Environment and the Natural World: Native American & French Views

Environment and the Natural World: Native American & French Views

Dalhousie University

December 17, 2020

Native American and French relations go back to the sixteenth century. The French had a very different approach to colonization with the native Americans than their colonizing counterparts e.g. the British or the Spanish empire.[1] While the French took the different approach and had a trading relationship with the natives for decades, there were significant differences in the native and French views on the environment and the natural world.

Before we talk about the differences in views between the Native Americans and the French, we need to explore where the need for the acknowledgment of differences started. The approach towards establishing New France as a colony were initiated by the French Jesuits in the seventeenth century where they wanted to spread their views and bring people of the colonies towards Christianity.[2] French fishermen, fur traders had extensive contact with the natives of northeast long before the Jesuits appeared on the North American scene.[3] The Jesuit missionaries had a practice of sending detailed accounts of their activities to their superiors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[4] The Jesuit Relations show earlier documents of the French approach to the Native North America.[5] Despite living with the natives, learning their language and cultures the Jesuit missionaries saw the natives as “pagan savages” who they thought needed to be converted to Catholic Christianity.[6]

While the French Jesuits had typical beliefs in god and the Catholic Christian norms, the natives had their own culture, language, and traditions to adhere to. According to the Jesuit Relations, the native festivals and traditional practices did not entertain the French Jesuit taste on how to lead a spiritual life. The natives and the French had very different takes on basic natural occurrences e.g. diseases, and natural calamities. For example, the Huron natives attributed diseases to both natural and supernatural causes while the Jesuits thought of diseases as some sort of punishment or simply an act of god.[7] The major difference in this view is not the way they look into the diseases but the extent to which the natives and the Jesuits separated the two phenomena. According to the editor, the natives did not separate natural and supernatural causes as rigidly as the Jesuits. The Hurons had spiritual/medicinal specialists called the shammans who had no aim other than to help the sick recover and had a wide array therapeutic technique to approach the task.[8] In other words, the natives had a position equivalent to a standard physician in the society. On the other hand, the Jesuits did not have a position which specialized in saving lives, but they had one which specialized in saving “souls” where they put more effort into baptizing than relieving sufferings of the living.[9]

The Jesuits and Natives also had very different views on the environment and the causes. According to Montagnais explanation of solar eclipse, the seventeenth century European understanding of the world around them involved categorizing the phenomena in either natural or religious terms.[10] The account also shows that the natives; Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples of that century were not so inclined to separate natural and supernatural frames of reference.[11] Instead, the native view involved stories featuring figures that combined human, animal, and magical/spiritual qualities.[12]

Jerome Lalemant’s accounts show how the Jesuits viewed the aerial phenomena of the north. The French saw the aerial phenomena in New France as a way of heaven and earth trying to speak to them.[13] On the other hand, these were just everyday known occurrences to the natives of the northern latitudes.[14] The Jesuits recorded these phenomena using words like “the ball of fire” to describe a meteor shower and often thought of these occurrences as signs of prophecy.[15]

The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America outlines the major differences in native and French views on environment and the natural world through the accounts of Jesuit Relations. The immersion of French and Native Americans in the sixteenth through eighteenth century, and the accounts of the Jesuit missionaries has allowed us to explore the differences between the views of two worlds which raises questions on how the colonizers defined civilized or savage manners and put the tags on other cultures based on just the differences in their views of the environment and the natural world and how they impact the relations until this day.

Footnotes & Bibliography


[1] Allan Greer, The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 10.

[2] Greer, 1.

[3] Greer, 9.

[4] John Frederick Schwaller and Allan Greer, “The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America,” Sixteenth Century Journal 32, no. 4 (2001): 1121, https://doi.org/10.2307/3649000.

[5] Greer, The Jesuit Relations, 1.

[6] Greer, 1.

[7] Greer, 71.

[8] Greer, 71.

[9] Greer, 70.

[10] Greer, 119.

[11] Greer, 120.

[12] Greer, 120.

[13] Greer, 124.

[14] Greer, 124.

[15] Greer, 124.


Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Schwaller, John Frederick, and Allan Greer. “The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America.” Sixteenth Century Journal 32, no. 4 (2001): 1121. https://doi.org/10.2307/3649000.