The Lubicon Cree of Little Buffalo
ALL PHOTOS COPYRIGHTED JIMMY JEONG 2011
In 1899 the Canadian government missed the isolated community of the Lubicon Cree, whose traditional land is around Lake Lubicon in northern Alberta, Canada. They have never surrendered the rights to their land and there is an ongoing treaty dispute. Amnesty International has called on Canada to settle these disputes and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has found Canada in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is no running water to the community and there is an increased encroachment of oil and gas development in the area.
On April 28, 2011, 28,000 barrels of light crude oil spilled from Plains Midstream Canada’s 45-year-old Rainbow pipeline less than 12km from the community. The spill traveled down and settled into a beaver dam 3kms away from Lubicon Lake, the traditional hunting ground of the Lubicon Cree Nation. The school in Little Buffalo was closed when teachers and children nearby complained of nausea and dizziness. No one from government or the oil company came to visit to warn of the dangers of the spill.
On May 5, 2011 I arrived on scene in the area to document the massive oil spill. Over the course of the next nine days, returning a second time, I’ve tried my best to tell the story. This first post is a brief introduction. It has definitely been a struggle to try to edit the photos and tell this complicated story. I hope to post further stories in the coming weeks.
There are two chiefs in Little Buffalo. There has been controversy over the leadership in Little Buffalo. Some residents are frustrated with what they describe as self-proclaimed Chief for life Chief Bernard Ominayak. But they did describe him as a fearless and hard-fighting leader during struggles in the ’80s. I don’t know enough to go further into this. There had been a recent election in which Steve Noskey was elected as the chief, but the election has been disputed and is not recognized by the Canadian government. When I was in Little Buffalo, I saw first-hand how this has led to further confusion and miscommunication. During a town hall meeting when they were trying to decide whether or not it was safe to reopen the school, Chief Noskey and the school principal had very little information on whether it was safe. Meanwhile, the Alberta government and the media write that there has been communications with the band leaders (not always mentioning the names of who they contacted).
The community has a population of around 300, with many families with small children. The land around Little Buffalo is rich in varying eco-systems and is criss-crossed by waterways and soft marsh and lakes. And rightfully the people were worried that the contamination could easily leak into nearby lakes and streams affecting much of northern Alberta.
I feel that Lillian Whitehead, who teaches Cree at the Little Buffalo school, is the heroine of my story. She welcomed us into her home, shared meals, and shared stories. On my first meeting, she told me that every horror story of residential schools I’ve heard is true. Her warm smile quickly faded as she went into her own thoughts. When her husband was 38, he committed suicide and as a single parent she raised their six children. She put herself through college and saved to buy her home.
She recalled a recent dream she had as several of us huddled around in her kitchen, including several of her grandchildren. In her dream she was visited by a bear which she wrestled. Growing more and more weary, she held on to the bear as it struggled in her arms. She says that the bear will visit you and nudge you in your dreams to remind you to keep helping your community. Lillian admitted that she had been getting so tired after so many years of trying to help her people, with constant battles and problems. But she was glad that she had been reminded to keep going.
Residents in the community say that the water levels have decreased dramatically. They blame the oil industry of siphoning the water for use in their operations. I toured some of the oil operations last year near Fort McMurrray. When I heard that they used non-drinkable water for much of their in-situ operations, at the time, I thought nothing of it. But now, I realise that even this water is part of this land and eco-systems. There is an affect on the land and animals - traditional hunting lands are also effected.
Felix Noskey, 84, has been hunting in his traditional hunting grounds for decades. He told us that he was able to support his family, buy his house and stay out of debt from the proceeds of his hunting. But he says that he sees signs of contamination on his trap-lines and that the animal migration patterns are being affected.
Lloyd Noskey, has been taught the traditional ways of hunting and skinning animals by his father Felix, but is the only one of the children continuing in this path.
Several Christian organizations have come and left this community of Little Buffalo throughout the years.
A cemetary in Little Buffalo.
Seismic cutlines go as far as the eye can see and from the air this interlaced grid can be seen all through northern Alberta. The full effects of this type of oil exploration on the habitat is yet to be determined.
I have one question and one question only. Why the fuck am I awake? Oh yeah, my bestfriend gone ex best friend recently gone best friend again decided to take me to Little Buffalo in honor of our making up. Only problem? It just had to be today. And it just had to be this early. Oh well. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Little Buffalo storyLittle Buffalo
By Earl Kunkel
The grass pummeled to dirt. The brown wetted to mud, dried the next day by the sun. The herd nomadically camped upon the land, chewing the grass and running to fight staying stationary, complacent even. Who needed a cave when the land provided everything? At night the children gathered around the warmth of the fire and conversation to listen to the stories Old Buffalo told before the sleep came.
Tonight Old Buffalo spoke of Frightful Hog, a ruthless capitalist who led an army of pigs into the Grasslands with the intention of slicing the Buffaloes’ Achilles tendons, allowing them to no longer run nomadically from greenery to greenery as season and supply dictated by making the Grasslands apart of his ruthless empire of commodities and oils and coals. Old Buffalo spoke of Little Buffalo, a runt, jaundiced at birth, coming out of his mother feet first ready to run. Being small, Little Buffalo ran with nimble speed and agility, to small to fight but too fast to be caught. This served Little Buffalo well being able to run long distances without tiring. Despite his small physical stature, Little Buffalo was much esteemed within the tribe, labeled a Bolt for his unmatched speed and endurance amongst his peers, elders and comrades.
