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Emile Fortuné Stanislas Joseph Petitot: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Emile Fortuné Stanislas Joseph Petitot

(John J. Honigmann)


Father Petitot was born at Grancy-le-Ch a â teau, in the diocese of Marseille
on December 3, 1838. Little is known of his early life. The missionary him–
self never wrote about this period and no biographer has yet appeared to re–
construct these youthful years. At the age of twenty-four Petitot left France
for Canada not to return until twenty-four years later. He died in his native
country on May 29, 1917.
It was March 27, 1862, shortly after entering the missionary order of the
Oblates of the Immaculate Conception, when the young priest left France to
begin his work in the distant regions of northwestern Canada. Behind him he
left a mother who deplored her son's departure. Ambivalence also character–
ized Petitot's feelings, making the first part of his voyage to England an
emotionally very disturbing experience. From London he proceeded to Liver–
pool where he boarded the steamer for America with instructions to proceed to
Red River of the North. He landed in Portland, Maine, and traveled through
New England to Montreal where he met Father Grouard, who was to be his travel–
ing companion as far as Athabaska. The trip across northern New England
interested the young Frenchman extremely and in his later career he studied
the history of the area's settlement and its Indian populations. The results
of that research was published in En route pour la mer glaciale (1888), the

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

record of his first travels in the New World.
From Montreal the boyage continued through the northern United States
and provided opportunities to note many, sometimes amusing, characterizations
of the American people, especially their goal of "making money." Even then
Petitot shows himself to have been a diligent observer, eager to devour all
experience as grist for his mill of thought. Along the Red River he observed
the behavior of some Chippewa Indians under the influence of alcohol, a spec–
tacle he never forgot. He concluded that whiskey would be the white man's best
means for completely exterminating the Indian population. Finally he arrived
at Saint Boniface, then the center of northern Catholic missionary endeavors,
where he was much impressed by the intelligence of the French-Indian m e é tis ,
some of whom, no doubt, were to participate in the Riel Rebellion seven years
later. His theory was that in such intermixture the resulting child tended
to adopt the characteristics of the native mother, "the blood of the mother
generally prevails over the father."
On a Hudson's Bay Company barge Petitot traveled to Norway House and
thence to Isle a à la Crosse. The psychological characteristics of bush
Indians he encountered intrigued him even then but he generalized somewhat
indiscriminately from the specific tribes to the entire ethnic group. Thus
he concluded that the Indian regards as superior him who asks and receives,
while the donor of gifts or assistance is regarded as an inferior person.
Such a generalization is relatively crude but the germinal truth it contains,
namely of the psychological dependence characterizing many American aboriginal
groups, has since been independently verified by anthropological observers.
Although he adopted a comparative approach with reference to language and
other aspects of culture, his background of psychology as well as the state

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

of that science in the nineteenth century, were not sufficient to develop
an interest in comparative character structure.
Leaving Father Grouard at Lake Athabaska, Petitot continued down the
Slave River, readhing the mouth on August 8, 1862. His first sight of a
northern forest mission post, Resolution, is given without emotion but the
conditions into which he had come were at that time distinguished by an
almost complete absence of ordinary luxuries and of many comforts. Between
1861 and 1862 Bishop Grandin had made an inspection tour of many of these
missions and was struck by their poverty and what he considered the hardships
endured by the missionaries, who often had to hunt their own food and seemed
to the bishop fo be constantly risking their lives. This was the life that
the young Frenchman was about to adopt. His voyage that year ended at the
first rapid of the Mackenzie where he spent his first northern winter before
proceeding to Fort Good Hope, his missionary section.
In 1863 Petitot reached Good Hope and began the journeys on which he
introduced the Catholic religion to numerous Athapaskan Indian groups and
which included a visit to the Mackenzie Eskimos. These journeys were marked
by a self-imposed obligation to make as many geographical and ethnographical
observations as possible. Between 1864 and 1869, and again in 1871, he
covered the region between Great Slave and Great Bear lakes, the country
which had been first travered by the Franklin expedition. Between 1866 and
1879 he made eight trips to Great Bear Lake, exploring the eastern district
of that body of water as well as studying the Great Bear Lake Indians and
adjoining southerly "nations".
From his travels on the west bank of the Mackenzie, Petitot was able to
contribute to the geographical knowledge of the Rocky Mountains and he once

