'Long live Indian Cowboys': APTN series, Amplify, shines light on country music and horse culture on Siksika Nation

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When Trevor Solway was a communications major at Mount Royal University, he enlisted fellow Siksika Nation resident Armond Duck Chief for a school project.

Both were just getting started. It was nearly a decade ago and it became Solway’s first video project. Duck Chief was also fairly early on in his career as a country singer.

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“I was just thinking about it,” says Soloway, in a Zoom interview alongside Duck Chief. “We did something similar. And now we’re doing it for real.”

Soloway is now a seasoned filmmaker who has worked with Duck Chiseveralber of occasions, including in his 2018 series of musical profiles for the University of Calgary campus radio station CJSW called Intertribal Series. 

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So it was natural for The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network to pair the two up for an episode of Amplify, which airs this Friday. The series, now in its second season, profiles Indigenous musicians in Canada. The episodes are directed by Indigenous filmmakers using a fully Indigenous crew. Each week, the series visits a songwriter and follows him or her through the creative process of penning a new song.

For Solway and Duck Chief, who are both Blackfoot, it was a good excuse to throw a spotlight on Siksika and explore the overlap between country music and Indigenous horse culture. The episode also features Allison Red Crow, an icon of the Indian Relay Race and up-and-coming rodeo star Travis Maguire. Duck Chief also comes from a long line of riders in the Siksika Nation. Throughout the episode, which was shot in various locations including Solway’s family ranch, we see the songwriter pen Cowboy Indians, a twangy ode to “the complex lives of Indigenous cowboys.”

“After we had the initial meeting, I started brainstorming about what I wanted to write about,” Duck Chief says. “For me, a lot of my music is cowboy music, which I’ve been writing since my first album.”

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The songwriter’s roots in rodeo predate his musical career. On the circuit, Duck Chief would write and perform songs for his fellow cowboys on weekends. Back in 2006, his fellow cowboys began encouraging him to record early numbers such as Gold Buckle Dreams and I Love Being a Cowboy. Now, those are among the songs that Indigenous riders, including Maguire, use to pump themselves up before competing.

“That’s the reason why we wrote the song initially,” Duck Chief says. “Sitting there at the trailers, I came up with the tune and started showing it off and people were loving it. It was the whole reason why I’m doing what I’m doing today. They started asking, ‘Are you ever going to record that?’ Back in 2006, 2007, the idea was born and now all of my songs are slowly being recorded. The feeling is just awesome, that feeling from someone saying ‘I was jamming out to the song on the way to the rodeo and it pumped me up.’”

As the episode progresses and the song takes shape, Soloway interviews Duck Chief, Maguire and Red Crow about the horse culture on the Siksika Nation and the often dangerous world of the rodeo.

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Solway’s past work includes the 2016 comedic short Indian Giver and the 2021 documentary Kaatohkitopii: The Horse He Never Rode. He is also the writer, director and showrunner of the horror comedy anthology series Tales from the Rez, hich  is set to stream on APTN lumi on Oct. 20.

He grew up on his grandfather’s ranch in Siksika Nation.

“As an artist, I always wanted to escape that place,” Soloway says. “But now that I’m making films, all my projects bring me back there. That’s just how it is in Siksika. There’s a lot of horses and a lot of open prairies and it’s a huge part of my identity. I grew up listening to George Strait and George Jones and Brooks and Dunn and I still listen to them today. You would always hear it in the kitchen and the trucks. When Armond started coming out playing music, he was in that old style, too.”

There is certainly some of George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard in Duck Chief’s voice, a rich baritone that is on full display in Indian Cowboys. Duck Chief was in preschool when he first saw Jones in concert. Indian Cowboys offered him a chance to pay tribute to the history of Indigenous rodeo competitors.

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“We’ve had so many cowboys that hit the record books,” Duck Chief says. “When my dad was a kid, he remembered who was at the Calgary Stampede: who was winning, how the program looked. A lot of it was First Nations talent and I just wanted to bring that to life. One of my favourite lines in the song itself was ‘Long live Indian Cowboys.’”

Duck Chief released his debut, Country Groove, in 2011.  His album The One was nominated for Best Aboriginal Album of The Year in 2016.

“When they said (I) was the first country artist that they were going to cover, that was good,” he says. “We get to let everybody know that we’re here and country music is part of what we do. There is so much talent around northern Alberta, southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. There are so many good Indian country artists. I’m just honoured and humbled to be a part of that.”

Amplify airs Fridays on APTN.

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