For singer and songwriter Armond Duck Chief, growing up singing powwow gave him the vocal power to later belt out his own country music songs.
"I grew up listening to country music and I grew up just loving that sound, the steel guitar and the fiddle," says Duck Chief, who now writes his own country music songs. He fondly recalls visiting close-knit relatives in Cluny, and travelling to rodeos with his dad — always with the musical backdrop of George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Sammy Kershaw.
"Powwow singing really helped me develop my voice," says Duck Chief. "You know, use it in a way where I can sing with the guitar and throw my voice around, because in powwow … it takes a lot of certain muscles that help us sing."
Duck Chief is one of four Indigenous artists from Alberta profiled in a new CBC documentary, Intertribal, airing Saturday, Nov. 7, on CBC and streaming on GEM. The 45-minute documentary offers a glimpse into the lives of the Indigenous musicians.
Bebe Buckskin busks with her acoustic guitar on Stephen Avenue in Calgary. (Adam Solway)
The artists are open about exploring their roots as Indigenous people in the province in a series of one-on-one conversations with each other.
Bebe Buckskin, a rock musician from Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta, says her music is both a passion and a responsibility. She chats one-on-one with Olivia Tailfeathers, an elder who brings traditional Blackfoot words and language into her songs.
The women share a love of horses and a concern for the loss of traditional language. They also love writing and performing their own music.
Buckskin says she's very comfortable when performing, either on stage, or especially out busking.
"That's how I made my living for a while, was just was through busking," she told Tailfeathers.
"That's how I fed my kids and that's how I paid rent. That's why I love it so much. It's such a great experience to be able to connect with people on that level and to feel their appreciation. It's a beautiful energy exchange."
Tailfeathers, who grew up going to residential schools and later became a teacher on the Blood Reserve, says she was influenced by both Christian hymns and traditional Indigenous music.
She had always been musical, but one day picked up a drum and started testing her rhythm, eventually adding Blackfoot words. Her goal was to bring the music to her students.
"The best thing is passing it on to the young people," she says. "And being proud of who you are as First Nations people."
The conversations are frank and revealing.
"What is it that keeps you singing?" Duck Chief asks his longtime friend Darcy Turning Rope, a Blackfoot powwow singer and drummer.
"I'm thinking of all the people who are on the street or in the hospitals, or just living a rough lifestyle, and when I'm singing hard, I think of them all the time. That's what keeps me coming, and I feel I get something out of it," Turning Rope says. "I get tremendous joy off it."
The two met as young men playing hockey and also did powwow singing together.
"You were one of the main inspirations when I started singing, when I was very young," Turning Rope says to his friend. "When I used to live in Calgary, when I used to go down to reserve, you were one of the first people to ask me to come sing."
For a while, the two were in a band called Siksika Boys.
Duck Chief says his sense of shared community is part of his life, growing up Siksika, surrounded by a supportive community and very involved in rodeo, hockey and music. Turning Rope grew up in Calgary, and says powwow music has helped him keep a connection to his heritage and to his grandfather. He's a fifth-generation Blackfoot powwow singer.
"Beautiful, to have that connection with my grandfather. I miss him a lot still, and that's what gives me joy because he's the main one that taught me how to sing — he made me lead when I was eight years old," he says, adding that he loves travelling and sharing the music.
He especially loves to remind the younger generations that Blackfoot music is still going strong.
"I love being out there with the youth and showing these youth another way, another door, for them to experience. Singing's what saved me, in many different ways," he says. Every time I'm singing, I feel like I'm doing something right."
Filmmaker Trevor Solway is himself a Blackfoot from Siksika Nation. Despite a long family history of ranching, Solway chose to become a champion for community storytelling. This is his first film to be broadcast on CBC.
"The word 'intertribal' represents the coming together of people, expressions and talents, and this documentary is about the coming together of four great talents," Solway says in a release. "I'm excited to share Intertribal because it showcases the wealth of musical artistry we have yet to uncover in Treaty 7."