Voices from Standing Rock: Orlando Avery
As told to Tracy L. Barnett
Transcription by Michelle Nermon
“I found that warrior spirit to take care of people, to be there and to put myself in front of others and be that warrior for them, you know? For the ones who can’t...”
Orlando Avery is a soft-spoken schoolteacher, more drawn to books than to guns. He didn’t ask to be on the front lines of the new Civil Rights Movement, facing an increasingly aggressive militarized police force. But when he saw women, children and elders getting dragged from their camps, shot at close range with rubber bullets and teargas canisters, he’d had enough.
“Me, I’m able, I’m a man. I should be there in front of the women and elderly, you know? They shouldn’t have to be going through this again. In my day and age, I didn’t think we’d have to be subject to a repeated history of forceful removal, of what little land we have left. They still want it. They still want it, you know?”
Orlando: My name is Orlando Avery and I’m a Cheyenne River Lakota from Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, which is an hour and a half south of Cannon Ball on the South Dakota side. I’m an enrolled member there. I’m a full time teacher but I quit my job to be here. I came here because of my family, my people, everybody that lives south of the river or the pipeline route. I’m here to support the right for clean water, the right for human rights, right for indigenous rights, environmental rights, definitely, and being here for the ones that can’t be here back home, and I’m able bodied and I’m here to stand up for them and be a voice for the elderly that can’t make it here that want to be here, you know?
IC: So looking back, can you tell me about the first moment that you heard about what was happening here and what thoughts crossed your mind?
Orlando: The first moments were back in April when this first started. When it first came about it was more like organizational meetings and educational meetings of what was happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline route and what could happen and it was just very few people, like ten people to start. People knew about it but they didn’t really organize about it.
IC: Where were you and how did you hear about it?
Orlando: I was in Montana at the time, and I heard about it through social media.
IC: And your first thoughts?
Orlando: At first it was like “Oh, they can take care of it,” you know? That was my mentality at first. Until back in the beginning of August when I first came to camp, that’s what changed my whole mentality: just the spirit and everything about this camp, coming over this Cannon Ball Hill on top and just seeing the camp, that’s just what changed my heart and mind and changed me into a better person.
You can listen to everything on Facebook, all the headlines, everything, it could change your perspective about this place, but once you come here as a person and you follow your heart and your heart tells you to be here, it changes your whole thought process of what’s going on here. There is no negativity, nothing. Everybody here is so in harmony. There’s people living in harmony, people living in unity, taking care of one another.
And that’s how I heard about it. And when I left my heart didn’t want to leave, but I had to leave. I came back the whole month of September and helped out where it was needed, making sure people had hot showers, laundry . . . just having my networking skills in a community here at Standing Rock. I’m not from Standing Rock but I have friends and relatives and people that needed showers in the camp, you know, and was just helping them.
I was here for the frontlines, in the beginning when they had the dog attacks on Labor Day weekend, as well as the people chaining themselves to the bulldozers. I was there for the first frontline when it first started and just seeing the momentum and the power of the people, you know, without a doubt, without a snap of the finger -- I was there. I was like, “I’m fighting for my people,” you know, “it doesn’t matter if I get thrown in jail or not.” I didn’t care about my career or anything because I know jobs come and go. It wasn’t about the materialistic things that we’re so brought up into this world. You’re brought up to make money, work hard, go to school, get an education. I have all that, you know, but that all didn’t matter so I just went to the front lines and didn’t look. I just . . . I’m here. I’m here to voice my opinion. I’m here to stand up and prevent these workers from getting into these construction works and coming to bulldoze our sacred sites or bulldoze . . . I just can’t imagine what Ladonna* went through, having to see these guys on her land.
(*Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, Founder of Sacred Stone Camp and the Standing Rock Resistance)
This is her land. It’s on Sacred Stone and it’s overlooking the burial site of her son and the burial sites of our ancestors as well.
So a lot of these where this pipeline runs is a lot of sacred sites and they’re not even being professionally archived out or, how would you say it, professionally looked at, like excavated and all this stuff, and there’s bulldozing, you know, there’s a protocol to doing that.
What physically made me move, it was when the people got raided at the North Camp, when the men, the elderly, and children, and women were getting shot and tear gassed and being treated like they were animals.
It was in October, when they had that mass arrest and they raided the North Camp, they just pushed everybody back and whoever was in the camp, they just arrested about 160 people that day. It was mainly elderly women.
