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The Journal of American History


Exercise 5: Language and Indigenous History

One of the great challenges of writing history from an indigenous point of view is finding sources. "The Power of the Ecotone" reconsiders familiar textual evidence within the wider context of protohistory, archaeology, ecology, and linguistics.

The language of the Illinois was Miami-Illinois. After fading from use in the nineteenth century, this language has been revitalized in recent years, particularly through collaboration between the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Ohio and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. In the contact period, Jesuit priests learned the Illinois language and preserved it in the form of prayer books and dictionaries. The dictionaries—several survive—are intriguing primary-source material for history. They are voluminous and often contain subtle definitions of concepts and words in the Illinois language. In this sense, they function as a kind of "window" (however imperfect) onto key concepts in the Illinois world view.

The supplementary source for this segment contains selections from a dictionary of the Illinois language prepared by Robert Le Boullenger, a Jesuit who lived with the Illinois in the first half of the eighteenth century. Just a few entries from a very long dictionary are presented here with the original Illinois word, its French (and sometimes Latin) translation, and an English translation of the French.

In the Classroom

  1. Comment on the nature of the dictionary and answer the following questions:
  2. Given that it was made by a Jesuit priest, what was its purpose and likely use?
  3. What do you make of the way the dictionary is organized and presented?
  4. How would it have been used?
  5. Consider the actual concepts presented in the dictionary. Many of the French-language concepts include long lists of possible Miami-Illinois translations and even phrases. Notice how the French priest included details about how to use the words in certain contexts.
  6. What does this tell you?
  7. Are there problems and potential biases embedded in this source material that make it unreliable as a window into Illinois history and culture?
  8. At the same time, what do we learn about Illinois culture here?
  9. What does it mean that there are so many words for differing degrees of "relatives" in the Illinois language?
  10. What can we learn about the practice of slavery in Illinois culture?

Sources