Defending the Oldman River

Craig Benjamin interviews Milton-Born-With-A-Tooth about the struggle to defend the Oldman River in Alberta. 1991

To the Peigan Nation which lives along its banks, the Oldman River is a sacred site and a source of life. But to the government of Alberta, which has dammed the river, it is money and it is power. Hello, I’m Craig Benjamin, and in this half hour I’ll be speaking with Milton Born-With-A-Tooth of the Peigan Nation about his fight to save the Oldman River.
The Oldman River dam project has been the subject of legal and political wrangling for more than a decade. In March, 1990 environmentalists and Native groups won an important victory when the federal court of appeal quashed the construction permits for the dam and called for a full environmental impact assessment. Despite this ruling, however, the province continued to work on the dam. Fed up with the legal process, Milton Born-With-A-Tooth decided to take action. After re-forming the Lone Fighters, an old Blackfoot anti-colonial society, Born-With-A-Tooth launched what he calls “an action to heal the river.” Using a bulldozer, Born-With-A-Tooth began cutting a canal through reserve land, a canal that if completed would divert the Oldman River away from an important irrigation weir and return it to its original channel. At first the provincial government didn’t take this action seriously, but by the end of the summer it laid claim to the Peigan land and took out an injunction against the Lone Fighters. In September of 1990, RCMP officers entered the Peigan reserve and confiscated the earth-moving equipment. In the confrontation that followed Milton Born-With-A-Tooth fired two rifle shots into the air as a warning to the RCMP. For this he was later convicted of eight weapons charges and sentenced to a total of twenty-two months in jail. After four months in jail, Born-With-A-Tooth received bail while appealing the decision. I spoke with him when he visited Guelph in May, 1991.

You have taken some extraordinary actions to prevent the completion of the Oldman River dam, and to defend the river. Can you explain why it’s so important to you?

I guess it has to be let known as to how the process is going, to give justification for projects like that. One of the main aspects of what we see is not giving priority as to the connection between ourselves and the river itself; as to what importance does it give us to be who we are. It’s kind of like everybody wants to try to figure out on a larger question as to what is sovereignty, what is self-government, what is Aboriginal right, what is Native, what is all these things? Well, our lifestyle has been that we try to explain, for so long, in so many different ways. But now our direct contact to our way of life is now being threatened, or more or less severed. So that’s the reason why we did what we did, because we know there’s something far greater within the Oldman, as to what it provides us with. What it provides is what very few people, now maybe in a way see as being kind of important. But to us it’s one of the most sacred parts. What knowledge does that river have to us? And that knowledge comes from the beginning of time. So that’s how come we see it to be very important. Because it has not only to save the environment, but it has a lot to save us and our way of life, our way of thinking, our way of how we can maintain what we’re trying to at least show the rest of this country, that they’re having problems with the Native people, so to speak, because we are involved in all the different lifestyles. When it comes to resources, or when it comes time to ask the greatest question as to how they’re going to deal with the prospect of trying to finalize the constitution. We’re there too just as well, yet nobody really knows us. They read about us, they have this image of us, but that’s not true.

So in a way, what we did on August the 3rd of last year, we took it upon ourselves to educate, but not only to educate but to show that we still care about our lifestyle. Because in a way we say, “how can people really see us to be real, about who we say we are when we hold sacred the Bible, when we hold sacred the constitution?” When we hold sacred all the things that are not us. But when we hold the earth sacred and we hold all these other things sacred, then people will respect us. Then they’ll see how badly threatened we are, at the brink of extinction of this way of connection.

The dam which is now under construction, I guess almost completed, on the Oldman River, it’s something that’s been in the planning stages, it’s been talked about since 1966. You took actions after almost twenty-five years of this process. During all of that intervening time had there been contact between the Peigan people and the various levels of government responsible for this planning of the dam?

