Manataka American Indian Council









Scalping: Fact & Fantasy

By Philip Martin


Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, pp. 58-59, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, 2nd edition, Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee, 1998, 189 pp.



Stereotypes are absorbed from popular literature, folklore, and misinformation. For instance, many children (and adults) incorrectly believe that fierce native warriors were universally fond of scalping early white settlers and soldiers. In fact, when it came to the bizarre practice of scalping, Europeans were the ones who encouraged and carried out much of the scalping that went on in the history of white/native relations in America.


Scalping had been known in Europe, according to accounts, as far back as ancient Greece ("the cradle of Western Civilization"). More often, though, the European manner of execution involved beheading.  Enemies captured in battle - or people accused of political crimes - might have their heads chopped off by victorious warriors or civil authorities. Judicial systems hired executioners, and "Off with their heads!"  became an infamous method of capital punishment.


In some places and times in European history, leaders in power offered to pay "bounties" (cash payments) to put down popular uprisings. In Ireland, for instance, the occupying English once paid bounties for the heads of their enemies brought to them. It was a way for those in power to get other people to do their dirty, bloody work for them.


Europeans brought this cruel custom of paying for killings to the American frontier. Here they were willing to pay for just the scalp, instead of the whole head. The first documented instance in the American colonies of paying bounties for native scalps is credited to Governor Kieft of New Netherlands.


By 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp. And in 1756, Pennsylvania Governor Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered "130 Pieces of Eight [a  type of coin], for the Scalp of Every Male Indian > Enemy, above the Age of > Twelve Years, " and "50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed."


Massachusetts by that time was offering a bounty of 40 pounds (again, a unit of currency) for a male Indian scalp, and 20 pounds for scalps of females or of children under 12 years old.


The terrible thing was that it was very difficult to tell a man's scalp from a woman's, or an adult's from a child's - or that of an enemy soldier from a peaceful noncombatant. The offering of bounties led to widespread violence against any person of Indian blood, male or female, young or old.  Paying money for scalps of women and even children reflected the true intent of the campaign - to reduce native populations to extinction or to smaller numbers so the natives could not oppose European seizure of Indian lands. Scholars disagree on whether or not scalping was known in America before the arrival of Europeans.


For instance, in 1535, an early explorer, Jacques Cartier, reportedly met a party of Iroquois who showed him five scalps stretched on hoops, taken from their enemies, the Micmac. But if scalping in pre-European America occurred, it was fairly rare, certainly not an organized government practice done for money. Regarding the philosophy of many native tribes, note the following quote, from a man, Henry Spelman, who lived among the Powhatan people and described their approach to warfare: "they might fight seven years and not kill seven men. " (in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of America, p. 319), Many native societies did not engage in wars of any kind. Native scholar Darcy McNickle estimates that 70% of native tribes were pacifist (in Allen, Sacred Hoop, p. 266).


By anyone's standards, the Europeans were more skilled and deadly in the practice of war. Paying bounties for scalps was just one of many ways in which the Europeans took warfare to new levels of violence.


The Indians were pulled into warfare against white settlers by rival European factions in America. In wars between the French and British, and between the British and the American colonists, each side encouraged their Indian allies to mount violent attacks on the other's population.


Popular literature and newspapers loved to describe any Indian attack in great detail in a blood- thirsty, sensational manner. Readers easily believed that Indians were all "savages," - as that is what the newspapers said. And this helped the government justify its practice of driving native families off tribal lands or killing them.


Almost every fictional account of scalping blames the Indians. The European involvement is over-looked. But it is wrong to do so. Oral history collected from native peoples differs greatly in the interpretation of who was the most cruel, why conflicts were started, or who was defending their family homes from whom. But it is the victors who write the official history books, and it is the white viewpoint which has dominated our image of the American past.


From information in Unlearning "Indian" Stereotypes (Council on Interracial Books for Children) and other sources. Philip Martin is a folklorist and book editor for Rethinking Schools.


Europeans put them up to it, y'know Oydman 02/21 06:48:33 Offered bounties for scalps, since scalps were easily collected as proof of enemy killed. Lots of cheap whiskey was paid for with scalp money. Most of the scalps were from "enemy" tribesmen. Of course, by "enemy" I mean enemy of a particular European power, such as Huron scalps when the Brits were backing the Iroquois. 


The "civilized" Belgians used to punish unproductive villagers in the Congo by having their native soldiers cut off hands. The hands were then smoked over a fire to preserve them and taken back to HQ as proof of a job well done. At least as bad as scalping, and similar in intent.


Euros took a spotty custom and Oydman 02/22 12:40:20 added a big financial incentive to make it into an industry. Oh, you folks occasionally take the scalp of a fallen foe? Why don't you kill all your enemies, give us the scalps for money, and stay drunk during the off-season?


It was only a tradition among certain tribes, but Whites spread the word in the hopes that it would become more common. But there were many tribes who were not particularly warlike, such as the Pottowatami. They only took up arms when the US made it obvious they were going to be forced west of the Mississippi.


In any case, the actions of a few stone-age people, often egged-on by Whites, does not justify killing most of them and forcing the rest to marginal reservation lands where Whites didn't want to settle. How'd your last trip to the Indian Casino go? I lost $15 to the Chippewa, but had a good time anyway. Nice to see them working and the fine new school they built for their people.


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