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The Treaty Makers - Jerry Potts

Jerry Potts, 1870

Scout and guide for the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), Jerry Potts also served as one of the interpreters for the Treaty Commission at the Treaty 7 negotiations in 1877. Potts was born in 1840 at Fort McKenzie on the Missouri River in the Montana Territories in the United States. He was the son of Andrew Potts, a Scottish clerk employed by the American Fur Company, and Namo-pisi (Crooked Back), a Kainai (Blood) woman. When Potts was very young, his father was killed accidentally by a Piikani man who had mistaken Andrew Potts for a trader who had cheated him during a trade. Subsequently raised in both the European and Blackfoot worlds, Potts grew to be an adept hunter and guide who found employ in various fur and whiskey trading forts in the land now known as northern Montana and southern Alberta.

Potts lived and worked among the Blackfoot First Nations. In 1870, he was staying at a Piikani (Sarcee) encampment that was attacked by a large number of Cree. He fought alongside the Piikani and survived the battle, but there were more insidious enemies of the Blackfoot people about, like the American whiskey traders, and Potts witnessed firsthand the terrible evils that alcohol brought to the First Nations of the Plains. Both his mother and his half-brother were murdered by a man under the influence of alcohol, and although Potts hunted down and killed the man, he carried an undying animosity towards whiskey traders (though not necessarily the whiskey they sold). In 1872, Potts left the employ of the American whiskey traders he was working for at the time of his mother and half-brother’s deaths, and proceeded to work trading horses at Fort Benton in Montana. It was at Fort Benton where Colonel James Macleod of the North West Mounted Police arrived with his forces to replenish supplies and find their way to Whoop-Up country to shut down American whiskey trading posts on the plains.

Macleod hired on Potts as a guide, and Potts quickly proved himself to be more than an able man for the job. He was well acquainted with the traditional Blackfoot Lands in which the notorious American whiskey trading post, Fort Whoop-Up, was situated. He led Macleod’s troop north from Montana into Whoop-Up country. His knowledge of the Blackfoot language and social customs made him invaluable to the NWMP, and he would remain in their employ as a scout, guide, and interpreter for the next twenty-two years. He helped choose a spot to establish Fort Macleod and arranged for Macleod to meet with Blackfoot leaders such as Crowfoot and Red Crow.

Potts served as an interpreter for the treaty commission during the Treaty 7 talks in September 1877, though the actual role he played during the negotiations is the subject of some controversy. While some historians have portrayed Potts’ interpreting role in the negotiations as being a valuable contribution to the success of the process, others, like some Treaty 7 Elders and historian John C. Jackson, paint a different picture. The Elders describe Potts’ interpretation style as weak, not necessarily because he lacked the knowledge of Blackfoot language (though this has also been claimed by some Treaty 7 Elders), but because of his habit of making brief summaries of what First Nations leaders had to say. This habit was irksome for the First Nations leaders. It is still said among Treaty 7 First Nations Elders that Potts’ real contribution that day was to help eliminate the First Nations voice from the negotiations. Whether he did so consciously or not, by summarizing the information the way he did, Potts likely took much of what First Nations leaders said out of their proper cultural context. In his book Jimmy Jock Bird: Marginal Man on the Blackfoot Frontier, John C. Jackson makes note of the fact that Potts’ brevity in interpretation caused serious concern in the treaty commission, enough concern that after two days of preliminary talks, treaty commissioner David Laird ordered Potts replaced and hired on James Bird instead.

Despite his failings at the Treaty 7 negotiations, the NWMP still appreciated Potts’ usefulness as a guide. He continued to guide and scout for the force until his death of throat cancer on 14 July, 1896, at Fort Macleod.

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