Notes toward a reconsideration of Scalping

by ericaeller

The relic of a scalp procured through scalping is a particularly fraught image of violence that should represent, most of all, a symptom of cultural forgetting. The conception that this practice originated as a native invention reflects a peculiarly conspicuous symptom of the myth of savagism. Savagism was and is not only a racist ideology that places the European as the leader of civilization and the indigenous culture as inferior through anachronistic propaganda as Anibal Quijano has pointed out, but it is also about attributing violence during a process of mystifying the actual cultural phenomena that perpetuates violence. By merely attributing this form of violence to natives and all of the horror and shock that comes with it, the myth of savagism bypasses the commodity structure built into the proliferation of scalping during colonial wars of expansion and it discounts the reality that most all war-faring factions in North America participated in scalping (including the French, English, Americans, and Natives). 

The practice of providing bounties for scalps during the French and Indian War, meant that natives were encouraged to enter into a war effort by enabling them to profit through commerce. Murder was a paid-for service when interested European warfaring parties were furnished with the proof of a scalp. The labor of producing a scalp, however, has been exaggerated by romanticized imagery that fosters an ideology of savagism. Images depicting native warriors raising their tomahawks and pulling the hair of frightened settlers exclude from their frames the backdrop of the interested parties that were securing money for this service. We should remember that any act of scalping became a form of labor that produced a wage. The capitalistic system of providing incentives for war efforts lurks behind the exaggerated imagery of scalp removal that we know from those romanticized frontier narrative images.

Of course, anyone could get payment for a scalp and natives were by no means the only ones to participate in the trade. Author Philip Martin reminds people that Europeans may or may not have invented the practice that was largely attributed to natives. Either way, scalping is only a more refined version of beheading, which was the less idiosyncratic version of furnishing proof for murder during warfare in England. Like decapitation, scalping played a score-keeping function for the European warmongers, who kept track of murdered individuals.

The base reality of the genocidal warfare inflicted against natives is epitomized by a practice that has an almost synecdochic resemblance in relation to scalping. This was the practice of the genital mutilation of innocent women murdered in Sand Creek, CO. Genital mutilation occurred when the particularly violent commander J.M. Chivington’s soldiers descended upon Sand Creek as a so-called act of redemption, an interpretation I will disagree with shortly. The soldiers’ actions included the morally depraved act of killing innocent women, removing their genitals, and then preparing the flesh to be worn as a symbol of their achievement. The soldiers, a group of largely untrained men, would stretch the flesh over their saddles and later adorn their hats with the dried relic, a true expression of human barbarism. Like the process of preparing a scalp for being returned for the bounty reward, this process of genital mutilation involved stretching and drying the human flesh to produce a symbolic fetish that represents the total embrace of senseless violence. 

Like other similar incidents that incited revenge for white settlers as justification for war crimes such as the Whitman Massacre, the war effort at Sand Creek is always depicted as a response to a massacre of white missionaries by natives. These isolated events of massacre are often depicted in history books as triggers for wars that happened to also support expansion efforts. But these “triggers” were also prefaced with epidemics of European diseases that were wiping out native populations, as well as over zealous and destructive fur trade practices that had decimated the natural stores of the natives’ food sources. While a reaction certainly took place to the Sand Creek Massacre by the Europeans, it was an opportunistic form of advance that in its vindictiveness cast boulders in response to stone throwing. The white war effort at Sand Creek should therefore only be understood as a offensive escalation of violence rather than an act of redemption.

Questions remain about scalping since not many historical resources are devoted to the topic. For example, when did the State of New York ban payment for scalps in return for legally sanctioned bounty money? When did scalping end? What were the stories of scalping survivors? (It is true that not all victims of scalping actually died as a result.) Most importantly what can we understand about racism and its links to justifying warfare today as it is an aspect of the myth of savagism. Furthermore, what does this complex form of attributing the imagery of violence to the disenfranchised racial group in history reveal about the reification of warfare as a mechanism that ungirds capitalism. 

Sources used for this article:

Quijano, Anibal. 2000b. Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social. Trans. María Lugones In Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein. Special issue, Journal of World Systems Research 5, no. 2 (summer/fall).

Gibbs, Jules. “In the Beautiful, Violent Swirl of America.” The American Poetry Review: Jul/Aug 2012; 41, 4; Alt-Press Watch, pg 35.