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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

Description of the New World

In the 17th century, the Jesuits were among the first French people to set foot on the new territories claimed by France in North America. Like most cultivated Europeans who came before or after them, the Jesuits were keen to describe, categorize and give meaning to the social and natural phenomena they observed. The Jesuit Relations are thus at times akin to travel narratives, where, in a more or less organized fashion, there are geographical descriptions, observations about the local populations, or remarks about fauna, flora and natural resources. As well, these writings often reveal a certain degree of exoticism, no doubt due to a fascination with the curiosities of the New World. The Relations, like other accounts by European travellers, contributed to this inventory of novelties.

Among these descriptions, particular note should be taken of the ethnographical developments appearing throughout the Relations. The Jesuits were among the 17th-century French who had spent the most time among the Aboriginal populations of North America. This lengthy period of contact made them priviledged observers, who sought, by the very reason of their missionary purpose, to understand the Aboriginal societies so that they could take more effective action in their efforts to convert them. With their mastery of Native languages, the Jesuits could go beyond simple description of the material aspects of the culture (dwellings, methods of transportation, etc.) and present other aspects more difficult for passing visitors to perceive (religious beliefs and practices, social organization, political structures, etc.)

The Jesuit Relations are thus a valuable source of information about the Native cultures at the time of the first contact between the French and the Native peoples. Some of the Relations are particularly remarkable for the amount of ethnographic information they contain. This is the case, for example, of the Relation written by the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune in 1634. Le Jeune wrote this text after an experience that was very rare for a French person in the 17th century. In the fall of 1633, carrying only a few personal effects, he set out to follow a group of people from the Montagnais Nation, who were leaving Quebec for their winter hunting grounds.

Le Jeune's goal was to learn the Montagnais' language so that he could convert them to Catholicism. For several months, with no contact with French people in the colony, the Jesuit followed the Montagnais in their travels in the lands south of the Saint Lawrence. Out of this difficult adventure came one of the finest and most enthralling texts about New France. Combining ethnographic observations with the account of the travels, the 1634 Relation gives an invaluable picture of the subsistence culture and activities of the Montagnais in the St. Lawrence valley in the early 17th century.

Other Relations also have much interesting ethnographic material. The 1636 Relation, for example, devotes several chapters to the Huron (Wendat) Nation. Its author, Father Jean de Brébeuf, had known the Huron since 1625 and spoke their language well. His account is filled with details about the Huron's language, their beliefs, myths, religious practices, social life, (marriages, festivals, games, dances, etc.) and their political structure (councils, laws and customs, etc.). It is in this Relation that we find one of the most detailed descriptions of the Feast of the Dead, a ceremony in which the Huron, before moving their village to a new location, placed in a common ossuary the bones of all those who had died in the preceding years.

Certainly many French people, in particular the coureurs des bois, made prolonged stays among the Indigenous communities and were no doubt better integrated there than the missionaries, because they had no mission to change these societies. But, unlike the Jesuits, these Frenchmen had almost never written about their experiences. This makes the annual accounts by the Jesuits even more significant. They are often the only source available for reconstructing the broad outlines of the way of life and culture of the Indigenous societies at the time of their first contact with Europeans.

Making use of the Jesuit Relations to reconstruct certain elements of Native cultures nevertheless calls for some caution, because the missionaries of the 17th century did not think like modern anthropologists. Their descriptions are usually accompanied by a series of negative value judgments, in particular about practices they observed that went counter to Christian morality, which was the prism through which they viewed the Aboriginal cultures. However, the Jesuits never tried to conceal their point of view, and the bias permeating their missionary literature is easy to detect.