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The Treaty Makers - James Bird

James Bird

James “Jimmy Jock” Bird was born at Carleton House, Saskatchewan, in 1798. He was the son of a Cree mother and a father of mixed European and First Nations heritage. Bird grew up in the world of his father, who served as a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trader and moved through various HBC trading posts. Bird eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, finding employ as a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, but in 1821 he left the HBC to become a free trader.

Bird lived a hunting and trapping lifestyle in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. In 1831, Bird began trading with the American Fur Trading Company and with the Blackfoot Peoples who lived in the Montana Territory in the United States. Over the next thirty years, Bird became knowledgeable in five First Nations languages: Siksika, Tsuu T’ina, Nakoda, Atsina, and Cree, and he served as an interpreter for various interests, including the American government.

In September of 1877, Bird was enlisted by the Treaty 7 commission to interpret between the commission and the First Nations at the Treaty 7 negotiations at Blackfoot Crossing. He had been selected by treaty commissioner David Laird because Laird needed someone to replace North West Mounted Police guide and interpreter Jerry Potts, who was dismissed because of his poor interpretation practices. According to some Treaty 7 First Nations oral histories, Bird had a poor reputation among the Blackfoot. In the time just prior to the Treaty 7 talks, the Blackfoot knew Bird as aottakkiiwa, a giver of intoxicants or a whiskey trader. While Bird was knowledgeable in several languages, this knowledge was limited according to some Treaty 7 First Nations Elders. He did not translate everything the Treaty 7 commissioners said to the First Nations leaders, and this may have contributed to the First Nations leaders’ ill understanding of the treaty terms.

This assessment of Bird’s translation skills, while touching on the overall difficulties with translation at the Treaty 7 negotiations, may not be entirely fair. According to historian John C. Jackson in his book Jemmy Jock Bird, Marginal Man on the Blackfoot Frontier, Bird was old and blind by the time he was called to serve at Blackfoot Crossing. His voice was feeble by that time, and most likely physically incapable of carrying far beyond the treaty commission field desk into the large crowds of First Nations People present. Whatever the case may be, Bird must have been aware of the implications of what he was translating to the First Nations Peoples he had spent so much of his life with.

In the years following the Treaty 7 signing, Bird travelled with his family throughout the lands of present day Alberta and Saskatchewan before moving to the Piikani (Peigan) reserve in Alberta in 1885. Two years later, they packed up again and moved on, eventually settling on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, in the United States, in 1890. James Bird was in his nineties when he died on 11 December 1892.       

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