Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




James Axtell


This dissertation is a study of nonspeech communication and its significance for mutual acculturation and colonial power dynamics in the context of French-Indian contacts across the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most scholars have considered sign-language, pantomime, and other nonverbal means of communication (visual, sonorous, tactile, etc), as temporary, imperfect, and insignificant solutions to the lack of mutual linguistic understanding during early colonial encounters. It is also often assumed that these means of communication, combined with seemingly insurmountable cultural differences, inevitably promoted misunderstandings, incomprehension, and violent conflicts between early colonists and native populations. Seeking to challenge these assumptions, this work closely analyzes the nature, origins, change overtime, and cultural implications of nonverbal and paralinguistic forms of communication, which I argue importantly contributed to the accommodation process and the emergence of cultural hybridity in the early French-Indian Atlantic.;This dissertation offers to expand and refine our understanding of cross-cultural communication and miscommunication in various colonial settings. to do so, it brings in a comparative perspective the experiences of a wide range of French explorers, missionaries, colonial officials, mariners, soldiers, and settlers with a variety of native peoples, cultures, and societies in Brazil, Florida, the Caribbean, Canada, and the Upper Mississippi Valley, from 1500 to the conclusion of the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701. Research for this project was conducted in both published and archival sources, using the original French language versions of the sources, for which I provide new or first translations. The comparative scope of this work brings into question the predominant Canadian-centered chronology that has lead past studies of French America, and seeks to put greater emphasis on the influence that local indigenous cultures and contexts had on colonial developments and in shaping the alliance.;Through five thematic/chronological chapters, my work traces the emergence of a culturally-syncretic repertoire for communication in the early French Atlantic, in which non-linguistic elements were at least as important as spoken words to mediate relations between individuals and groups. Starting with the emergence of shared nonverbal codes during first contacts, the project then explores the process of acculturation as a sensory journey through otherness, then demonstrates the permanence of nonverbal means of communication during and after the mutual acquisition of language by French and Indians. It provides an in-depth look at the role of nonverbal performances in ceremonial oratory in seventeenth-century New France with particular attention to the contest between Jesuit and Indian orators. The dissertation ends with a comparison of nonverbal dimensions of diplomacy in New France and the Caribbean, until the eve of the eighteenth century.



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