It kind of started in 1922, it didn’t just start in 1966 or whatever. The priming process had started in 1922. And the process was, how are they going to utilize the river? And, what are they going to utilize it for? One of the main reasons is for irrigational purposes. So in kind of a way we have always been telling them different things up to this point. It isn’t like all of a sudden August 3rd was the first time we did something. No. We’ve been fighting them back. It’s just that as of March of last year it was the last straw that we can hope and depend on the system to do right. Because a ruling was passed down last March by the federal government telling the province that they had to do a full environmental assessment process and stop the project. But the province ignored that and continued to go. So had we done this five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, I think we wouldn’t have had the support we have from the non-Native community, which is very important as part of this. Five, ten years ago the non-Native community did not understand the word “environment.” They still kind of perceived us as being people that were not important. We were still perceived as ... The racist question is very big, and the unjust processes very, very real. That’s where a lot of our support is coming, as to how the judicial system is treating us in these situations when we come down to protect ourselves. But five, ten years ago that was not important. The same people that were supporting me now were my enemies five years ago. They would not deal with me.

So the thing is, we have to really be careful about what it is that we are about to go down the road with into the future. We know at least one thing, that we do need a very strong commitment to really protecting our homeland. And our homeland, there happens to be a lot of people in it. We’re not the only ones that can do it, we need these people. So the reason why we did this last year was because there was no way. That’s what we said, that we were at the end of everything. Every process, every rule, everything was done. So when the government tells us something we say, “no we’re not going to listen. Here’s our evidence: we give you all this time to prove yourself.” And now we’re taking all that and we're using it against them so we can tell the rest of the country that this does not work, that we have to go somewhere else. So that’s what we did.

In a way it was meant to happen last year. It was not meant to happen at no other time than that time, because of the way it was brought about. It was done in a way that we ourselves, who we are as the Lone Fighters Society, we did not claim that we were the ones who were at the head of this. The Oldman River is at the head of this. That’s who deserves priority, that’s who deserves recognition, is this river. It’s that strong. It has lots of solutions in it. It has lots of good medicine. But it has our life in it. So it was meant last year, because the people were ready. They were ready to see us as true people fighting for the earth. We’ve always been fighting for the earth. We fought for it in 1867, we fought for it in 1868, 69. Everyday, every time we did a ceremony, every time we did a ritual we were fighting for the environment. It’s just that nobody seen it as being important then, but they see it as important now. But we haven’t changed. We still put it before us. It’s just that now is the time that we can get along.

You revived a very old tradition in the Lone Fighters Society. Is this something that you’ve always known about?

My dad was one. So it’s not hard. I’m one. No one doubts that back home. They may question my actions and my way of doing it but they do not question where I come from. I come from this way of life. And kind of like in the early 1900s when the government outlawed our religion, all things seized. Then when they re-told us we can do our ceremonies again - I think they did that after World War II, after what Hitler had done to the Jews. Then all of a sudden Canada turned around and the spotlight was being shone around the rest of the world as to what genocide really meant. So they gave us back our rituals. They said, “okay you can go ahead and do these, perform what you are, but you can only perform certain ones.” So they restrict some of our ceremonies that they said were “barbaric” and different things like that.

So the Lone Fighter society was one of the societies that never came back up at the time. It waited. It waited until we came in and gave it what it was meant to be. Like when you use medicine, there’s a certain ritual before you can do things with it. So we did that certain ritual and that’s how we revived it. It comes back. Where it comes from? As far as we know it comes from the creator as he was laying out the instructions. It was one part of a nation, as to what its duties were. All we did was follow in place, that’s all. We didn’t create nothing new. We used something very original and very strong. It’s medicines and what it’s made to be is what is so strong about it. Some of the others came by and told us stories of it, because a lot of us didn’t know most all the stories of it. Because there was that gap in between where it had not been doing things. So no one really carried on the knowledge of it, until we come along. Then they come and they tell us, “the Lone Fighters society in all its life have never lost a battle.” How many things can we say in this world can be that pure? So that meant a lot. It said a lot. And most of all, we knew that it was that strong because of what we were doing. It was like a driving factor for us. The thing about it was that they came and they told us a prophecy, and that prophecy is what we were part of. We were a part of this prophecy that this was going to happen. That’s why some of the old people come by and they tell us, “oooh, do you know what you really did?” And for us it was like... We really didn’t know. But we felt it strong enough that we needed to do something.

