Milton Born With A Tooth, an Indigenous activist who was jailed as part of his fight for land and water rights for First Nations across Canada, died Saturday at age 61 after a brief battle with cancer.
He gained notoriety after an armed confrontation with RCMP in 1990 over the construction of the Oldman River Dam in southern Alberta.
"I always had the greatest respect for him and I was very sorry when I heard he passed. I know it's a big loss, not only to his friends and family, but to his Nation, for sure," said Russ Diabo, a policy analyst, activist and member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, Que.
'A strong personality'
"Milton was a strong personality. You know, he supported all peoples' struggles."
Construction on the Oldman River Dam began in 1988.
It was meant to help expand a pre-existing irrigation network to support farmers in southern Alberta, but the dam was opposed by environmental activists and some members of the Piikani First Nation, who said there hadn't been adequate consultation or study, and that the development adversely affected water flows on Piikani land and destroyed fish habitats.
In 1990, Born With A Tooth and a group of other activists called the Peigan Lonefighters Society attempted to dig a ditch to divert the river to its original course.
The plan resulted in an armed standoff with dozens of RCMP officers and Born With A Tooth.
The officers had entered the First Nation in an attempt to enforce a court injunction that forbid the river diversion, and Born With A Tooth fired two shots into the air to stop them, according to news reports of his court testimony at the time.
"Why do I have to go to jail when [then premier] Ralph Klein is the real criminal," Born With A Tooth said before his sentencing.
I am not and could never be remorseful for defending my connection and love for this land. - Milton Born With A Tooth
He was convicted of, among other charges, possessing a rifle for a dangerous purpose and pointing a rifle at an officer.
He was sentenced to 16 months in jail for the incident. But elders and environmentalists challenged the dam in court, eventually earning a $64-million settlement with the provincial and federal governments for the First Nation.
"His life just adds to that generation that's passing on, leaving it to the younger generation to have to pick up and deal with the struggles that they're inheriting that weren't resolved," said Diabo.
"When we see people like that, who had a lot of influence amongst our people and keeping our traditions going, keeping our connection to the land, being able to stand up to governments and industry to defend those rights in the face of those pressures, it's a big loss, because who's going to step in to help do that."
'They were fierce'
Nicole Eshkakogan, Born With A Tooth's niece,said her uncle spent his life devoted to protecting "Mother Earth." She said he was one of the last of a generation of activists.
"They were fierce in their protection, but he sees this generation as having a lot less fear … he felt he was leaving a legacy, and he was really proud of all of his nephews and nieces because they were breaking down barriers in different areas."
Environmental activists, including Green Party leader Elizabeth May, shared condolences for Born With A Tooth's loved ones on social media.
Born With A Tooth's obituary describes him as a "lifelong protector of the Blackfoot way of life, and the lands and waters of the earth."
Just last month, Born With A Tooth penned his own epitaph and shared it with APTN.
"I am not and could never be remorseful for defending my connection and love for this land," he wrote.
Eshkakogan said her uncle died, surrounded by loved ones, at Chinook Care Hospice in Calgary and that he stayed independent until the end — even going outside to enjoy nature and listen to music on the day of his death.
She said he wanted to leave a message of Indigenous cooperation, and a focus on the next big battle — climate change.
"He really wanted Nations to come together and work together to find the answers within themselves … we have all the tools and knowledge and so he really felt that community is the medicine," she said.
He leaves behind 16 children.
Born With A Tooth's family will be holding a celebration of life on his birthday on June 9 until June 11 at the community hall in Brocket, Alta.