With no money in his pocket, and three young kids craving a treat, Troy (Bossman) Knowlton (Kiaayo mo-tagaan/Bear Head) gathered bottles from around the house and hauled them to the depot for a return of $6.85 – just enough for four slurpees and a loaf of bread.
While there, Knowlton ran into a friend who offered him $20 for a ride to Raymond, Alta., to sell ammolite to a local retailer. In need of cash and remembering a fossil he had found along the Oldman River two months earlier – one that was still sitting on his porch undisturbed – Knowlton delivered the slurpees to his kids and grabbed the dusty duffle bag with the ammonite inside.
When he returned home later that day, Knowlton had several bags of groceries in tow, diapers for his youngest son, and goodies for everyone in the family. The “rock,” as he called it, had sold for $350. He was hooked, and an idea was born.
Over the years, that idea grew into Blackfoot Rocks and Gems, a southern Alberta business selling one-of-a-kind, locally sourced ammolite pendants to clients all over the world. In addition to overcoming addiction and poverty to become a successful business owner – Knowlton gained the support of his community, and now serves as Chief of the Piikani Nation.
Knowlton says he tells anyone who will listen how a postsecondary education, and the support of some special college instructors, can change lives.
“I still smile whenever Troy comes to mind,” says Rita Halma, former chair of Lethbridge College’s School of Business. “He definitely stood out as a student, and I was, and still am, positively thrilled that he followed through on his diploma and entrepreneurial ambitions.”
Growing up in Highbush in the Oldman River valley, Knowlton says his younger years were spent in the trees, hunting, fishing, picking berries, making bows and arrows, and playing hide-and-seek. “We had a very vibrant, loving, caring community,” he says. “Each family was very large, with grandmothers and grandfathers as the heads of the household. It was a great place to grow up.”
But there was a “dark side,” he says. “People were dying because of alcoholism and related incidents – sickness, homicides, suicides, freezing to death trying to walk home. It became an epidemic of grave proportions.”
Knowlton’s paternal grandparents lived next door to him, and he spent a lot of time going back and forth between the two houses. “It was a really difficult time for my parents. They were young, alcohol had entered their lives, and they were frequently not home,” he says. “They split up when I was about nine years old, so I moved in with my grandparents and they legally adopted me.”
His maternal grandparents also lived close by, and Knowlton visited them often. He says it was his grandfather, George Bastien, who first explained to him the significance of the Buffalo Stone (iniskim) while the pair was checking traplines one snowy day.
“As we were walking down to the river valley, he reached into his pocket and pulled out this stone,” says Knowlton. “He told me it was for a hunter and a fisher, that it was magic, and if I fed it, watered it and loved it like a pet, I would always have good luck when I went out.”
A Buffalo Stone, technically speaking, is part of a weathered baculite or ammonite fossil that has separated at its suture marks and created an impression of a tiny animal shaped like a buffalo. Knowlton says he kept the stone for a few years, but as any child can attest, things get lost. Still, Knowlton says the magic of the Buffalo Stone remained with him and he always had success in the wilderness.
In school, however, Knowlton says he was “an outspoken big-mouth” who caused disruptions in class. While he was a talented athlete and scored exceptionally well on his Grade 9 Provincial Achievement Test, he says he didn’t see eye-to-eye with many of his high school teachers and ended up 13 credits short of graduating. Soon after he left school, he got married and started a family.
Knowlton says his land-based skills (and perhaps lingering Buffalo Stone blessings) served him well in the fall and winter months while he worked as a hunting and fishing guide for tourists – some visiting from as far away as Europe – but spring and summer were tough, and the employment opportunities were few and far between.
“I got little jobs here and there, but I wasn’t a very skilled labourer, so it was difficult,” says Knowlton. “I financed a stereo, TV, VCRs and couldn’t make the payments so I wrecked my credit. Compounded with my lack of skills and lack of education, I was living a life of poverty.”
Knowlton admits his alcoholism also played a part in the family’s financial difficulties.
One day, to get him out of the house and connect with nature, (and, according to Knowlton, because he had a vehicle to get there) a friend invited him to go ammolite mining along the Oldman River. Knowlton had never been, but it wasn’t long before he heard the distinct “clink” of a shovel hitting rock. “I dug it out and cracked it open,” he says, “and inside was this fossil. My buddy told me to keep it, so I threw it in my bag and packed it about a kilometre back to the vehicle. Then it just sat in my house. He never told me what to do with it.”
Fortunately for Knowlton, that well-timed trip to the bottle depot set him on the right path. From there, he learned how to focus on indicators – signs showing where to look and dig for ammonite. Some of his pieces sold for $500, some for $2,000, but he was always successful.