And then they just threw everybody in dog kennels in the jail and they shipped them wherever. They wrote a number on their arm and I was like, “You can’t treat people . . .” That was my cue that this was getting serious. . . I said, “It’s gonna get worse and I need to be there.”
Me, I’m able, I’m a man. I should be there in front of the women and elderly, you know? They shouldn’t have to be going through this again. In my day and age, I didn’t think we’d have to be subject to this same -- what would they say -- a repeated history of forceful removal, of what little land we have left. They still want it. They still want it, you know?
Growing up in the Dakotas, in South Dakota, I thought South Dakota was worse, racially worse than North Dakota because I thought North Dakota was more liberal. But coming here, it just kind of awakens the racial tensions, I guess, and seeing North Dakota for what it really is, because North Dakota was never an oil booming state in the early ’90s. Until just recently was freshly oil boomed. It was just cattle ranching and now oil has ravaged this land and people are getting big checks and they’re used to the money coming in and they don’t see the bigger picture, which is the livelihood of this land.
I say, “What are you guys going to live on after it’s all done, after all the extraction’s gone?” You’re cattle’s going to be tainted with the oil and who are you going to sell to? And this water, you know, everybody gets their water from the river or the well.
I just think that people don’t realize that the whole importance of water . . . they take it for granted. We’re so pampered here in the United States… I think it’s a wake up call for America. We’re so comfortable. All we do is turn on the faucet. And I just kept reminding everybody back home, once you brush your teeth, wash your dishes, wash your clothes, take a shower, remind yourself where that water’s coming from. We’ve been forgetting about that for the longest time, you know, and I’d forgotten about it. I was one of those people until coming here.
It just made me change my whole perspective of how I think, how I feel, and how I go about my day, and more in tune to my prayer, more in tune to my spirit, you know? The saying was, once you come here you find your warrior spirit. And I think I found that. I found that warrior spirit to take care of people, to be there and to put myself in front of others and be that warrior for them, you know? For the ones who can’t . . .
A lot of our elderly are in elderly homes and I know that they want to be here. They’ve been through more than us. They’ve been through Wounded Knee in 1970, in the ’70s, you know. I think about how this movement has started with just a small group of people. And when Ladonna put that word out: “I need help. You guys come help me,” I don’t think she expected it to be this big. It’s tremendous. And it came out to be this beautiful thing.
More than the help coming, it was bringing people together, all walks of life, everybody just bringing their minds together to fight this negativity in the world and to stand up for ourselves and to tell the government: “Hey, enough is enough!”
We are Native American people coming together. We are tired of this. We’re tired of being pushed around. We’re seven generations coming together. We’re smart. We have lived in the Western world and we’re here saying: “Enough is enough!” I think it’s our stance and it’s making a big impact because the people on the pro side didn’t think: “this is going to keep going, until everybody in the world knows about what is going on at Standing Rock. I had Canadian friends come in saying “Everyone’s talking about it, it’s on the radio — they’re talking about it in Canada.”
And I was like: “Wow.” It’s still sad to see that our own people . . . you can live in Fort Yates, Eagle View, they don’t even care about it. And so my next purpose here is to educate people. To go into the communities and educate people: What could have happened, the physical impact it has already had in native communities in Canada. Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba, Ontario, where the tar sands are, basically. I’m working on a dialogue with people up there, and bringing live video footage and live people to come into our native communities, or even non-native communities, and talk about how these oil communities ravaged the land, the aftereffect of the dirty water. And they’re forced to bathe in it because there’s no other clean water. It’s kind of like water wars, so like when the water is being shipped in you have to be there, if not you lose out on water. It’s just like a commodity. You have to come and get it. Just imagine: There’s not enough commodities for everybody. What are the other people going do? They’re forced to drink that water, boil it, and you don’t know how safe that water is. You can just imagine the diseases it carries and the skin diseases, and there’s a lot of horror stories. I have a lot of Canadian friends who are telling me the horror stories and the main thing, the main job source up there is the oil company. So they have no other choice.
Two years ago, before this, we were fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline. That was scary enough. It was scary enough because it was five miles away from my house, literally five miles away from my house and they were building the man camps and the ranchers and everyone was for it, but we kind of opened their eyes. We were like, “You guys, our South Dakota economy is raising cattle, ranching, and farming, and if this comes through our land, there goes our industry. Our main economy source is ranching cattle.”
IC: And this is where exactly?
