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Native North American language materials

The British Library has significant holdings of older printed materials relevant to the study of the indigenous languages of North America (the continental United States, Canada and Greenland). Recent estimates suggest that there are some 380 pre-20th century books and pamphlets which are entirely or largely in these languages. This figure includes early printed dictionaries and linguistic studies. The collections are dispersed throughout the Library.

Scope of the holdings | Access | Bibliographies
Materials elsewhere in the British Library


Se Qeo Yah

Se Qeo Yah. Copyright © The British Library Board

Scope of the holdings

Most language groups are represented, although the majority of the books held relate to languages spoken by peoples who have been in contact with European settlers for the longest, namely Algonquian (mostly Massachusett, Lenape, Cree, Ojibwe), Iroquoian (Mohawk, Cherokee), and the Inuit languages (mainly those of Greenland and Labrador).

Right up to the beginning of the 20th century, Christian religious texts (Bibles or parts of the Bible, hymnals, service books, biblical stories, etc.) constituted the largest proportion of early Indian-language books and pamphlets in the Library. Even works designed to teach literacy skills regularly made use Christian texts.

The Gospel According to Matthew

S. A. Worcester and E. Boudinot, The Gospel According to Matthew Translated into the Cherokee Language, New Echota, 1832 [3068.a.64] © The British Library Board

By the 19th century much of this material was being published by organisations such as the Christian Knowledge Society, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and the American Bible Society. Nevertheless, printed vocabularies and dictionaries do date back to the 17th century, with the earliest being a collection of Huron words and phrases recorded French explorers along the St Lawrence river. From the mid-19th century, numbers of scientific descriptions of the languages of North America begin to appear.

Some Helps for the Indians

Abraham Pierson, Some Helps for the Indians, Cambridge, 1658 [C.32.a.21]. Copyright © The British Library Board

Books and pamphlets printed on both sides of the Atlantic are held. There is however a predominance of material published in either London or New York, with smaller numbers from Montréal, Québec, Washington, Paris, and Copenhagen (for Greenlandic).

Other material has been collected from local centres such as Park Hill, Okla. (for Cherokee) and Kamloops, B.C. (for the Salish languages). Most of the books are in Roman script, but there are also several examples of Cree and Cherokee syllabics.

Highlights include:

  • Catechismo, y examen . en lengua castellana, y timuquana, Francisco Pareja (México, 1627). [3505.df.30]. Catholic catechism written by a Spanish missionary for use with the Timucua people of Florida.
  • Dictionaire de la langue Huronne, in: Le Grand Voyage du Pays des Hurons, Gabriel Sagard Théodat (Paris, 1632) [C.32.c.18; G.7269]. The first dictionary of a North American language (Huron).
  • Some Helps for Indians; Shewing them how to Improve their Natural Reason to know the true God, and the Christian Religion, Abraham Pierson (Cambridge, Mass., 1658) [C32.a.21]. In English and Quiripi.
  • The New Testament... Wusku Wuttestamentum, John Eliot (Cambridge, Mass., 1661) [C.51.b.3; G.12160]. In Massachusett.
  • Mamusse Wununeetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (Holy Bible) (Cambridge, Mass., 1663) [G.12176; C.10.a.1]. In Massachusett. The first complete Bible published in what is now the United States, and the first complete translation into an Indian language.
  • Lutheri Catechismus, öfwersatt på American-Virginise Språket (Stockholm, 1696) [3506.aa.42]. Lutheran liturgy in the Unami Jargon of Lenape.
  • Kunache kehche musenuhekun (Holy Bible) (London, 1861) []. In Western Cree. The second complete translation of the Bible into an Indian language.

The British Library also has numerous books of microform, the originals of which are only held in other libraries. Of particular note is the microfiche series Pre-1900 Canadiana [Mic.F.232], which includes reproductions of dozens of early books in or about the languages spoken in Canada. A guide to this series, together with guides to other similar series, can be found on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.

Significant primary and secondary electronic resources can be accessed at the Library. This include anthropological databases and texts and Early Encounters in North America, which contains 100,000 pages of letters, diaries, memoirs and accounts of early encounters.


Descriptions of early books in the indigenous languages of the United States, Canada and Greenland can be found by searching the Library's general catalogues. Catalogue records are often brief, use only the form of language name given in the book itself, and contain no subject indexing. It may therefore be appropriate to search the British Library's catalogues against a standard bibliography in your field of study: some important bibliographies are listed below.

There are no special collections of materials in or about the native languages of North America; books are dispersed throughout the older parts of the Library. Nevertheless, some of the shelfmark (call number) ranges used from the mid-19th century onwards indicate a broad subject arrangement; as a result many items are grouped together in the 3070 and 12902-12910 shelfmark ranges, reserved for 'Bibles' and 'Philology' in non-European languages. Smaller numbers of books issued by governmental organisations, including Smithsonian Institution publications (e.g. items at A.S.912), are kept in the official publications sequences held by the Social Sciences and Official Publications service.


There are several published bibliographies of early books in the native languages of North America. Some of the most useful are those compiled by James Constantine Pilling and published in Washington by the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology at the end of the 19th century. The works all have titles along the lines 'Bibliography of the Algonquian languages' and are:

  • Algonquian (1891) [11927.f.20].
  • Athapascan (1893) [A.S.912 (v.14)].
  • Chinookan (1893) [A.S.912 (v.15)].
  • Eskimo (1887) [A.S.912 (v.1)].
  • Iroquoian (1888) [011902.f.10].
  • Salishan (1893) [A.S.912 (v.16)].
  • Siouan (1887) [A.S.912 (v.5)].
  • Wakashan (1894) [A.S.912 (v.19)].

Of particular interest to those interested in the Algonquian languages of New England is Origin and early progress of Indian missions in New England with a list of books in the Indian language printed at Cambridge and Boston, 1653-1721, by James Hammond Trumbull. (Worcester, Mass.: for private distribution, 1874) [4766.h.12]. Annotated bibliographies and catalogues are available over the internet from institutions such as the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

Materials elsewhere in the British Library

Other areas of the Library hold materials relevant to the study of indigenous North American languages. Printed books, pamphlets and periodicals produced since the beginning of the 20th century can be found in both the London reference and Document Supply collections. These can be found by searching Explore the British Library. Catalogue records for items acquired since the early 1970s usually include subject indexing terms which use standardised versions for the names of languages and peoples. Some material can also be found in the Department of Manuscripts.



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