prayers had been a part of this — from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake and all along the Truckee River. Water is life.

I had met so many people from all over Turtle Island, from all over the world. It’s like I had known them all my life because of how much we all had gone through.

Even though there were those times I was not at camp when DAPL harmed my family, I was home crying and heartbroken that I was not there.

Maybe that was a good thing. Police beat me when I was young for standing up and protecting my friends and my family. All I could do was pray for each and every one of you and to jump on social media and share the many actions taking place, to reach out to many people on Facebook to do the same and to organize a supply line, to get much needed supplies out to the people.

Standing Rock has changed many of us in many ways. Many sacrifices had to be made, like leaving behind family to be at Standing Rock, even if that meant divorcing, losing a job, losing a house, a car — and just life as you knew it before coming to Standing Rock. Protecting water was more important.

When I stood on the hill every morning looking over the waterways, the land and the people who had come to protect the water, many thoughts would go through my head, as did many tears, for seeing what I stood before as the sun’s rays beamed down on the river, the land and the camp.

It made me think of how those great encampments from long ago must have looked, standing there in beauty, in prayer among the prayers of those before us. I would walk down to the sacred fire, to the water and up the highway to walk around the camp — to walk as one, in prayer, and to pray with many.



Standing Rock is an ancient spirit. We all felt its power, we saw its power, and it moved us spiritually stronger. When arriving at Standing Rock, you could feel the spirit. Even this summer when I returned to Standing Rock, standing at the gate and alongside the barbed wire fence, I could feel it still, stronger than ever.

So many prayers have been prayed, and so many tears fell upon the land at Oceti. There were so many flowers this summer where all the camps were. You could see how sacred this place is — it was abundant with wildlife, you could hear the birds and insects, as if they were saying thank you. You could feel the wind, and the land is beautiful.

I cried a few more tears and left another prayer. Moments like these keep me strong, so I must remain in prayer, always. That is what we learned — to be humble, to be strong when life hurts so much, to believe in forgiveness, to have compassion and understanding.

This movement was a prayer, and it is very much alive today. Many are still fighting corporations that invest in the destruction and rape of Mother Earth, even more with who is at the helm guiding this world into hate, greed and lack of understanding and compassion for people of color and the lack of respect to women. So yes, the movement has grown stronger and has gone to all the directions.

I can’t say what moment stood out more than others, as each day was different, but it was probably those many moments in camp in prayer, where I could see those before us, guiding us.

Each day was full of emotions. There was a time you cried, there were moments you couldn’t help but fell angered, there were moments of happiness, there were moments of many things. Standing Rock was a place to be human, to be nice, to be caring, to be friendly, to be compassionate, to just “be.”

If there ever was a time to be human, that was Standing Rock. Many people sacrificed their livelihood to come and be a part of this camp, to bring their knowledge and wisdom to share with us. Many brought food, meat, medical supplies, warm clothing, tents, stoves, wood, tools and wealth, and it was all shared with whoever asked.

You can still see that happening more in communities all over — the spirit will never die unless we allow it to.



The evening of Nov. 20, 2016, at the Backwater Bridge probably stands out the most. It was one of those moments where prayer was needed more than sharing visuals, as I had done on other days before and after this day.

We all stood together, strong and in prayer, and we looked on in disbelief as to what was happening, and from what we could hear from camp — the single-fire “pop” sound that we heard so much that evening.

We knew with each pop, another water protector was shot with a beanbag or a rubber bullet. These were non-lethal weapons, but were put into the hands of persons who, out of hate, shot individuals for pleasure, rather than as a defense.

There was razor sharp fencing that kept us from going over; we were not armed. We only had prayers. They sprayed water that is chemically treated not to freeze at peaceful protectors in freezing cold weather.

They shot tear gas as a weapon, causing much harm to two women, as it was mainly women being shot at this night. It was a night that would have weakened any human, but with our prayer we stood stronger until the light of early morning.

I walked to the bridge that night to and from our camp along the Cannon Ball River numerous times to either eat, warm up, get gear or just to pull myself together. It was like a war zone. It was like I had walked back into time, like seeing one of those old-time war movies where you walk out of camp to the front lines, watching fresh soldiers walking to and the wounded walking back, makeshift ambulances carrying the severely injured, and triage set up a safe distance from ground zero.

Greed has so much anger in ways — many of us were wounded, but our prayers healed us and kept us strong. Then there was the night the women came to the front lines, their voices were silent, but in that silence it was very powerful and strong — so strong, that it is difficult to describe in words.



One year later, there are water protectors still on the front lines fighting other pipelines in many states all over the world.

I read once that someone said, “Standing Rock is defeated and those of us who went were defeated.” How can prayer ever be defeated? We have been more victorious in our stand — it’s just DAPL could not follow the law.

The people have seen to what extent these corporations will go to break a people, but we have to be stronger and united more than ever.

I was asked once where I was from. My answer: “Standing Rock. I stand together with all nations — you all are my relations.”

It was a beautiful dream, a beautiful prayer. The water is sacred. We must protect the water, all water. We must protect each other. What I learned is to forgive and grow together, to be compassionate, to be honest, to respect and honor, to be strong, to be humble, to help all, and to be kind and considerate.

I learned to be human.

One year later, I am still learning all these things. It is what has always been taught to me — I remember my teachers and spiritual ones talking about it when I was young.

It was good and powerful to see so many of the young people making that stand so that the next seven generations will have a beautiful place here on Mother Earth.

Bucky Harjo (Paiute Shoshone), a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, is an award-winning photographer and activist based out of Reno.