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Codex Canadensis

The Codex canadensis, a 1700s manuscript by French Jesuit Louis Nicolas, offers a unique glimpse into the Great Lakes and Haudenosaunee region. Filled with illustrations of people, animals, and plants, it reflects Nicolas' attempt to understand and document the New World. However, its accuracy varies, highlighting the importance of consulting with tribal communities for a more truthful perspective. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Narrator 1] We're at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma in front of the Codex canadensis. This remarkable manuscript from around 1700, filled with about 180 illustrations of people, animals, plants, sea creatures, birds, all of which come from the Great Lakes region and the Haudenosaunee area. - [Narrator 2] This manuscript was created by a French Jesuit priest, Louis Nicolas. - [Narrator 1] So this Jesuit missionary comes to what was then referred to as Nouvelle France. And Nicolas is part of this larger missionary activity of the Jesuits, where they are going to encounter different cultural groups, trying to immerse themselves to learn the languages, to understand customs as a way to aid in the conversion of peoples to Christianity. But also because the Jesuits were very interested in gaining encyclopedic knowledge, and the Codex canadensis represents that really well. - [Narrator 2] When we're looking at this object in the museum, we wanna look at that in consultation with tribal communities, people who are represented and get their perspective. And they're just gonna know what's true and what isn't, because as fascinating as it is, there's a lot of unknowns, especially with depictions of people. - [Narrator 1] This is an object that has relevance for us today. It is very much connected to communities thriving today and so it's a continuation of cultural knowledge. And Nicolas, as a Jesuit, was very much immersed in thinking about natural philosophy, or natural history. And in the 17th century, what that meant was to try to amass a certain type of encyclopedic knowledge as a way to understand God's creation. And it also meant thinking about the world in a very particular way. It starts out with several maps to help orient to us. And then it focuses on different groups of things, arranged according to a hierarchy. At the top of that hierarchy is humans. After that, we have land-based mammals. Then we have plants, and the plants are organized based specifically on what's most useful. And then we proceed to things like sea animals, amphibians, and reptiles, birds and fish. - [Narrator 2] His approach is very much European-Western based. This is not a hierarchy that our peoples on this continent necessarily would've understood or embraced. - [Narrator 1] Let's talk about what is actually considered more accurate and what liberties he took that turn out to be more incorrect. - [Narrator 2] There are elements that are very true and recognizable, and then there are things that just don't make sense, or are straight up lost. Different tribes, through different traumas, we've lost so much. If you look at, for example, plate four, some of the consultation work that we did with the Haudenosaunee, this was one of the images we presented to them. And there are several aspects to this image that are known. For example, the figure is pointing up to the sun, and even though he may not have quite got it right saying that they were worshiping the sun, they're recognizing the sun as another living being that they refer to as their elder brother, a big warrior. And what he got wrong is he is saying that this individual is walking on hot coals. We showed this to our partners. They all said, "This is not a practice we're familiar with." But something that they are familiar with is a practice of sprinkling tobacco over hot coals. And the smoke that comes up is this prayer to the sun, our elder brother, for a successful harvest, for healthy crops in the future. - [Narrator 1] Nicholas was not a trained artist. He is traveling around, storing some of this information in his memory, drawing these once he's already returned to France, so there's definitely a distance of time. But I also notice that the figure is standing in this classicizing pose that we call contrapposto, where there's a weight shift in the body. And that makes sense because we know that once Nicolas has returned to France and he's creating this project, he is looking at other books and engravings for inspiration. On another page, we see another figure. Again, it's a type that draws on a longstanding tradition of homogenizing indigenous peoples of the Americas that goes back to the initial waves of European invasions and conquest. But we know from your consultations with tribal members that some of the material culture that's depicted in this scene is actually very accurate. - [Narrator 2] The ax, for example, is a known object. The ax is European, the metal, we know that this is connected to the fur trade. The handle is a very specific type of burn spiral wooden handle. The pipe is an accurate representation of one that you would see. - [Narrator 1] We could turn to another page with an image of a unicorn. And Nicolas was very determined to prove their existence. And in fact, he claims to have seen a dead one, which proved to him that people who didn't believe they exist were wrong. What was Nicolas spending all of this time drawing 180 images, if not to impress someone? Scholars are not entirely certain who this was intended for, but there are elements of the manuscript that suggest that he wanted it to find an audience with the king of France. And yet the Codex canadensis remains, unfortunately, very understudied and not as well known as it should be. - [Narrator 2] There is a lot of inherent value. It can work to supplement some knowledges that we may know of or have heard of, but haven't seen a lot of examples of. So there are some really great positive benefits to seeing this sorts of object, and they can really help supplement what isn't known about this very interesting document. (jazz music)