So we did all the right little things and all the right things come up, and that’s how we were able to revive what this society was meant to be doing, and that was to protect. All it is is protection. Nothing else. For myself, being the leader of this society I’ve always told people that I’m not a leader of people, I’m leader of this society. I have to maintain its credibility. That’s one of the reasons why when it came to the RCMP moving in, that’s why I’m the only one that shot, because that was my position. I had to maintain the strength of it. If it meant dying for it, then that’s what I was ready to do. So that one part as to how strong it was has proved a lot. And it’s going to prove a lot more. But the bottom line is, is what makes it strong is the connection and the truth to it, and sincerity. Very few people can make commitments. Well this one here, that’s what it has to be. So it did what it was meant to do.

Can you define simply what a Lone Fighter is?

[speaks in Blackfoot] See that, you’ll never know. It’s only meant for us. Some parts of our lifestyle the outside world will never have any right to it, and I have no right to give it up either. So that’s what it really is.

I read descriptions of the Lone Fighters as defenders of the people and of the land.

In a way I guess that would be the future. That’s what it is, bottom line. Whether they like it or not, it is being done. Because that’s our role, regardless, we do not be taken off our path as to what we do, so we continue it. It’s part of it. We are protectors. As to tell people what to do, that’s not our position, all we can do is protect, so that’s what we've done. In a way, for the people inside our homeland, and for the way some of the people on the outside look at our homeland, they see some strength. For the first time they see the Peigan nation as having some strength. And who is at the head of it? It says a lot. The Lone Fighters society have done a lot for our homeland.

This conversation with Milton Born-With-A-Tooth of the Lone Fighters society resumes in just a few seconds.

[Music interlude]

What’s made the TV news, and what’s made the newspaper headlines were the actions of cutting the canal to try and break into that diversion dam that has been built on reserve land in the river. But I understand that there’s a whole other part of your actions over the fall, there’s a healing process taking on as well.

Why attention? Why people took onto it? Because it was a joke at the beginning, and that was part of why we got away with things, because they underestimated us. A part of what was going on over the summer, and what has always been going on. People have always, you know, the different ways of protesting and the different ways of action. Here was one that was totally different. What we said we were going to do, we said we were going to move a river, and they didn't believe us. We weren’t blockading, we weren’t doing anything, we were going right back in tune with nature, because we knew what we had to go back to, as to how the idea comes. Government asks us that, they say, “how did you come across this idea, as to how to do this, what you’ve done?” The thing was, they didn’t like the answer. Because I went across and talked to an elder and I asked him after the federal ruling, and the way the province just continued, and the federal government didn’t want to pursue, ensure that that was done. So I went and told this elder, “it’s gotten this bad. I want to do something. Should we go and blow it up?” You know, all these things. “Should we go and protest in Ottawa? Should we go blockade the highway? Should we blow up?” You know, all these things. He said, “you want to protect the river, you want to protect this way of life, then all you’ve got to do is go see who is caretaker of that.” He said, “someone is caretaker, so he’ll give you a plan.” So we did. I told him, “okay so who is this person we’ve got to go see?” He said, “well who else but the beaver. He changes rivers, he makes lakes, streams. He’s caretaker. You go and you see him and he’ll give you a plan.”

So that’s where our plan comes from. That’s why it was very unique. We didn’t use a blueprint process. That’s why the enemy couldn’t figure us out. That’s why we got away with what we did. They didn’t believe for one second that we could get away with it because we weren’t following their structure on how to do it. We’re going back on where the river is, and where this irrigation system where we were diverting the water away from. Everybody thought we were diverting the water away from, but in 1922 they were the ones that altered the course of that one part of the river to facilitate this irrigation system. All we did was re-open the river, the old river, and we let the water go back through it. That was the healing process, but not only was that a healing process, but where we did it was the original site of where the Lone Fighters Society used to camp. So it made it even more special. In a way it wasn’t like we said, “oh this is where they lived, we’re going to go back.” None of us knew that. We were very unconscious about it. But what we were conscious about was we needed to do something to show that we cared, and that we were willing to do whatever it took to protect this river, even if it was to take it and move it somewhere else. That’s what we did. That’s what made it so amazing, because it was something that was done very extraordinary. We used nature to do what we did, and it was effective.

