What is Treaty 7?
Treaty 7 was signed on Sept. 21, 1877 between the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina Nation, Stoney-Nakoda Nation and Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Legally, the treaty, called iniitsii in Blackfoot, meant that Indigenous people would relinquish their traditional territory and allow European settlers to... well, settle.
In return, Indigenous people were promised benefits such as health care, education, economic development, the right to hunt on their traditional hunting grounds and $5 to every treaty person.
For my people, the treaty meant to reconcile differences and move forward in a sustainable way. But moving forward can be difficult when you struggle to know who you are, and where you come from.
An identity in question
Today, I am comfortable saying that I am Blackfoot from Siksika Nation, but you wouldn’t guess that with a surname such as Solway. Growing up an hour and a half southeast of Calgary on a reserve near Bassano, Alta., I felt proud to be Blackfoot — to be nitsitipii, meaning “the real people.” Hearing the language, the songs, the stories and the prayers around me gave me a sense of identity. But when my Blackfoot identity was questioned, it sent me down a path of self-doubt.
I was probably six years old, on the playground at school. I recall another native kid telling me that my family wasn’t from Siksika, and that we should go back to where we came from. I got off the school bus upset that day, stormed into my house, threw my backpack to the floor and asked my mom if I was really Blackfoot.
“Of course you are,” I remember her telling me. It was then that she began to tell me the story of my family.
In the early 1900s, my great-great-grandpa Samuel Salois, a Metis man, left his home in Dupuyer, Mont., in search of work. He traveled by horse and wagon to his wife’s Cree reserve near Cold Lake, in northern Alberta, and found work on farms and ranches along the way. On their way back south, his wife got sick on a reserve east of Calgary called Siksika. She died of tuberculosis in 1927, and a few months later, Samuel died of tuberculosis as well. They left behind eight children, including my great-grandpa Adam.
The siblings were shipped to different reserves. Three boys remained at Siksika and were taken in by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate — the Catholic missionaries who had been in charge of Crowfoot Residential School on Siksika Nation. I’ve been told the nuns couldn’t pronounce Salois, and so renamed all the children with the surname Solway. Adam, orphaned at eight, was not biologically Blackfoot, but I’m told he could speak the language fluently. He participated in the spiritual practice of sundance and eventually became Chief.
I never met Adam, but my family always talked about him as if he were some sort of legend or part of some sort of folklore. Curious about this man, I began doing my research — and by research, I mean my 10-year-old self began asking as many questions as possible.
Stories of my great-grandpa Adam
Grandpa Adam was in the Brave Dog Society, a Blackfoot spiritual group. He served on Siksika Tribal Chief and Council for 12 years, for four of which he was Chief. He started the first-ever Blackfoot Co-op, where Siksika bought and managed cattle as a form of revenue for the nation. He also helped bring electricity to the reserve in the 1960s.
During Pierre Trudeau’s reign as Prime Minister, he and Jean Chrétien, the Minister of Indian Affairs at the time, introduced the 1969 “White Paper,” officially titled the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy. As part of Trudeau’s agenda to create a “just society,” the legislation’s goal was to dismantle the Indian Act, which Trudeau regarded as discriminatory. Although he thought he was “enabling the Indian to be free,” many believed Trudeau was eliminating Indian status, converting reserve land to private land and appointing a commissioner to work through existing land claims, which would gradually dissolve existing treaties.
Many First Nations people were outraged by this legislation, because they felt it was releasing Canada’s responsibility for years of injustices as well as its promise to uphold treaty rights.
Soon after, Citizen Plus, which became better known as the “Red Paper,” was brought forward. It held the federal government accountable to the treaties and treaty rights, and also made suggestions to improve health care, economics and education. The Red Paper was first introduced by revered political leader Harold Cardinal of Alberta along with my great-grandpa Adam, who had been chief of Siksika Nation at the time. The Red Paper represented the Indigenous disapproval of the 1969 White Paper, which caused the federal government to refuse to adopt the legislation as government policy.
But learning how immersed great-grandpa Adam was in Blackfoot culture and First Nations politics made me feel like he had earned the right to call himself Blackfoot — and I could too.
Bonding with a man I’d never met
My great-grandpa Adam’s story has always been my favourite of the tales of my heritage, so when I went to film school and journalism school to learn the craft of storytelling, I set out to make a documentary of his life.
I interviewed four of his surviving children for the project — Sonny, Rosemarie, Alvin and Marlene. After interviewing my great-aunt Rosemarie, she presented me with an audiocassette of grandpa Adam introducing himself in English, and then telling his story in Blackfoot. She played the tape for me while I packed my camera gear.
It started with a traditional Blackfoot song, and then I heard his voice. It struck me that I had researched and learned so much of this man, but I had never heard him speak.
Adam Solway begins speaking in English 11 minutes and 20 seconds in the Blackfoot recording that helped inspire Trevor Solway to take a deeper look into his past. Audio courtesy Trevor Solway
It sent a tremble through my body. It was almost a ghostly feeling. I felt like the whole puzzle of my identity was fitting together.
That tape collected dust in my desk for years. Just this past winter, I brought it home to my grandpa Sonny, Adam’s oldest son.
Before I had been given the tape, my grandpa Sonny had taught me the most about my great-grandpa Adam. Grandpa Sonny is an Indian cowboy from boots to hat. He likes to work, and runs his ranch west of Bassano the “old way,” the way his father taught him to. According to grandpa Sonny, the “old way” refers to a style of ranching where horses were heavily utilized and ranching technology was minimal. He often references Adam when we’re working outside.
Early in the morning, we sat in his western decorated living room drinking coffee, and I asked him if he wanted to hear the tape. He said yes. It had been 30 years since he last heard his father’s voice.
Grandpa Sonny was the one who recorded the tape in the first place. He recalls his dad was “crazy” about recording. I smiled, knowing that Adam had liked recording for the purpose of preserving the story of our family and our people — the same reason I chose a career in journalism.
I pressed play and watched him react. Initially he sat there looking towards the tape player, as if recalling the day it was recorded. Then silent tears rolled down his cheek. He told me that after his father died in 1986, he would listen and re-listen to his father’s tapes because it’s what helped him get over his death.
As the voice on the tape turned to Blackfoot, my grandpa Sonny translated for me. He stares into blank space, listening a little bit, then translating what he had heard as much with his hands as with his words.
Re-connecting and reconciling through Adam’s story
Every so often you come across these moments in life where you sit back and say: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.” Then you just live in it.
Hearing great-grandpa Adam’s voice, and witnessing grandpa Sonny reconnecting with his father 30 years after his death, is helping me reconcile my heritage, my identity, and my purpose.
A continuation of Adam Solway's audio tape recorded in the Blackfoot language Audio courtesy Trevor Solway
I am the son of Irene Solway. The grandson of Sonny Solway. The great-grandson of Adam Solway. The great-great grandson of Samuel Salois. I am a filmmaker and journalist with the Calgary Journal, and this is my story.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that adjusted for inflation, the $5 attached to Treaty 7 would equal $113 today. However, that number has never been adjusted for inflation. That line has been removed to limit confusion because each person still receives $5 today.
- By Trevor Solway