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

crossed these ranged en route via the Porcupine River to Fort Yukon, Alaska
(1870). Here the hostility of Protestant traders is reported responsible
for his lack of success in converting the Indians to the Catholic faith.
Beginning in 1865 he explored the country between Great Bear Lake and the
Arctic Sea, an area in which he encountered the Eskimos, and was distressed
by their wintertime custom of nudity in their dwellings and assembly houses.
It was during these travels that the missionary reached the banks of
MacFarlane (Kayak) River and of what he called "Fleuve la Ronci e è re de Noury,"
about twenty miles from its mouth. Without exploring the course of this latter
waterway, he described it (in M e é moires, notices geographie de l′ Athabaskaw–
Mackenzie et des grands lacs du bassin arctique
, 1875) as flowing into Liver–
pool and Langton bays (pages 37 and 173, respectively) with its source at
about 120° W. longitude. The Hare Indian name for the La Ronciere is given,
Kkraytt o ô nilin e é ( Rivi e è re des pagaies en saule ). These data are included in
the maps published as endpieces to M e é moires and to Exploration de la r e é gion
du grand lac des ours
In 1909 Stefansson came to what his available maps told him was the
estuary of a three-hundred-mile river, La Ronci e è re. In reality he discovered
himself on a thirty-mile-long creek. Some days later, however, the explorer's
party came on the Norton River, "a stream about the size of the Hudson, the
general course of which it has been our privilege to add to the map of North
America." ( My Life with the Eskimo , p. 118). The possible conclusion that
Petitot's La Ronci e è re and Stefansson's Horton are one and the same river comes
from the Oblate's remark, "I have never gone to its mouth and have not descended
the plateau which dominates a view of the distant sea." Apparently this
plateau was a part of the Melville Mountains, which here are located about

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

three miles from Langton Bay. According to Stefansson, "They are really
the sea front of a plateau that slopes almost imperceptibly southward from
their crest to Horton River, ten miles further inland" (p. 115). However,
in the map published with M e é moires, Petitot (Without giving evidence of
exploration) figured a small "Horton River" located about eighty miles west
of his La Ronciere. Misled by a variety of circumstances, including perhaps
his mental illness, haste, and native informants, Petitot appears to have
mislocated Richardson's Horton River and believed that in the La Ronci e è re
he had discovered a new stream. The lack of exploration also may have
caused him to misplace the estuary.
Material for the Eskimo-French Vocabulary (published in 1876) was
collected during the early period of Eskimo contacts, the missionary's
last visit to the Eskimos occurring in 1877. With the brief exception of
a visit to Alaska, all of his work was carried on east of the Rocky Mountains
in the Mackenzie and Arctic basins. West of those mountains his activities
were to find a parallel in the research of Father Morice, another Oblate and
a man characterized by the same enthusiasm that marks the work of Petitot.
There is no record of how Father Petitot conducted his investigations
but he must have taken copious notes which, after his visit to France in
1875, were incorporated into a constant stream of journal articles and books.
Many of his books are essentially records of his journeys but are nevertheless
packed with ethnographic and geographical data. An example of such work is
Les grands Esquimaux (1887) recording a series of journeys to the area around
Fort Anderson, eighty miles northeast of Fort Good Hope, and to Cape Bathurst.
On these as well as other travels he lived closely with the people, sharing
their home and food. The volume contains some fine observations on Eskimo

