Émile Petitot’s Exploitation of Indigenous Peoples

CW: Sexual assault/pedophilia 

French missionary Father Émile Petitot spent his life researching the Indigenous tribes of Northern Canada. An ordained minister, he was actually never trained as an ethnographer, nor did he study ethnomusicology.1 Petitot traveled from France to stay with the Inuvialuit chief, Noulloumallik Innonarana, where he researched Indigenous music, culture, and languages.2 He lived and worked in Canada until the end of the 19th century.3

Above is an example of Petitot’s transcriptions of Indigenous music, similar to Densmore and other ethnographers of the time who attempted to box this music into Western notation. Since he most likely didn’t have the means to record the songs, it does make sense that he attempted to notate them in a way that can be interpreted later, but it is still a frustratingly white-washed attempt at cultural preservation. Many of the Inuvialuit peoples were extremely mistrustful of Petitot and believed he may be carrying foreign diseases, but he still recorded that they were “hospitable” people.4 Petitot had a fascination with what he called “Eskimos” in Canada and wrote an entire book about them (Le Grands Esquimeuax)FOOTNORE INUV. His obsession with imposing himself and his religion on these people reeks of colonization and exoticization. 

His exploitative nature went even darker than this, however, and he took advantage of his position sexually as well. He was said to have had sexual relations with many of the young indigenous people while he was staying with and studying different tribes.5 He had a history of sexually assaulting young people and was fired from a previous church job for having sexual relations with a young boy servant.6 Some records state that he attempted self-circumcision as a means to quell his desires, but he was clearly unsuccessful in his attempts and continued to harm and take advantage of young Indigenous people. He was said to have numerous “bouts of insanity” and mental health issues, and this may be the reason he has many inconsistencies in his research. 7 He had a history of paranoia and once became so paranoid of being murdered by Indigenous tribes that he abandoned all his possessions and ran for it.8 Whatever mental health disorders Petitot may have been suffering with, that is absolutely no excuse for the atrocities he committed. While some of his work may be useful in the world of ethnographic research, his legacy is not one to be praised or celebrated.

1 “Father Émile Petitotback.” Inuvialuit Pitquisiit Inuuniarutait, www.inuvialuitlivinghistory.ca/wiki_pages/Father%20%20%C3%89mile%20Petitot. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023.

3. Lévy, J. (2014). Éros et tabou. sexualité et genre chez amérindiens et les inuit. Recherches Amérindiennes Au Québec, 44(2), 170-174. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/éros-et-tabou-sexualité-genre-chez-amérindiens/docview/1681918022/se-2

4 “Father Émile Petitotback.” Inuvialuit Pitquisiit Inuuniarutait, www.inuvialuitlivinghistory.ca/wiki_pages/Father%20%20%C3%89mile%20Petitot. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023.

5 Lévy, J. (2014). Éros et tabou. sexualité et genre chez amérindiens et les inuit. Recherches Amérindiennes Au Québec, 44(2), 170-174. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/éros-et-tabou-sexualité-genre-chez-amérindiens/docview/1681918022/se-2

6 John S. Moir, “PETITOT, ÉMILE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/petitot_emile_14E.html.

7 Honigmann, John J. “Emile Fortuné Stanislas Joseph Petitot Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies.” Dartmouth College Library, collections.dartmouth.edu/arctica-beta/html/EA15-56.html. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023. 

8 Ibid.

Did Ethnomusicologists Know Other Forms of Notation? And Other Thoughts That Keep Me Up at Night

Among the greatest blunders committed by ethnomusicologists when interacting with indigenous cultures is their notation of that culture’s music. The process that comes with this endeavor ends up having a pretty standard formula. A musicologist will learn their notation skills in higher education, become convinced that theirs is the best (typically the standard European notation practice), and then go on to apply it when “capturing” the music of other cultures. We of course all know the tales of Densmore and her blunders, but unfortunately her story is not very unique. Take for example this French Ethnomusicologist’s transcription of indigenous American “chants”.

French Musicologist’s transcription of “Chants indiens du Canada Nord-Ouest [manuscript]”


Similar to Densmore, very strange notation that we can only assume is a mere approximation of what was heard. This begs the question- if western notation is restrictive, why not employ other notation styles? Why not unmetered bars of music? Why not employ a number system for microtonal music? WHY DON’T OUR TAX DOLLARS GO TOWARDS MORE PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE? But seriously- did these musicologists have ideas of other forms of notation? I believe that there are many answers to why western notation was forced to merge with other cultures in violent ways. For one, a precedent was set by Densmore to use western notation and to not deviate so that it was easier for western scholars to consume. Secondly, I do believe that many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century were certainly unaware of other forms of notation. They lived in a far less globalized and more isolated society, even in the most diverse and rich academic institutions of the time.

But our time is different. We must teach at least basic introductions into other forms of notation. If not just to spread music from different cultures in less violent and in more reliable ways, but to expand our own worldview and thought processes when listening and interacting with music from varying cultures in all situations we may encounter it. To fail to learn other systems of notation, is to fail other cultures in an increasingly global society.


Works Cited:


Natalie Curtis – Intention vs. Impact

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875 – 1921) was an American ethnomusicologist and musician whose work centered around preserving and archiving African-American and Native American music, art, and culture. In her 1913 article “The Perpetuating of Indian Art”, she appeals to the American governmental systems that are trying to erase Native culture altogether by assimilation into Western culture. While Curtis’ intentions were likely to help the Native American peoples, her argument against assimilation focuses largely on how Indian culture benefits white people. In the opening sentence of her article, she states:

“Those who have worked among the American Indians, and have learned to respect the thought, the art, and many of the religious ideas of this most interesting people, must feel a sense of almost personal gratitude to the present Secretary of the Interior for having appointed a Supervisor of Music in the department of Indian Education, whose duties shall be to ‘record native Indian music, and arrange it for use in the Indian schools.’”1

While Curtis continuously raves about the beauty and importance of Native Culture throughout the article, her argument always boils down to this: since Native culture is so beautiful, we can’t let it vanish completely because we can learn from them to help better ourselves and our Western culture. 

This is a common theme among supposedly well-meaning American ethnomusicologists at this time and throughout history. Ethnomusicologists like Alice Fletcher and Natalie Curtis tended to use language that is insensitive and dehumanizing towards the cultures they were studying. Fletcher was of the belief that “education was of primary importance for Native Americans, as it would ease assimilation into ‘civilized’ culture.”2 Curtis referred to Native Americans as “underdeveloped”, “primitive”, and “noble dogs”. 

Not to say that Curtis didn’t accomplish good things in her work – she used her personal relationship with Theodore Roosevelt to aid in the removal of a longtime ban on Native American music, 3and she strongly advocated against the erasure and white-washing of Native culture. Whatever the intentions, it’s important to analyze and acknowledge ethnomusicologists of the past so we can recognize where they failed and do better in the future. What we can learn from Curtis and others is that It’s important to ask yourself, whose betterment is the work intended for?


2 Haynes, Caitlin T, and Katherine Crowe. “Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche in the Transcription Center.” Smithsonian, 2023, transcription.si.edu/articles/alice-cunningham-fletcher-and-francis-la-flesche-transcription-center.

3 Curtis, N. (1919, Mar 05). MR. ROOSEVELT AND INDIAN MUSIC: A PERSONAL REMINISCENCE. Outlook (1893-1924), 399. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/magazines/mr-roosevelt-indian-music/docview/137007546/se-2

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Natalie Curtis Burlin”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Natalie-Curtis-Burlin. Accessed 20 September 2023.