Orlando: South Dakota, the tip of the Cheyenne River. I am physically about an hour away from Rapid City in the Black Hills area. I’m right at the southern tip of the Cheyenne River, and that pipeline route was coming through that way, and then they’d established a camp in Rosebud. Until the day that . . . it’s just something similar to [INAUDIBLE] and just so happened that Obama stopped it and so that was another victory. . . and just hearing the victory of what happened a couple days ago here, it was awesome news, you know? It’s a slow process but we still have to think vigilantly.
IC: You still believe in what the administration says or do you think like some people that it was maybe just a manipulation to get people out of the camp?
Orlando: I really think our purpose, it’s not just us that are working together for this fight. It’s our ancestors and our prayers that are working, and I think with that prayer there’s a little bit of answer to what we needed to hear mentally. But we’ve got to be smart about it and the way I look at it is we have to take everything one day at a time. It’s not going to happen in one day. We’re just not just going to go home and pack it up, that’s what people thought. Because they’re so used to convenience. It’s not a convenient world anymore, you know. It’s a process. I think, well, we thought once we had the easement, then the denial of construction from the Army Corps of Engineers, so that was kind of the answer to our prayers to know that people are listening and that it’s affecting people, and I think all the veterans coming kind of opened people up more.
There’s all these veterans coming in that are willing to protect themselves for the people in America, not in another country, and it kind of woke the government up. It’s like, wow, this is real and I think that was kind of the answer to the prayer they needed to answer.
Because it was just being, “Oh just let it play out,” like Obama said. And so we were letting it play out and I think that answer, deny the easement to stop construction — but we knew that Dakota Access is so close to this much of it being completed, they’re not going to stop. . . the government could say a bunch of things but they have to physically be here and tell them to stop. They have to physically come from Washington D.C. and be here in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. That needs to happen. We pray that’s going to happen.
My prayers, no matter what, I’m always staying positive. We have to stay positive no matter what, no matter if Trump’s in office, but there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s always that hope and our people, the ancestors who fought for this land, we’re the hope for them. Because their future was grim to none. Their future was grim to none because they were getting fought off by the cavalry and getting shot for being who they were and it’s still that way, to this day.
But we are that hope. We are still alive. They thought they could exterminate the Native American people. We’re still here fighting for the little land we have left. We’ve been put on these reservations. They call them concentration camps from long time ago. Originally these were prime hunting lands. In the summer camps we follow the buffalo wherever they went and they came out here to graze in the summer and fall and spring. And the winter camps would be in the Black Hills for the Lakota people. So we would be . . . those were shelter, the hills and the mountains and the buffalo would be there so we followed the buffalo wherever they went until the reservation system came up and we were forced on reservations and so it’s just like the government telling us we have to do this and this and this — and they’re still doing it to this day.
I think the next step for me is to educate people, educate our community to get more people to care about where they live, where they’re from, where their resources are coming from and to be taught. We were always taught by our elders to be respectful of our resources that are in the land and we were never to sell our land . . . no matter the dollar amount of how much you’re going to get. I know people need money to survive. But I think the best way to move forward in this world is to live sustainably, to teach yourself how to garden, get your own water, chop your own wood, hunt for your own food. Those times are coming where you need learn those things, learning how to can, how to just be self sustainable and not depend on a grocery store — because that’s what kind of people we were. We were self-sustainable. We did our own things. We prepared for winter. We were very prepared for these winters. So my next steps will be to just educate people, bring people in.
I want more of our local people here instead of just a few of us. I’ve noticed that coming into camp there are probably a good hundred or two hundred of us out of thousands. . . The enrollment on Standing Rock is well over 14,000 people. On Cheyenne River there’s 19,000 people. Just imagine having that amount of bodies here. That would be a wakeup call. So that’s my goal, is to bring more of our people. I’m not thinking negatively about it but bringing people here, educating people. It’s important. Your water’s important. It’s important to everybody in this world.
And I think it’s going to help them realize, wake them up, get them out of this depression. A lot of our people are depressed because of the poverty levels. People don’t see themselves outside the reservation, they’re so used to getting government subsidies, governmental help. Education is the main key for that. Educate yourself, get that degree, go to work. Education has opened many doors for me. My grandmother, she instilled that importance of education. It’s not about being better than anyone, it’s just about just opening the doors in your life.
IC: For some people, do you think that maybe their path isn’t college but it’s getting the self-sustainability skills that you spoke of?