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

eating habits, snowhouses, costumes, family life, and etiquette, as well as
his somewhat uncritical theories of Chinese elements incorporated in Eskimo
traits. He also noted Chinese characteristics in the Eskimo personality,
whose principal component he designated to be passion or impusiveness
( col e è re ).
In 1890 the priest drew on his Eskimo experiences for his Origine
Asiatique des Esquimaus,
an essay primarily concerned with the internal
evidence contained in tales of the Mackenzie Eskimos pointing to a western
origin for those people. By linguistic analysis he sought to relate the
Eskimo, Cree, and ancient Irish, suggesting as cognates the Cree and Eskimo
words for snow, kona and kannir (really kannik ), respectively, and the Irish
kona , a designation for the god of cold. From the standpoint of modern an–
thropology he was on surer ground when, in the interest of proving an histo–
rical relationship, he explored traits shared by the Aleuts and Asiatic
Eskimos, correspondences in the hafting of harpoon points, dwelling types,
body decoration, and clothing types. His reference to sodomy (" vou e é s d e è s
l'enfance aux abominations de Sodoms
") as one such shared trait is considered
by some modern anthropologists as contributing toward establishing that there
was a sodomic belt running along the Pacific rims of both continents. [Other
observers, who knew these Eskimos more intimately than Petitot did, saw no
evidence of this trait, making it seem likely that Petitot's report was an
early sign of his developing insanity.] In further analysis he sought to
relate the Kuril Islanders, Japanese, and Malayans to the Eskimos. In such
research he was paving the way for the oceanic drift theory to explain a
number of North American culture traits. Many consider that unconvincing
erudition is revealed in his comparison of kinship terms and words for water,

EA-Biog. Honigmenn: Emile Petitot

earth, and so on, for Eskimo, Esthonian, Chinese, Gaelic, Greek, and other
far-flung languages. [However, see Uhlenbeck's paper in this Encyclopedia
on identifications similar to some of those proposed by Petitot.]
Despite his interest in the Eskimos, Petitot contributed the bulk of
his energies toward the understanding and description of northern Atha–
paskan Indians. In this field he published the monumental Grammaire at
dictionnaire polyglotte de la langue D e è n e è -Dindji e é
(1876). The first three
essays in this book are reprinted in his Monographie des D e è n e è -Dindji e é . In
the first of these papers, Esquisse de langue des D e è n e è -Dindji e é . he reveals
himself an appreciative student of a difficult unwritten language whose
beauty and logic particularly impressed him when compared to the "actual
abject state" of its speakers. The linguistic historical system to be
developed by Sapir is foreshadowed in his note that the "monosyllabic and
bisyllabic words" in various Athapaskan languages resemble each other more
than do polysynthetic nouns built up from roots. Many of these radical words,
he pointed out, were "the names of objects which were bound up with the primi–
tive spirit of the whole group." In the same essay he demonstrated the
relationship of the northern and southern Athapaskan languages.
The second paper, Monographie des D e è n e è -Dindji e é , is in the main a brief
ethnographic sketch of the Kutchin nation although references to other
northern tribes are frequent. Petitot is at pains to explain why he rejects
the designation Kutchin for these people (who have also often been called
Louchaux), and why he prefers to call them Dindjie. His rationalization,
that the term "Kutchin" is merely a cognate of the common gotine (dweller)
has not led many anthropologists to adopt his nomenclature, especially when
it is recalle d that dindji e é is in its turn a cognate of the word d e è n e è (people).

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

The superior virtue of either designation is difficult to detect but
usage has solved the problem by settling on the designation "Kutchin".
Following a physical description, Petitot draws a psychological picture
of the model personality in which the Kutchin in particular and other Atha–
paskans as well are classified by temperament as choleric- [: ]
lymphatic ( bilioso-pympathique ). He speaks of their "soft" character,
their avoidance of physical aggression, and their reserved behavior in the
presence of strangers. He also characterized them as ".... beggars, pusil–
lanimous, and servile." Despite an appreciation of their intellectual
capacities he saw them as childish in many ways and incapable of inductive
thinking. To the Kutchin he attributed a high development of the senaes of
sight and smell but touch and hearing "are obliterated by privations,
sufferings, and the rigorous climate." The unbridled imagination of the
people is seen responsible for the "fact" that many are subject to hallu–
cinations. Still uncompletely ferified is Petitot's statement that the
northern Athapaskan tribes aboriginally recognized a Supreme being. Among
the Kutchin and Hare he even discovered a trinity of gods.
The volume's final paper, Essai sur l'origine des D e è n e è -Dindji e é is con–
cerned with the evidence of their Asiatic origin. Accepting oral traditions
pointing to a western origin as evidence, Petitot also cites further proofs
like the belief in reincarnation, the hand game (i.e., stick game), female
infanticide, and teknonymy, all of which are shared by circumpolar people
in Siberia and America. Some of the proofs of Asiatic origin he believes
may go back to Mosaic tradition (although Petitot denied trying to identify
the Athapaskans with the Hebrew tribes). Included here are: traditions
of a deluge, auricular confession, taboos on impure animals, segregation of
menstruants and parturiants, and circumcision.