Little Buffalo routinely ran out and about solo, leaving the Grasslands for foreign adventures and distant lands of the unfamiliar, much like the stories of the travels of the constellation Astrosloth. Little Buffalo felt no need to fear the different and outside and unknown. His Bolt-speed always allowed him to catch back up and stay involved in the Buffalo community within the Grasslands; simultaneously, his speed allowed him to avoid danger if it arose upon his travels, which was hardly ever because Little Buffalo had a jovial nature of friendship and acceptance. A smile and mirth go a long way amongst company.
It was Little Buffalo who first learned of Frightful Hog and his intent of having the pigs descend upon the Grasslands. It was during a sojourn to the Industrial Farmlands that Little Buffalo became aware of the impending invasion. At a tavern, having just finished moshing, Little Buffalo moseyed up to the bar and ordered a local lager when he overheard a snippet of conversation between two of the Bacon Watch.
“Frightful Hog means to do away with the freedom of the Buffaloes,” spoke the loose-lipped young one.
His companion retorted, “Watch your tongue. The air hustle is upon us,” nodding his head in Little Buffalo’s direction.
Little Buffalo smiled and went about his evening of drink and dancing; however, the next morning Little Buffalo awoke early and hurried back to the tribe. Returning to the Buffalo tribe’s camp, he quickly sought out the rotating council of leaders—a council of 13 in which every member of the tribe eventually served upon, young and old, for brief rotating intervals of seven circle-moons before being replaced by a new council. Communicating the impending attack by simply stating to the herd council, “Rumors of war befall us. Bacon Watch scum speak of an invasion of Frightful Hog’s army of pigs upon the Grasslands to end the Buffaloes way of life.” On Little Buffalo’s information the council of 13 unanimously had the community break camp and begin a slow retreat from the encroaching army.
And as rumor became clairvoyance, Frightful Hog and his army of pigs invaded the Grasslands to pursue the Buffalo tribe. But Frightful Hog and his army of pigs from the Bacon Watch were never able to close in on the Buffalo tribe, always seeing the Buffalo herd just upon the horizon thanks to Little Buffalo’s advice. The Buffalo tribe’s speed was unrivaled in all the lands. As Frightful Hog and his army of pigs pursued, they were always just out of reach of the Buffaloes who were moving away at a normal pace of leisure; but on the other hand, Frightful Hog and his army of pigs were marching forward at a maddening pace, exhausting the squealing pigs of the Bacon Watch. Little Buffalo had a saying that he delivered upon returning from a scouting mission after taking a few gasps to catch his breath he spoke, “The hogs are on their way, resume the retreat!” until it became an anthemic chorus for all Buffalo to sing.
Under Little Buffalo’s sage advice, the herd began to destroy the food they did not consume and poison the water as they constantly retreated, fleeing their invaders; the Buffaloes to strong to turn and fight the pig army that drastically outnumbered their tribe. When they could, Little Buffalo and the council would lead Frightful Hog and his army of pigs into the neighboring lands of the Raven King, Valravne Bran the Mage, a powerful ruler who enslaved the Wolves and Coyotes with manipulative cunning. Valravne Bran the Mage had achieved mastery through possessing magical powers over other creatures in his domain, often letting others complete work for him and his Court of Unkindness. Not wanting to be invaded themselves, Valravne Bran summoned the enslaved, the Wolves and Coyotes, to attack Frightful Hog and his horde of pigs as if Gorillas from the Jungleland.
The proud pigs, accustomed to flaunting their bravado in swift, dramatic clashes were in despair. Frightful Hog sent his fastest courier, Potbelly of the Bacon Watch, who was barely able to catch up with the oldest, slowest buffalo, named Bison Bill, to deliver a message: “As your leader, I, Frightful Hog, order you to turn and fight!”
Bison Bill, quick mouthed and smart witted, retorted, “If he is our leader, tell your emperor he wears no clothes.” Bison Bill, good friends with Little Buffalo, told his compatriot of the exchange. Little Buffalo laughed heartedly and began a graffiti campaign to further demoralize the pigs. Using a stencil created by Bison Bill of a pig being trampled by a running Buffalo, Little Buffalo and a slew of Wisent Youth spray-painted the images on rocks as they continued their victorious retreat.
“Resume the retreat!!!” the Wisent Youth bellowed.
As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, the pigs’ morale was being shattered. They were losing faith in Frightful Hog and his capitalist aims of subjugating the Buffaloes of the Grassland. Their numbers having been depleted by minor skirmishes with the Wolves and Coyotes and the poisoned wells and the scarcity of food was overwhelming their psyche.
And then one morning, Frightful Hog and the pigs noticed a small group of Buffalo charging their ranks. Finally! The pigs would have their skirmish! But as the group of Buffalo continued to run forward, an undersized adult emerged from the pack smiling with laughter. Upon further examination, the pigs noticed the group of Buffalo were not charging their lines; rather, the buffalo were involved in a game of tag-chase, led by none-other-than Little Buffalo, the undersized adult who had emerged from the pack grinning with happiness.
Humiliated, the pigs threatened Frightful Hog with mutiny. Protecting his oppressor status, Frightful Hog was forced to have his army of proud pigs turn back and leave the Grasslands in defeat.
Concluding his story, Old Buffalo continued, “And this children is why the Buffalo are the most unconquerable of clans. We refuse to do battle, maintaining our way of life of freedom and non-constraint. RESUME THE RETREAT!!!