Sunday, 18 July 2010

Scalping--Facts and Myths

In 1697, Colonial Hannah Dustin's baby was killed, and she was captured during an Indian raid. As a captive, she was handed over to a family in the traditional way of many eastern woodland tribes. Not only did Dustin (spelled Duston by some accounts) escape, but she slew ten of her captors, which included women and six children, as they slept. When she remembered their scalps were worth money, she returned for them to collect the bounty. Today, Dustin is often depicted as a heroine and has two statues in her memory. One, in New Hampshire, shows her with the scalps in her hand.

A colonial, regardless of gender, certainly isn't the Hollywood image of a scalper. I'll leave a more complete story of Dustin for a future blog, and try in this one to explain some of the facts about scalping that are rarely noted in the movies or books.

Being scalped by Indians was one of the biggest fears encountered among the first colonists. Over the past four hundred years much has been written about the topic. Some people argue the colonists brought scalping from Europe and introduced it to the indigenous populations. While it's true that some Europeans in the past had taken scalps, in 1607 at Jamestown the English were more in the habit of taking heads, rather than scalps. Several written records exist that suggest some of the Powhatan people did indeed scalp at the time of settlement. However, those records alone are inconclusive to the question of who invented the act.

Archaeological evidence indicates that some indigenous people did scalp in the pre-contact era. Also, the main European languages did not have a term for the action until arriving on North America's shores. When the Europeans first arrived in the sixteenth century, they noted that certain tribes scalped enemy warriors. What's often overlooked in the literature is that not all tribes scalped. In fact, some authorities claim the majority of tribes did not scalp.

Although the historical record seems to verify that Europeans did not originate the act of scalping, they quickly discovered it was much easier than beheading. During King Philip's War, in the 1670's, the colonists played Native tribes against each other. The colony of Rhode Island offered bounties to the Narragansetts for enemy "head skins," a term used for scalps during the 17th century. Connecticut and Massachusetts soon followed suit and offered bounties on their Wampanoag enemies. Authorities paid ten shillings to Indians and thirty shillings to their own men for every enemy scalp. At the end of the war, Metacom, often called King Philip, had his head taken and displayed on a pike for a year.

In 1688, the French Canadians became the first to encourage Native tribes to take white scalps. They paid ten beaver skins for every enemy scalp, Indian or Puritan, which is probably the source of the myth that the French taught Indians to scalp. As a result of bounties, the Europeans paved the way for Indians to take white scalps. In 1693, the English declared they would pay bounties for the scalps of Frenchman and their Indian allies, leading to Hannah Dustin's story.

For tribes that participated in scalping, the general idea behind the action was that a scalp lock became symbolic of a warrior's life force. Generally a scalp lock was regarded as more than a trophy of war. Not only did an enemy's scalp prove that a warrior was brave in taking casualties, but it was part of the soul or life force. To lose one's scalp to an enemy meant that a person became spiritually dead, even if biologically they were not. Furthermore, scalping didn't appear to be overly common until metal knives and firearms were introduced.

Unfortunately, media, novels, and Hollywood movies cling to the "savage" stereotype. Even though some indigenous people apparently scalped before the arrival of Europeans, it was not as widespread as the stereotype would suggest. English and French settlers adopted scalping as a retaliatory measure. Until then, Native people were not in the habit of taking white scalps. To overlook the European involvement in the equation only perpetuates the myths.

Kim Murphy

No comments: