Cutting to the Chase of a Long-time Debate

Heated ethnic debates concerning the European white men and the Indians of North America have often led to the subject of the barbaric practice of scalping. In his book, The European and the Indian, author James Axtell contends that it was indeed the Indians who invented the savage art. After meeting William Sturtevant of the Smithsonian, Axtell developed his thoughts more fully in his essay "The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping? A Case Study" and in other essays in his book.

Origins of the "white man" theory possibly came from an Alleghaney Seneca chief named Cornplanter, who claimed in 1820 that the Indians were peaceful until the French and English came and demonstrated war practices and provided European weapons to the Indians. Other claims were made later in media reports. These included a newspaper interview with the Omaha girl, La Flesche, who told a reporter that the "acts of atrocity" were merely due to the offer of money from scalps that the French whites had introduced to the Indians. Nearly a century later, in 1968, Leslie Fiedler also reported that the whites had begun the practice by offering bounties for scalps. The theory was even reinforced on television. In 1972, "Hec Ramsey" on NBC network had its host Richard Boone offer information about a Puritan teaching an Indian to scalp for bounty. It became such an accepted theory, that when Bruce C. Thum (who went by the alias "Chief Charging Bear") showed his Sunday school class "how the Indians scalped the white man," he sparked a protest to which Thum shrugged the explanation that "scalping came originally from the Europeans."

A large majority of the arguments concerning the European perpetuation of scalping is stemmed from stories such as those of La Flesche. Europeans and their commercialized mentality were also guilty of scalping for bounty, and later for spite or vengence. Though it is true that monetary compensation for a scalp was not an original native custom, it was practiced as a symbol of valor, and the eastern woodland Indians took only the "scalplocks" to demonstrate power over their enemies. Other tribes took the whole head or other appendages as evidence of their victories, but scalping tended to be a more convenient method of displaying one’s accomplishments—especially if the long ride home from battle would be cumbersome with a whole human head tucked under one’s arm! The history of Europe is not without its share of barbarities and burnings and beheadings, like that of King Charles I in 1660. But, even with the evidence that the Europeans had many ghastly practices in their own war activities and punishment tortures, the proof for the claim of them inventing scalping is not sufficient to convince James Axtell.

Axtell’s research for his essays uncovered archaelogical, written, and linguistic evidence that points to an Indian origin of scalping. There have been pre-historic sites in North America where remains with lesions on the skull suggesting a scalping victim have been unearthed. Written accounts from European explorers during the 1500’s and 1600’s provide historical evidence of the practice. In 1535, Jacques Cariter saw "the skins of five men’s heads, stretched on hoops…" Samuel de Champlain’s travels to Canada and New England provided him with tales of scalping after a battle in 1609: "Approaching the shore each took a stick, on the end of which they hung the scapls (testes) of their slain enemies…" These stories bring up three points for Axtell to use in his argument. The first is the novelty of scalping to the European observer. Next, there is the evidence of skill and art involved that suggest a long tradition of the practice. Finally, the words that are used to describe "scalp" and "scalping" had no set vocabulary and no universal translation in European languages, but Indians of different backgrounds and languages had nouns and verbs to refer to the specific use of the terminology. Without a word for the action or object, it is unlikely that the European cultures had conceived of what they witnessed prior to their introduction to Native American customs, and therefore unlikely that it had been a practice brought to the New World by them.

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