As you say, it didn’t seem as though the provincial and law enforcement authorities were talking the Lone Fighters very seriously initially. It was only when you actually got through to the diversionary weir and started cutting through it, it seemed like they panicked. They grew very alarmed at what you were doing. And then a court order was taken out, just ordering you to stop your work. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Just what you said explains it all. That was theirs, that was not ours. We were there and we were listening to only our way of life, our creation, our rules, our ways. That's what we were listening to. Regardless of what many distractions came, that was only one part, the provincial coming in and saying, “wait a minute, this is ours, this is what we’ve got to do with it. And you guys have got to listen to it regardless.” But to us it was just like a mosquito, all we did was brush it away and continue. Like we’re still doing now, still continuing. So that’s part of what, when we look at it real seriously - because I've had the chance to look at it real seriously in the judicial process, and that process has nothing of what we are as people in it. They have Einstein’s theory in it, you know they have Jesus Christ’s theory in it. They have all these different theories within the judicial process as how to measure right and wrong, but they do not have the Lone Fighters measurement as to how we see what right and wrong is. And if we could be equal, like the rule of law says, everyone equal under the law, well what law is it that we’re talking about? That’s where we divide, and show that this country does not see us as being part of this process. That’s why we did what we had to do, because we’re not part of it. All of a sudden people say, it’s kind of like, “you’re not supposed to do that.” Well, that’s really weird. Yet they can go into the Gulf, and go annihilate a race of people and be accepted. Yet they can do World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict. Yet they can have people like Julius Cesear, Aristotle and all these people. And they think that that’s right. That’s where we come from.

All we're showing this country, everybody wants to understand, like when we started off with this interview, we’ve got to understand one thing: what is our role within this country? You’re going to start hearing what we believe, what our process of thought is, how we measure the rule of law, how we measure the law of gravity, how we measure what is sacred and what is not sacred. We do not need to say it, and then all of a sudden some professor comes along, or some Indian agent, or some royal commission, and kind of try to break it up, like Einstein coming back alive all over again and trying to smash the atom, and tell us that it can be done. We know that truth can not be broken up. It’s got to be left as whole. So we see that, but how do we come to that point? How is it that we can understand that, without going through a whole confusing approach of A, B, C, 1, 2, 3? Kind of like, as far as I’ve gone in school, seven and a half grades, but yet I know more, because I go use this process, this way of thought that nobody takes seriously. That’s how come I get away with a lot of things, because everybody underestimates, but they don’t know the power, where I go to understand things. Far greater.

Which maybe brings us to the shot you fired when the RCMP came onto your land to try to stop the diversion, try and carry out that court order. Do you think that your law and your way of doing things will get a chance to be heard?

See that’s where there’s a kind of misunderstanding. I mean, you look at all these “No trespassing” signs, eh. You look at some of these storeowners. They have shot in defense of their property. It’s not that I was trying to get away with nothing in this country, but that law in there says we have a right to protect our own property. A white man can do that, he can protect his land, he can protect his store. But when I come up and I protect my own territory, and do the same action that he would do... First he would give a warning. We gave a warning. We told the RCMP and the government, ”you’re trespassing.” They did not listen. So we did the next thing, because the law, as far as I understand that process, you can use undue force to evict a trespasser. I did that. That’s not my law, that’s your law. But then, when it comes to a Native man like me, does it work for me? No it doesn’t. Look at the same incident, which we have to measure real well, so that people can understand what I’m saying. Because everybody looks at me and thinks I’m carrying a gun, and that was wrong. No. I was protecting my property.

