Codex Canadensis

Codex Canadensis, c. 1700, ink on paper, 33.7 x 21.6 cm (Gilcrease Museum)


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Codex Canadensis

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Key points

  • This 17th-century codex, or book written and drawn by hand, includes approximately 180 illustrations of people, animals, plants, sea creatures, and birds. Along with maps and text, the illustrations were meant to record the flora, fauna, and geography of the Great Lakes region in North America as well as the lifeways and beliefs of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the area. The region has long been home to the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederation.
  • The codex was created by Louis Nicolas, a French Jesuit missionary. Nicolas based its contents on his 1664–75 visit to New France, the North American territory colonized and controlled by France between the mid-16th and mid-18th centuries. As a priest of the Jesuit order, Nicolas participated in the order’s efforts to convert people to Christianity as well as to acquire encyclopedic knowledge to aid in conversion. Success in these pursuits, according to the Jesuits, required developing an understanding of the customs and languages of the different cultural groups they encountered, such as the Indigenous peoples residing in the territory of New France.
  • Nicolas’s impressions of the Indigenous people of the region, as conveyed in the contents of the codex, reflect a strongly European—rather than Indigenous—sense of scientific, cultural, and religious understanding. As a result, the information recorded in the codex ranges from accurate to misunderstood to uncertain (meaning that there is insufficient cultural knowledge today to confirm if the information is true or not). More recent consultation about the codex with members of tribal communities, including the Haudenosaunee, has clarified the accuracy of the information as well as which details reflect cultural knowledge that has been lost since the17th seventeenth century. Such consultation is crucial for raising awareness of the harm of settler colonialism and for recentering Indigenous cultural knowledge and perspectives.

Go deeper

The Codex Canadensis at the Gilcrease Museum.

An educator resource about the Haudenosaunee Confederation from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Learn more about the territories associated with the Haudenosaunee Confederation from Native Land Digital.

Read about the history of Haudenosaunee from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

An Indigenous perspectives education guide from Historica Canada.

François-Marc Gagnon, Louis Nicholas: Life and Work (Art Canada Institute, 2017).

A teaching guide, “Teach My Research: Jesuits and Demons in New France”, by Mairi Cowan, University of Toronto Mississauga, about the interactions of Jesuit missionaries and Indigenous people in the territory of New France.

More to think about

Reflect on the pursuit of encyclopedic knowledge from a single cultural perspective, such as that of the Jesuits. What is the impact of such a pursuit? How do the illustrations in the Codex Canadensis contribute to your thinking?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.