Orlando: Yeah, and I think this is what people need back here. People who needed that extra boost came here to learn how to network with people, learn how to get to know people, learning how to open their doors, not being so closed off. Some of our people are a little closed off and they don’t want to be talked to. When I come in . . . You’ve got to talk to people, you’ve got to open your doors. Just seeing that is kind of beautiful, you know. . . People do care about you. If you care about them they’ll care about you. It’s what you put out in the world.
Just hearing stories about the Morton County sheriffs, when they were running out of supplies, water, food, the youth council here in camp, they got some care packages together and took them to the police. After they were getting water caned and teargassed and getting thrown in jail by them, they took stuff over there for them. And that’s so beautiful. And I was like, “Wow.” Just the compassion they have, they were like, “We don’t care if you’ve done all this shit to us, but we’re here to help you realize that.”
I was hoping all these veterans being here made the police force realize: What are you really doing? How could you live with yourselves, spraying people in negative temperatures and giving people hypothermia? We’ve all seen the videos, we all know the truth. Everyone knows the truth. It’s like, how could you live with yourself, spraying innocent people? This isn’t a violent movement where people are looting. It’s a non-violent movement. People are just here voicing their hearts and saying stop. We want this water forever. It’s coming to that point in this world where water is more precious than oil.
When I first came in September, what really wowed me was when I was sitting up at the Sacred Fire and all of a sudden there were thirty Muslim women from the Middle East. They were wearing their traditional attire and they just came and everyone was like: “Wow.” They were there, and it was like: What’s going on?
And they came up to the speakers stand and they were telling their stories. “We’re here to stand with you guys. We’re the native people of the Middle East.” I can’t remember where they were from. “So we’re tired of this oil. This oil has ravaged our country and we’re done. We’re here to stand in solidarity with you guys.” And that just opened my eyes even more. I was like “Wow, people from an oil rich country in the world are here to stand in solidarity with us.” And it was just like . . . Just imagine, you know? That was a big opening “wow” for me.
There’s so many stories here that need to be told that haven’t been told. Just being here, I didn’t want to get arrested or anything. But if I had to I would. But I’m a teacher, I could lose my job. I could lose my career over being a felon, but I didn’t think of it like that.
So what was the best thing I could do? So I started taking pictures with my iPhone and the pictures that I took were very [momentous]. I took one of the first action up by Saint Anthony when people were there, first chaining themselves to the bulldozers. And I was about ready to leave and come back to camp and here comes a Navajo family. It was three generations. It was two daughters, their brothers and their kids. And then a lady had a three-month-old on a cradleboard and her mother and her grandmother were there. They all jumped out of the van and the grandmother took the baby and the cradleboard. She was overlooking the bulldozers and everything and she had her scarf on her nose and it was three generations of protectors.
So I asked the elderly lady: “Could I take a picture of you with your grandchild?” She was like “yeah, sure!” So she moved forward. And I was like “No, I want to take you facing the bulldozer.” And so she faced the bulldozer and she grabbed her grandchild and I took that picture. And right when I posted that picture I’d say within the hour there were a thousand shares and I don’t know how many likes. It just ignited a wildfire and I got some messages from people who were like, “I’ve never supported anything like this before. I never supported environmental issues until I’d seen that picture, it brought me to tears.” I’m just thinking: “Wow, a simple picture can help change someone’s heart about what’s going on here.” And so that’s the educational component of what’s going on here. Educate yourself. Educate others. Tell people what’s going on. If you can help, do whatever you can to help. Donation drives, whatever you can do. Get people aware of what’s going on, you know? That was my part. And it worked.
IC: Anything else you’d like to add?
Orlando: I guess it kind of got sad when people thought it was over and everything. It’s kind of sad because people were going to leave. I was like “no, I don’t want to leave.” You don’t want it to end because there’s so much unity and everything here. But just on an endnote: just never give up your dreams and give up your thoughts and your heart. Just always follow your heart and if you want to come here, follow your heart. Don’t listen to the headlines. Don’t listen to Facebook. Don’t listen to the media telling you you cannot come here. This is the United States of America, the land of the free, as far as I still remember. You can go and come as you please. Just follow your heart if you want to be here, be here. Don’t listen to the headlines, be here and follow your dreams. Never give up on them. I hope this is a wake up call to people to come together for a purpose. If you need help ask for help, do it, just like Ladonna did.