The fiercely-painted warrior bent over and seized a handful of his dead enemy’s hair with a copper-skinned hand as the other hand drew a forged steel trade knife across the hairline of his victim’s forehead. He skillfully guided the blade back behind one ear, down across the back of the neck, up past the opposite ear, and then connected the cut at the forehead. The savage worked the blade under the edge of the scalp to loosen it and then placed a moccasin-clad foot on his victim’s neck. With a vicious yank accompanied by the gruesome sound of tearing tissue, the warrior freed the victim of his scalp. And as he raised the bloody human pelt for the rest of his war party to see, his piercing victory cry sliced through the air as sharply as the scalping knife had sliced through lifeless flesh.

Mere mention of the word “scalp” can bring an image similar to that above to the mind’s-eye of those even vaguely familiar with the violent history of this country. The act of scalping, as often portrayed in books and movies, is a cruel act meant to torture and humiliate an enemy and provide the scalp-taker with a grisly trophy. This misconstrued idea stems from only one of so many misunderstandings of the various Native American cultures.

A common belief among many of the Native American tribes was that the scalp held the man’s soul and would continue to do so until it was released by ritual. It was universally thought that the soul captured with the scalp would accompany the victor on his journey into the world of the spirits as his slave. This concept more than any other led to the wars between the tribes. Revenge raids were carried out by many of the tribes to provide a warrior killed in action with a slave in the afterlife. This revenge-scalp was given to the warrior’s family. The Osage aptly called this process the “Mourning-War Ceremony.” Among the Wichita, the slain warrior’s kin continued to mourn their loss until the war party returned with a scalp.

This belief that the scalp held the soul led the Natchez of the southeast to scalp their own fallen warriors in order to return the scalps to their village for burial rituals in the event that the war party was unable to return with the entire body. Other Indians would shave their heads leaving only a “scalp-lock” of long hair or the familiar “Mohawk” to taunt their enemies and provide them with a fine trophy—if they could get it!

Scalp taking among the southwestern tribes involved a unique blend of spiritual beliefs. The Apache and Navajo fully believed that by seizing a scalp one also secured that person’s soul, however they were also fearful of the dead, as were all Athabasca-related tribes. This irony could only be resolved by allowing the leader of the war party to scalp the fallen foe. Prior to setting off for war, a ritual would be held which enabled the leader of the war party to safely remove the scalps of their enemies without offending the spirits of the Otherworld and to protect them from the ghost of the dead. Likewise, on the war party’s successful return, a ceremony would be held over the warriors to drive away the ghost of the slain. The scalps, considered far too dangerous to be entrusted to the warriors, were placed in the care of powerful
shamans to be cleansed and sung over.

The Zuni, on the other hand, believed the scalp had powerful rainmaking abilities. The souls of the slain captured in the scalp were honored and adopted into the tribe by the same ceremony that a live captive would be. This then transformed the scalp into a sacred fetish instead of a useless enemy. But even with the adoption, close proximity to the scalp was dangerous. So dangerous in fact that the Hopi would not allow the scalp to be brought into the village. Instead, the scalps were enshrined in a rock crevice or a small conical structure of slab rock and tamped earth. There the scalps were stored in pottery vessels and “fed” pollen during ceremonies. Stored with or offered alongside the scalps were carvings and fetishes of wargods and other powerful items.

No matter the tribe or regional culture, the preservation of the scalp was fairly universal. Much like hides and pelts, the scalp was fleshed by scraping off all meat and connective tissue. After washing, it was then stretched by lashing it on a small hoop, and allowed to dry. Some were curedfurther by slow smoking in much the same way buckskin was. Once cured, the fleshside was often painted and the hoop decorated with quillwork, beads, and the like. In this form the scalp could be displayed on a community war post with lances, horse bridles, manes and so forth. Some scalps were used to adorn war shirts or ceremonial clothing.

It has been argued that the taking of scalps did not exist in the Americas until the arrival of the Europeans. However archeological evidence points to the existence of this widespread practice, especially among the tribes east of the Mississippi, in pre-Columbian America. And though scalping was not unheard of in Europe, especially in the central and north-eastern regions, it was not as widely practiced as beheading. However, the arrival of Europeans did create an explosion of the practice.

New England Puritans created a demand for scalps by establishing the first bounty for those of tribes opposing them in the 1630s. This practice expanded during the King Philip’s War. Later as European empires clashed, the French paid their Indian allies for English scalps and the English returned the favor. This continued throughout the French and Indian Wars and into the American Revolution with whites as well as Indians cashing in. At one instance duringthe colonies’ struggle, members of the Seneca tribe presented to the Governor of Canada, Fredrick Haldimand, more than a thousand scalps taken as proof of continued loyalty to the British. Of these, only fortythree were taken from Colonial soldiers. The rest came from civilian men, women, and children, and Indians loyal to the Americans. The loyalty of the Seneca was rewarded in trade goods, especially muskets, knives, steel arrowheads, and tomahawks, to enable further bloodshed in an effort to tie up Colonial forces and spread fear through terrorism.

As the revolution wore on, the price for scalps continued to rise and it became a profitable business to procure scalps for the collection of bounties paid by one government or another. Skillful blade work could turn one scalp into two and graverobbing for scalps was not unheard of, though most of these instances were the acts of lawless rogues. Though the British offered the stronger incentive by paying higher prices, the Americans were also guilty of promoting this blood trade. But it would be the Spanish and later the Mexican governments of the southwest that created the most prolific trade in scalps.

In an effort to conquer and subdue the Apache through genocide, the Spanish and later the Mexican governments each in their turn offered enormous amounts in bounty for scalps. By the time of the Apache Wars, a scalp could fetch as much as a thousand dollars in the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Parties of mercenaries prowled the Southwest in search of Apache hair. But finding an Apache, much less killing one, was nowhere as easy as slaughtering unarmed peasants or friendly Indians. All too often, these innocent were killed for their hair by scalp hunters and the heinous acts were then blamed on the Apache. With the increase in violence and “Apache” outrages, the price paid for the grisly trophies increased in a never-ending, vicious cycle. Even the noble, though ferocious, Comanche began to send scalps south to cash in on the riches to be gained in the trade of human pelts. And though thousands of scalps had been paid for in gold and silver by Mexican officials by the end of the wars, only a very few actually belonged to the Apache.

With the “civilizing” of the tribes, the act of scalping, along with the symbolism associated with it, disappeared. From the mystic beliefs to the lust for wealth, many victims have fallen to the scalping knife. As morbid as the subject may seem to our “civilized” sensibilities, it has been proven time and again how easily mankind can revert back to more primitive practices.

Taylor, Colin F., Native American Hunting and Fighting Skills. The Lyons Press, Guilfort, CT, 2003. Hunt, Norman Bancroft. Warriors, Warfare and the Native American Indian. Salamander Books Limited, London, 1995.

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