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

Petitot has often written about circumcision in the North, stating it
to have been practiced among the Slave, Chipewyan, Hare, and Kutchin Nations.
He even characterized the Dogrib Indians as only "half d e è n e è " because they
did not practice circumcision. In 1876 at Fort Simpson he heard from an
Eskimo youth married to a Fort McPherson (Kutchin) girl that the Indians
did not like him "because he had not been circumcised." The boy then asked
Petitot to remedy the liability and, because the priest saw the hygienic
adventure of the operation, he did so. Later he heard that the majority of
Mackenzie Basin Eskimos had adopted circumcision from the Athapaskans. These
allegations of circumcision in the northern Athapaskan area [like the Sodomy
reports covering the Eskimos] remain inexplicable in view of other students
reporting no such trait. Cornelius Osgood, who worked with the Kutchin in
1932, reports that his informants explicitly denied the practic but had heard
of it from traders ( Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin , Yale,
[: ] 1936, p.140).
Petitot also expended considerable effort in delineating the various
Athapaskan tribal groups and recording their proveniences. This manifestly
difficult task was not accomplished without confusion and in subsequent
volumes the missionary often altered his classifications. In an important
few words he specifically related the Bad People from west of Fort Liard, to
Fort Halkett. Grouard, who later wrote much about these people, never satis–
factorially located them. According to Petitot, they are probably an eastern
Kaska group and, by exclusion, not the Espatotena but more likely the so-called
Nelson People of today who, in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, are still feared
and distrusted.
Despite his long experience in the North, Petitot never learned to hold

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

suspect the numerous characterizations of neighboring Indian groups as
either extremely hardy or very evil. Thus the Sekani people, on the basis
of information secured from non-Sakani informants, are described as "hard,
cold and without pity ... living a miserable life and often lacking tents."
Such a stereotype of an adjoining group living across an intervening chain
of mountains or divide is notoriously common among the Athapaskans and
generally lacks any considerable element of truth [A like situation has been
reported by Stefansson as between the Eskimos west of and east of the unin–
habited coastal stretch between Capes Lyon and Bexley.]
In spite of the timidity with which Father Petitot may have set out
from France in 1862, he came to love the North. The attraction which the
region held for him appealed to something deeper than a geographer's objective
detachment as the following passage, discussing the subarctic winter will
testify: "This intense cold, more terrible than the white wolf of the tundra
or the grizzly of the mountains; this cold which seizes its victime when he
is unaware, instantly and fatally ... it revives, activates, and purifies
the blood; stimulates the strength, sets loose the vital energy, sharpens
the appetite ... prolongs live ...this intense cold — so dry, so pure —
arrests putrefaction, destroys poisons in the air, and makes the atmosphere
Small wonder that Petitot was eager to return to his northern labors after
he returned to France in 1875 to present his theory of the Asiatic origin of
the American Indians at the first Congr e è s international des im e é ricanistes
and to speak before other learned societies. He returned to Canada but his
superiors, not liking his apparent state of ill health, kept him among the
Chipewyans of Cold Lake, although in 1877 he made a last journey down the

