The narratives written by French observers— missionaries, administrators, officers, or naturalists— in the 17th and 18thcenturies about the Indigenous people of North America form an impressively large and detailed corpus.
The sources can be divided into four main genres: travel narratives; descriptions of customs (a missionary specialty—for example the Jesuit Relations); histories; and letters and official correspondence reports between New France and Versailles, which discussed, for example, Franco-Indigenous conferences held in Montreal or Mobile and contained transcriptions of speeches made by Indigenous orators. In fact, many texts actually combined several genres. Other materials also exist that attest to the desire to understand Indigenous peoples, in particular maps and dictionaries of Indigenous languages.
Often, the authors of these documents were motivated by curiosity. The theme of the “noble savage," which underscored Enlightenment thought in the 18th century, thus acted as a rhetorical tool to emphasize the defects of western civilization. It appears in the writings of missionaries (Sagard
, for example, in 1632) and, more strikingly, in those of the adventurer Lahontan
, who notably authored the Dialogues avec un Sauvage
(1702). Others aimed to understand Indigenous cultures in order to adapt to them, which would later put them in a position to incorporate these peoples into the colonial empire. Their ambition was to “civilize” Indigenous people, converting them to the “true faith” and, at the very least, turning them into faithful allies. Indeed, the French needed Indigenous allies to explore the territory, teach them how to traverse it, occasionally provide them with food and supplies, collect pelts and fight the British. Earning their trust involved understanding how to behave while respecting their cultural norms—communicating, forming alliances, dealing with problems such as murder, recruiting warriors, guaranteeing the loyalty of a chief, or participating in the group’s councils and rituals— all of which required practical knowhow.
Many Jesuits and Récollets, as well as merchants and military officers, approached Indigenous groups and offered to live among them. They learned their languages, initiated themselves into their customs, and amassed a considerable body of ethnographic material. As well as occasionally acting as interpreters, missionaries compiled dictionaries and collections of prayers in Indigenous languages to access their spiritual world and convert them more easily. For example, Louis Nicolas, a Jesuit priest from Ardèche, spent eleven years in Canada (1664-1675). In particular, he went to Chequamegon, at the far western end of Lake Superior, where he lived among peoples speaking Algonquian languages. Written between 1672 and 1674, his Grammaire algonquine ou des sauvages de l'Amérique septentrionale
attests to his linguistic immersion.
Based on a desire for submission and acculturation, this openness to others did not prevent conflicts, but it did contribute to the length and relative smoothness of France’s relationships with its Indigenous allies. According to the 19th-century Metis historian William Warren, the French displayed an understanding of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes which the British and Americans who followed them could not rival. “The Ojibwas learned to love the French people, because the French, who have a great facility of adaptation, easily assimilated themselves to the customs and lifestyles of their red brothers.”
The construction of the French colonial empire in North America was based on linguistic, ethnographic, cartographic and geopolitical knowledge. Imperial agents were able to familiarize themselves with the territory with the help of Indigenous people but also set about compiling information about the Indigenous peoples themselves, learning their languages (young people, called truchements, were often placed in various communities for this purpose) and classifying their political groups. A desire to rationalize the empire led to the simplification of the complex mosaic of North American geopolitics, as the French imposed a system of categorization based on the idea of “nations'' (defined in the 17th century as a group with particular traits in terms of origins and customs). In the 1680s, with the French expansion into the Pays d’en Haut (the Great Lakes region), the names of these “nations''— which were often given singular, stereotypical characteristics (some were supposed to be more docile than others, or better traders, or more warlike, etc.)—proliferated in official correspondence, leading the bureaucrats in the Naval offices to draw up inventories and situate these nations on maps. Often, the ethnonyms used were terms completely invented by the colonists: for example, the “Wendats” were called “Hurons," probably because of their hures (heads). Occasionally, they were formed from phonetic transcriptions of Indigenous names, such as the term “Sioux,” which derived from the Ojibwe name for their Dakota enemies, na-towe-ssiwak, (meaning “those who speak another language”). Adopted by the French as Nadouessioux, this was later abbreviated to Sioux. It was also important for the colonial authorities to count the numbers of Indigenous people, primarily for military purposes. Dozens of censuses and headcounts can be found in the official correspondence, most often conducted by the number of “warriors” or “men," or else sometimes by “huts” or “fires."
Two masterpieces of French ethnography are the Mœurs des sauvages américains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps (1724) by the Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau, , which focused above all on the Iroquois, and that of the planter and naturalist Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, Histoire de la Louisiane (1758), which prominently featured the Natchez. Mention should also be made of Mémoires historiques sur la Louisiane (1753), recomposed from a manuscript written by the officer Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny (1747). While the recomposition eliminated all the flair and crudeness of the original narrative, but remains an excellent “ethnographic report” about the Indigenous peoples of Louisiana, in particular the Natchez, whom Dumont knew well. Many other works also contain a wealth of knowledge about Indigenous peoples: for example, those by the lawyer and poet Marc Lescarbot, the Récollet brother Gabriel Sagard who lived among the Hurons in 1623-1624 and published in 1632 his Grand voyage du pays des Hurons, the Jesuits Paul Le Jeune, Paul du Ru and Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, the backwoodsmen Nicolas Perrot and Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, the carpenter André Joseph Pénicaut, the intendant Antoine-Denis Raudot, or even officers as Pierre Deliette, Pierre Pouchot and Jean-Bernard Bossu
Published in may 2021