One day, he uncovered a Buffalo Stone.
“It brought me back to my childhood and the story my grandfather told, about the iniskim providing food, clothing and shelter for the Blackfoot people,” he says. “It came at a time in my life when I really needed it the most.”
It was also around this time, that Knowlton began academic upgrading at Red Crow College on the Kainai Nation. His initial assessment showed he was reading at a Grade 8 level, but Knowlton says he buckled down and progressed through the modules quickly. After three semesters at Red Crow, he applied to Lethbridge College and was accepted.
Knowlton planned to take Environmental Sciences, with the goal of becoming a game warden, but says he found the prerequisite math and science courses too difficult. He switched his focus to Business Administration, challenged the entrance requirements and passed the exams with flying colours.
Still mining for ammonite in his downtime and selling to locals for “pennies of what it was worth,” Knowlton says he was determined to move up the ladder by marketing to a broader audience. Taking advantage of his newly acquired business knowledge, college computers and instructors for guidance, Knowlton created a digital portfolio of his wares, as well as brochures and business cards. It was everything he needed to launch Blackfoot Rocks and Gems – the company he still owns and operates today, with his wife, Lisa North Peigan.
On track to graduate from Lethbridge College in the spring of 2006, Knowlton jokes that an “impossible” Excel spreadsheet course derailed his plans. He came back 10 years later, at the insistence of his mother, hoping it wasn’t too late to earn his diploma.
“Troy came to me to determine what he needed to do to complete the requirements,” says former chair Halma. “He told me about his business, and his hopes for leadership within the Piikani Nation. I could see the value of him having a completed diploma, but the most significant factor was that he wanted it as much for his mother as he did for himself. That spoke deeply to me, and I went to bat for him to ensure he could get it done in time.”
Knowlton followed through, and with Halma’s guidance and support, successfully completed the remaining course. He walked across the convocation stage to receive his Business Administration – Management diploma in 2016.
“Coming to the college was a catalyst for where I am today,” says Knowlton. “From the business courses to public speaking, and everything else associated with my time there, it all prepared me for my work as an entrepreneur and to be an effective leader in my community – first on council and now as chief.”
Knowlton was first elected to Piikani Nation Council in 2000 and served a two-year term. He was elected again in 2015 and served two consecutive four-year terms until January 2023 when he was elected chief.
He admits he wasn’t sure he should run for chief but says overwhelming support from band members, including a well-respected elder who noted Knowlton’s connection to both the land and the people, encouraged him to try. A dream about a week before nominations – wherein his deceased aunt told him he would be chief, clutched his hands and prayed for him – sealed the deal. He ran and won by a landslide.
Calling the previous two terms of council “an old boys’ club,” Knowlton also advocated for more women to be elected. There are now four women serving alongside him, and he says he takes every opportunity to give them the space and time to lead as well.
While it’s too early to talk re-election, Knowlton says if a solid candidate steps up by 2027, he can retire from politics knowing the community is in good hands. At that point, he says he will happily step back into his private life operating Blackfoot Rocks and Gems.
“My story has come full circle,” he says. “Starting with my humble beginnings, the gifts I received and the challenges I overcame in addiction and poverty – I share it all with my own people, other First Nations, and anyone really, to try to encourage them to make good choices.”
Simply put, he says “get an education and get it while you’re young.”
There’s a new “Bossman” in the family
Troy Knowlton says he’s been “Bossman” since he was two years old.
“My grandfather would hold my hand and I’d lead him all around the house, pointing at things, and he’d do everything for me,” Knowlton says. “He also had this big Archie Bunker chair in front of the TV and no one but him sat in it. If anyone did, he would tell them to move.
“One day, my grandmother gave me a bath, wrapped me in a towel, stuck a bottle in my mouth and set me down on my grandfather’s chair where I fell asleep. My grandfather came in and saw me sleeping on his chair, but knew he couldn’t disturb me, so he grumbled a few things and sat down somewhere else. Everyone said, ‘look at the way the baby bosses the old man around – he’s a real boss man!’ My dad’s nickname was ‘the boss’ so they said, ‘I think we have a new bossy-man in the house.’ My grandmother would tell that story to everyone, and it stuck with me.”
Knowlton says until he was elected Chief of the Piikani Nation, many people knew him only as “Bossman.”
Hear Troy Knowlton tell the Legend of the Buffalo Stone
Go to minute 7:55 of the TELUS STORYHIVE documentary Ammolite: Gem of the West on YouTube.