Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Breakthrough!

From the Codex Canadensis, Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa Oklahoma
I just started reading Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, a tale of a Jesuit missionary coming to the wilds of the New World in the 17th C., and his encounters with the aboriginal peoples there. Sound familiar? It provides a fascinating alternative view of the world that Louis Nicolas presented in the Codex Canadensis. Early in the book I came across a passage that gave me the feeling of all the tumblers falling into place.
(The priest is describing learning the Huron language from a converted "sauvage".)

"He explained that I had to begin to grasp the natural world around me if I were ever to conquer the language. The Huron, Luke said, don't live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature."

Aha! This makes sense to me as I try to understand what made Louis Nicolas tick. His first work was an Algonquin grammar - which would have been of great value to the Jesuits as they carried out their mission to bring the word of God to those they called savage. It seems that he saw himself as something of a man of science, and whether by accident or design, discovered that he could better understand the language if he also knew about the plants, animals, fish and fowl that made up the world in which he found himself. Nicolas made several expeditions with the various First Nations of the eastern part of North America, and, judging by the some of the descriptions in his Histoire Naturelle, he found himself in harsh conditions very similar to ones Boyden describes in The Orenda. (I previously wrote about a movie, Black Robe, which offers an account of a Jesuit priest embarking on a similar expedition, earlier in the 17th century.)

It's all fascinating and somewhat horrifying stuff, and helps to bring Louis Nicolas to life in my mind. My earlier comparisons of him to Mr. Bean aside, he would have to be very, very brave to accomplish what he did.

The Codex includes a number of incredible drawings of the First Nations people. I have avoided them completely so far in my embroidery work because they are so fraught with political consequence and I feel I can't really go there, as a white woman of European descent. But they are really worth viewing, and can be seen at the Library and Archives Canada site.

2 comments:

  1. a lightbulb moment indeed, it makes perfect sense that 'the key to a language is in making the connection between man and nature'; I feel sure our surroundings (in)form us in ways we are unaware of as it must do our language, as that is one of the ways in which we communicate with each other.

    I find this all very fascinating Heather

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  2. still like the Mr. Bean image - but I think it is true for all cultures, language is key to understanding the people.

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