Look at the Aryan nation in Provost, Alberta. They’re having a celebration at the same time that my situation was going on. They were firing guns up in the air, they were burning crosses, they even punched out a few of the media that were there, harassing some of the local people in that town. And some of the local people asked for the RCMP to intervene, and the RCMP told them, “no, all our forces are needed down on the Peigan reserve.” Yet these guys are out shooting their guns off, semi-automatic weapons, swearing, doing all the same things that I was charged with. But what were they protecting? And what was I protecting? The thing is, we’ve got to look at it very seriously, because the same man that was at the head of this Aryan nation, three months ago he killed an old Indian man, and he went to court. You know how many years they gave him for killing this old Indian man? They gave him four years. And this Aryan nation guy goes in the court and tells the judge, “you ought to pin a medal on me for what I did.” Had I said anything derogative in court, the judge would have used it against me. Because I said I was willing to die for my people, he said, “that’s a very bad statement.” That’s why I had to go through five bail hearings to get out, because he said I was a danger to society. He could not understand why I was willing to die for my country.

You’re trying to marshal support from across Canada. Who are you looking to for support for your cause?

I’m looking to people. Real people, or the people. No one special. Just looking to the people. And if they do not support it that’s alright, because I’m going to die alone anyway. So to me, I’m not on no tour, I’m not on no campaign. I’m here just to share the truth to who wants to listen. And whether they do something with it or not, that’s alright. At least the truth be shown, so that at least maybe one time, one way, someone out there will come into a situation where they’ll see it, and they’ll say, ’oh yeah, I have a little bit of knowledge on how to figure out something, because we met this person who wants to show people that don’t need money, don’t need to be a politician, don’t need to be somebody great. All you need to be is a human being that cares, and do it. Stand up. But do it in a sincere way.”

So in that way, that’s what I have to offer. And for now, some people are willing to give me that opportunity, so I obliged them back and I tell them the truth about how things are, the way things happened. What happened in the summer of 1990 is going to go down in history, whether people measure it by Oka, the people in Kanasetake, whether they measure it by the final realization of what James Bay Two is going to be all about, or the Mount Curri people in BC, or clear-cutting, or whatever. But it’s going to be measured. So I’ve got to at least clear some of the myths around it, some of the understanding. But most of all I want to share the solutions. At least there are some people out there I know are really concerned about alternativeness, and that’s what we want to deal with. That kind of support is needed, that we need to work together. We need to accept each other as “what do we have to add” rather than “what do we have to subtract?” We’ve got to add that up real well. The more of us, we begin to see that Mulroney and his merry men are a very small group of people, not as powerful as people think, that they can run a country. We run the country. Once we touch each other altogether then we’ll realize that we are the masses. Then we’ll do something about it. But it’s a slow process. And of course I’ve got a heavy legal battle going on right now, an awesome one. On both levels: I’ve got one judicial and one civil. So that kind of support is needed too, just as well, otherwise I’m going to get railroaded through the system. I already am getting railroaded anyway. But you know, the best way is I can use my situation. People are always trying to figure out the moral and just issues of human beings, well here’s one that they can really look into, and feel fulfilled that they will be able to have some clear evidence that there is a very wrong being heavily campaigned by the system, to do these unjust things to certain races of people. So there’s lots of things in what goes on with mine, but the thing is I just need a lot of support, one way or the other.

Milton Born-With-A-Tooth is the leader of the Peigan Lone Fighters Society. I spoke with him in the spring of 1991. One year later, the court has still not ruled on his appeal. In a separate case, the Supreme Court of Canada did rule that a full-scale environmental impact assessment must be conducted on the Oldman River dam, but in the meantime the province had completed the dam. The Lone Fighters and the friends of the Oldman River are now trying to prevent the province closing the floodgates on the dam before the assessment is completed. For more information about the campaign to save the Oldman River, you can contact the Friends of the Oldman River at 455 12th street, North West, Calgary, Alberta, T2N 1Y9. I'm Craig Benjamin, thank you for listening.

Related Readings

Milton-Born-With-A-Tooth - Connexipedia article

Commentary on Canadian Justice: Review of the Born-With-A-Tooth case By Tony Hall.

Subject headings

Aboriginal RightsDamsFirst NationsLand TakeoversNative PeoplesRivers