Skip to Content

Indigenous Languages and Missionary Texts

Religious and missionary texts, such as catechisms, confessionaries, and sermons; indigenous grammars and dictionaries; devotional, confraternity, and legal records, including wills.

Rare Books Online Exhibits External Resources Related Content

During the colonial era, the indigenous languages of the Americas were instrumentalized in the process of Christianization. Missionaries created rich textual materials in a variety of native languages, including catechisms, confessionaries, sermons, and other doctrinal treatises. In order to adequately translate Christian teachings, these languages had to be studied first. Friars and clerics dedicated themselves to producing dictionaries and grammars that served in the instruction of other missionaries in convents and schools.

Language description was an act of colonization. “Civilizing” the indigenous languages by writing them down in Latin alphabet and forcing the native linguistic categories into the Latin model of grammar was a prerequisite to using these languages in the missionary context. Catholic missionaries and indigenous converts created a new doctrinal discourse that deviated from the actual spoken language of the time. Notwithstanding this approach, missionary dictionaries, grammars, and other texts provide valuable insights into the earlier stages in the development of the native languages of the Americas. Dictionaries in particular included terms concerning native religious and cultural practices that were recorded for the purpose of confession or to prevent idolatry. Doctrinal texts are also a valuable resource for understanding missionary strategies of the time.

Missionary authors usually contributed texts in different genres, as in the case of Alonso Molina, whose Spanish-Nahuatl dictionary became a standard template for missionary lexicography, but who also wrote a confessionary. Indigenous authors took up the colonial written genres and discourse to create devotional and confraternity records, colonial administrative documents, and wills in their own languages.


Searching for Materials in HOLLIS​

In addition to select digitized titles, the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection holds numerous materials related to indigenous languages and missionary texts. To quickly locate items in HOLLIS, use the “Advanced Search” feature to specify material subject, language, date range, or other criteria. Relevant subjects include the following:




Catholic Church -- Catechisms


Digitized Rare Books


Online Exhibits

Explore highlights from the collection related to indigenous languages and missionary texts below, or view all online exhibits.


External Resources

The John Carter Brown Library is an independently funded research library located on the campus of Brown University. The library’s collection has increasingly emphasized indigenous language materials and other sources related to America’s earliest indigenous inhabitants. High resolution images of early American images, map collection, and political cartoon collection are available through LUNA, and scans of over 10,000 full books are available through Internet Archive.

Established in 1924, The Latin American Library at Tulane University is one of the world’s foremost collections for the study of Mesoamerican writing systems and painted manuscripts, pre-Columbian culture, and early Colonial Mexican history and society. The Mexican Incunabula at the Latin American Library (1559-1600) digital collection provides digital copies of some of the earliest products of Mexican printing presses. Because printing was conceived by the Spaniards as a tool for missionaries in the Christianization of Indian populations, these early imprints consisted primarily of grammars and vocabularies of native Indian languages, as well as instructional religious tracts. The Latin American Library has also digitized their collection of Mesoamerican painted manuscripts.

The UCLA Library has digitized part of their collection of documents written in Nahuatl. Approximately sixty Nahuatl texts are available through the beta version of the UCLA Library Digital Collections database. 

One of the largest collections of books and manuscripts of its kind, the Huntington Free Library Native American Collection contains outstanding materials documenting the history, culture, languages, and arts of the Indigenous peoples of both North and South America. The collection contains more than 40,000 volumes and significant quantities of archival materials on the archaeology, ethnology, and history of Indigenous peoples of the Americans from the colonial period to the present.

The colonial documents in the Paul Van de Velde Papers preserve the genealogical, anthropological, art historical, ecumenical, and ethnographic record of Mexico City and Oaxaca. The collection, which has been made available through New Mexico Digital Collections, contains Nahuatl manuscripts and evidence of other indigenous Mexican cultures. Additional documentation includes property disputes, birth, death and marriage records and colonial legislation. 

The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) is a digital language archive of recordings, texts, and other multimedia materials in and about the indigenous languages of Latin America. AILLA's mission is to preserve these materials and make them available to Indigenous Peoples and scholars.

A collaborative endeavor of Dr. James Mondloch and the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico, the K'iche' Maya Oral History Project contains 149 oral histories, which were collected in western Guatemala during the 1960s and 1970s. Now fully digitized, this collection of written and spoken K'iche' Maya is available to audiences worldwide.

The Mapas Project has as its focus the digitization and study of colonial Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts. The term "mapa" was used loosely in New Spain to refer to pictorials that may or may not have had a cartographic dimension, but often showed the territories or landscapes of indigenous communities.

The Maya Codices Database Project features a searchable translation and analysis of four codices (screenfold books) painted by Maya scribes before the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century. The codices contain information about Maya beliefs and rituals, as well as everyday activities, all framed within an astronomical and calendrical context.

Primeros Libros de las Américas: Impresos Americanos del Siglo XVI en las Bibliotecas del Mundo is a digital collection of the first books printed in the Americas before 1601. These monographs represent the first printing in the New World and provide primary sources for scholarly studies in a variety of academic fields. Of the 240 editions believed to have been produced in Mexico and Peru, approximately 155 are represented in institutions around the world. 

The Biblioteca Franciscana (Franciscan Library) is the result of the joint efforts of the University of the Americas-Puebla and the Franciscan Province of the Holy Gospel of Mexico to preserve, investigate and disseminate the bibliographic heritage of the Franciscan Order. Situated in the Pilgrims’ Gate at the Convent of St. Gabriel in the city of San Pedro Cholula, Puebla, this library has more than 24,000 volumes published between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, including a great variety of sermons, treatises on theology, canon law, catechetical manuals, hagiographies, liturgies, among other novohispano intellectual works. Over 320 of these texts have been digitized and are available online.


Related Collection Strengths

Learn more about other collection strengths that may contain materials of interest to this research topic, or view all collection strengths.


Related Content

Discover related news, resources, and opportunities at Dumbarton Oaks​.