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

In 1882 Petitot's long-standing mental confusion, which may have been
responsible for some of the errors in and weaknesses of his scientific work,
reached a point where his superiors were required to terminate his missionary
career. Paranoid traits were the outstanding symptoms of his condition.
Already in 1868, according to Mgr. Gabriel Breynat (Voyageur du Christ,
Vol. II, 1947, p. 209), his fear of being murdered by Eskimos caused him to
"abandon canoe, guide, and baggage and, marching along the shore, make his
way to Little Red River where he found Father Seguin." Eventually, according
to Stefansson's report of a conversation with Charcot, Petitot's illness
reached proportions where he though there was a world-wide conspiracy to
murder him in order to prevent continued northern research. To alleviate
these fears the Oblate was returned to France where as parish priest at
Mareuil-les-Meaus, near Paris, he devoted himself to writing. For the next
thirty-five years he passed what amounted to a second lifetime as an author,
drawing on his northern experiences and wide reading.
In estimating the achievements of his colleague, Father Morice writes
that Petitot's imagination was too often the master of his logic. He was a
facile writer but this very facility often interfered with the careful quality
of his work. Scientifically Petitot was also handicapped in that he did not
know sufficient English to keep abreast of the important theoretical develop–
ments in British and American anthropology. Although he possessed a sharp
ear for the appreciation of phonetic values, his dictionary of Athapaskan
dialects suffers, in the opinion of Morice, because "Thirteen years is not
enough in which to master the complexity and idiomatic richness of that
language." Morice also points out the fallacy committed by Petitot in using
Indian and Eskimo folk tales and myths as though they were historical narratives.

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot

To this may be added an impression derived from reading Petitot's
voluminous writings. Although an indefatigable observer, the man was not
sufficiently trained in scholarship with the result that his arguments are
most pompous and pedantic when sustained by the fewest facts. His writing
often gives the impression of a mind striving to outdo its capacities.
Despite these criticisms, and quite without regard to his anthropological
sophistication, Petitot deserves a high place among scientists who have
worked in the North. What he observed and recorded of the day-to-day life
of the Indians and Eskimos and their relations to himself are priceless
records which the keenest anthropologist could no longer duplicate. Their
full exploitation by students is still to come.
A selected bibliography of Petitot's writings, and of sources consulted
for information on Petitot's life and activities, is appended below. Only
his books (some of which first appeared as journal papers) are included here
but his full bibliography, which has never been carefully compiled, would
include many journal articles.

EA-Biog. Honigmann: Emile Petitot


1. Le Jeune, R.P.L. Dictionnaire g e é n e é ral du Canada . Ottawa,
Universit e é d'Ottawa, 1931.

2. Morice, Adrian Gabriel. "L'abb e é E é mile Petitot et les d e é couvertes
g e é ographiques au Canada." Le Canada francais , Quebec,
1921-22, vol. 7, pp.225-235, 319-336.

3. Petitot, E.F.S.J. E É tude sur la nation Montagnaise ou Tchippewayane .
Les Missions Catholiques, Lyon, 1868. Also C. Hennuyer, Paris,

4. ----. M e é moires, notices, g e é ographie de l'Athebaskaw-Mackenzie et des
grands lacs du bassin arctique
. (No date and no title page but
the foo the foo tnote on the first page reads: "Des fragments de ce m e é moire
ont et e é communiqu e é s a à la Soci e é t e é de G e é ographie, dans sa s e é ance du
20 janvier 1875.")

5. ----. G e é ologie G e é n e é rale de L'Athabasca-Mackenzie . Paris, A. Hennuyer, 1875.

6. ----. Grammaire et dictionnaire polyglotte de la langue D e è n e è -Dindji e é ,
Paris, Ern. Leroux, 1876.

7. ----. Monographie des D e é n e é -Dindji e é . Paris, Ern. Leroux, 1876.

8. . Monographie des Esquimaux tchiglit . Paris, Ern. Leroux, 1876.

9. ----. Vocabulaire Esquimaux . Paris, Ern. Leroux, 1876.

10. ----. Les Grands Esquimaux. Paris, E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, 1887.

11. ----. Traditions indiennes du Canada Nord-Ouest . Alencon, E. Renaut, 1888.

12. ----. En route pour la mer glaciale. Paris, Letouzey et Ane, 1888.

13. ----. Quinze ans sous le cercle polaire . Paris, E. Dentu, 1889.

14. ----. Origine Asiatique des Esquimaux. Ern. Leroux, 1890.

15. ----. Autour du grand lac des Esclaves. Paris, Albert Savine, 1891.

16. ----. Exploration de la r e é gion du grand lac des ours. Paris, T e é qui, 1893.

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