Joseph-François Lafitau was an important French Jesuit missionary scholar who closely observed the Mohawks and other Indians at the Jesuit mission of Sault-Saint-Louis opposite Montreal during the early 1700s. Social theorists describe him as a proto-anthropologist because he combined critical use of historic sources with careful (albeit not always accurate) use of the comparative method, with an insistence on the dignity of Native beliefs and the worthiness of their study. Lafitau’s work remains a vital ethnographic source for anthropological study of Iroquois people and of the history and culture of the Jesuits and their missionary endeavors.
Born in Bordeaux, France, in 1681 to Jean Lafitau and Catherine Berchenbos, both Joseph-François and his brother Pierre-François became Jesuits, members of a religious order of men founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 that quickly garnered a reputation for intellectual acumen as well as pedagogical prowess. Beginning Jesuit formation in 1696 at 15 years of age, Joseph-François completed his 2-year novitiate and then went on to studies in philosophy, rhetoric, humanities, and theology as well as assignments to teaching posts and engagement in other apostolic duties by 1711.
While his brother was eventually consecrated bishop and never left Europe, the newly ordained Joseph-François requested assignment in New France and took the rigorous ocean voyage in 1712. He did his tertianship (final year of formation) in New France and took final vows in Montreal in 1716.
Lafitau worked among the Mohawks for roughly 6 years (1712-1717), allowing him time to master the language adequately, to gain familiarity with the local people, and to hone his observational and interview skills. In all this, he anticipated anthropology’s defining methodology of fieldwork using the local language. He studied the Jesuit Relations, a contemporary compendium of reports by Jesuit missionaries in New France that contained considerable ethnographic detail concerning Native peoples. He also learned from the veteran Jesuit missionaries in the field, especially Julien Garnier, who had labored 50 years with the Iroquois. His intensive Jesuit training in Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, Greek and Latin Classics, and mission reports from throughout the world provided ample material for his comparativist project.
Lafitau’s most important contributions, achieved through careful and prolonged observations, elucidate Iroquois architecture, matrilineal descent, classificatory kinship (later rediscovered by Lewis Henry Morgan, who was not familiar with Lafitau’s work), clan exogamy, the relationship of age grades and social status, and the significant role of women in Iroquois political life. While not always giving a proportional treatment to topics in his Customs of the American Indians, he considered the origins of the Indians as well as their religion and mythology, politics, marriage, occupations of men and women, dress, war and weaponry, trade, hunting and fishing, games, illness, medicine, death and burials, and finally language.
Cognizant of the great changes in Iroquois culture with the arrival of Europeans, Lafitau engaged in what was later called memory ethnography to reconstruct precontact lifeways, a preoccupation of 19th- and early 20th-century salvage anthropology. Although Lafitau was certainly not the first to compare Native American cultures with those of classical Europe and the Middle East, he did refine the method by critical use of written sources and direct fieldwork.
Returning to France in 1717, Lafitau urged that the mission be relocated due to soil and natural resource depletion, and he advocated the abolition of the liquor trade. He became mission procurator 1722 and was charged with providing for the financial and physical needs of the missions of New France. He held that office for 19 years. Reconnected with the libraries of Europe, Lafitau also used this time to write. First, in 1718, came a treatise on ginseng, which he learned about from a female Mohawk herbalist near Montreal, also drawing on European published descriptions (thereby becoming an early ethnobotanist). Next, in 1724, he turned his attention to what became his most important work, Customs of the American Indians, and also published Historie de Jean de Brienne, Roy de Jérusalem et Empereur de Constantinople in 1727. He returned to Montreal between 1727 and 1729 to serve as mission superior. Returning to France, he published his final book, Histoire des découvertes et conquests des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde, in 1733. Lafitau also revised his very large chapter on religion, although the revision was never published. He died in the city of his birth in 1746.
Outside Jesuit and Catholic intellectual circles of the time, Lafitau generally was unnoticed or even opposed. He came to prominence during the 20th century when his unique contributions to the history of anthropology were recognized in France by Arnold Van Gennep, in Germany by Wilhelm Schmidt, and in Anglophone England and the United States by luminaries such as Francis Parkman, John Cooper, Anthony Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, Margaret Hodgen, Sol Tax, Meyer Fortes, and Lafitau’s most important biographer William Fenton. Although his theological premises, universal comparisons, and ethnocentric peculiarities are rejected by contemporary anthropological method, Lafitau remains an important early practitioner of the discipline of anthropology.
Father John M. Cooper, himself a priest and ethnographer of the Gros Ventre of Montana, in 1935 wrote the early short biography that brought Lafitau to the attention of contemporary English speakers. A deep appreciation for the historical and ethnographic importance of Lafitau’s life and works prompted William Fenton (a scholar of Iroquois culture) and Elizabeth Moore to translate into English Lafitau’s Customs of the American Indians Compared With the Customs of Primitive Times in 1974, adding an extensive introduction to Lafitau’s life and his significance as a recorder of Iroquois culture and within the history of European intellectual development as well as illuminating footnotes. William Fenton also wrote two earlier biographies of Lafitau in 1969 and 1974. The Champlain Society recently issued a free electronic version of this work. In 1971, Margaret Hodgen wrote on Lafitau and other proto-anthropologists of his era and provided historical context for these seminal thinkers. The 2002 work of Jesuit Father Carl Starkloff, a theologian who also worked closely with Indian tribes in Wyoming, demonstrated the currency of Lafitau’s thought for missiological and theological questions.
- Cooper, J. M. (1935). Lafitau. In E. R. A. Seligman & A. S. Johnson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 9, p. 12). New York: Macmillan.
- Fenton, W. N. (1969). J. F. Lafitau (1681-1746): Precursor of scientific anthropology. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 25(2), 173-187.
- Fenton, W. N. (1974). Joseph-François Lafitau, S. J. (1681-1746). In Dictionary of Canadian biography (Vol. 3, pp. 334-338). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Hodgen, M. T. (1971). Early anthropology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Lafitau, J.-F. (1974). Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times (Vol. 48, W. N. Fenton & E. L. Moore, Trans.). Toronto: Champlain Society. Retrieved December 11, 2004, from www.champlainsociety.ca/cs_publications-printed.htm
- Starkloff, C. F. (2002). Common testimony: Ethnology and theology in the customs of Joseph Lafitau. St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources.