Blackfeet Perspective on Scalping

AmericasIn 1871 a story was published in The Wisconsin State Register of Portage, WI, detailing the story of a boy being a captive of Blackfeet Indians for seven years. All of his family with the exception of him and his younger sister had been brutally killed in a raid. His father was killed and scalped, his mother was gutted alive, the infant was impaled on a fence, and his two older sisters (aged 20 and 21) had their hands and feet nailed to a wall, killed and scalped.

After travelling an unknown distance the Blackfeet and their captives made camp.

The boy’s left arm and the girl’s ear were cut off as a way of branding the prisoners. After this the Indian band split up and the boy never saw his sister again. The boy was castrated and physically abused as a prisoner for seven years before he made his escape. After travelling for a year he made it to Wisconsin where his story was published.

Publications such as these, whether accurate or exaggerated, assisted in universally condemning the Blackfeet tribe especially for the act of scalping.

During the course of the 19th Century, as white Americans explored and settled in the western part of the country, the nomadic Blackfeet Indians felt the need to defend their lands of the northern Great Plains. Early in the century a daring fur trapper might find it worthwhile to follow the Missouri River in pursuit of the rich game in the region, despite the warnings of danger from the Blackfeet.

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The tribe found these white trappers to be trespassers on their land and sought violent ways to stop them, as evidenced in a letter by an Indian sub-agent John F.

A. Sanford. He wrote in 1833, “The Blackfeet have Killed only 18 or 20 the last winter … as long as Whites are trapping in their Country it will be the case. ” Violence was enacted by both sides; the white Americans would seek new lands or new game, and the Indians would seek to stop them through violence. This violence would beget violence from the white, which in turn would spark vengeance from the Indians. In many cases, these instances would include the scalping of a fallen foe whether he or she was Indian or white.

Stories of scalping that came back from the western frontier caused many white Americans to view the Blackfeet Indians in a bad light. In 1881, after a raid on the Cree the Blackfeet had taken sixteen scalps and the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel referred to the act as “Murder, Rapine, Robbery, [and] Vengeance. ” The act of scalping was seen as barbarous and disgusting as reflected by the 19th century historian Francis Parkman who questioned whether Indians had a conscience.

Despite the gruesome nature of scalping and other acts of violence performed by the Blackfeet tribe many of the stories published in newspapers of the Eastern US reflected the biased representation of scalping based on the Christian American’s opinion towards these actions. The Blackfeet tribe can be used as an example to learn why some tribes of American Indians found it acceptable to perform such actions. The Blackfeet believed that the taking of an enemy’s scalp removed his or her power, a collection of scalps added to a warrior’s social status, and scalp parties were often formed for the important idea of revenge.

Power of the Spirit The ethno historian James Axtell wrote an essay on scalping in the colonial North America where he discussed the difficulties of undertaking endeavors of moral questions such as scalping in the clash of two cultures. He explains that first; ethno historians have to be able to understand each culture and the conflicts that arise “without imposing the parochial standards of their own day on the past. ” And second, ethno historians are forced to make an assessment of the meaning of these conflicts to the contemporaries.

Betty Bastien, a professor of native studies and member of the Blackfeet tribe, sought to provide an understanding for the Blackfeet ways of knowing their history in her book Blackfoot ways of knowing: the worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi. Gathering primary documents of the Blackfeet is next to impossible since they had no belief in writing history and did not even focus on literacy as late as the beginning of the 20th century. Bastien’s book discusses the passing of knowledge in the Blackfeet tribe, “As we are sitting here listening to each other speak, our words come from our hearts, from the way we live.

In other words, we didn’t borrow our knowledge from anybody. What we are talking about is something we know. White people would say, we heard it from the horse’s mouth. ” Due to the Blackfeet beliefs and lack of written history, it is imperative to rely on oral history when considering Blackfeet traditions. In order to understand another culture, one has to comprehend the way that culture views the world in order to assess conflicts that may arise between that culture and another; such is the case of scalping.

Bastien sought out her native roots and in doing so was able to reaffirm and reconstruct the traditional ways of knowing for her tribe. According to Bastien, the Blackfeet tribe has a different way of obtaining knowledge than the scientific methods developed by Euro centered learning. In the Blackfeet tribe, as Bastien wrote, “Knowledge comes from Ihtsipaitapiiyo’pa (Spirit) and knowing means connecting with [Spirit]. Knowledge has spirit. Knowledge is spirit. ” The learning of this begins with understanding the sacred knowledge that is in the lodge tales, or tribal stories, and ceremonies that are handed down within the tribe.

Within this knowledge is the idea that every person and animal has a spirit within them which stays with them until the body dies. Once the body has died, their spirit can still remain active which is why proper action (such as burial ceremonies) after death must be taken. Many of the customs of the Blackfeet provide examples of their spiritual belief. When it came to scalping, it was no different. When warriors returned from a scalp raid, or from battle with scalps, it was cause for celebration. The women would take the new scalps their husbands brought home and dress them for the scalp dance.

For this, the scalp was stretched across a hoop at the end of a long pole that was carried by the women during the three day ceremony. Generally, scalps were kept for approximately a year, and after this initial dance they were used to adorn clothing, weapons, and horses. After the scalp had finished its ceremonial purposes, they would have a burial ceremony for the scalps in which the women would wail and sing in proper mourning in order to pay complete respects to the spirit of the person who the scalp was taken from.

It was believed that the hair of a person contained their power and if one had possession of hair, they had power over the donor. In the Blackfeet tribe, a warrior with great power and bravery was held in high regard. Counting Coup for Social Standing In the Blackfeet tribe inheritance was considered taboo, and a chief was made by the acts of his own bravery. Counting coup upon an enemy was the most common act of bravery. Touching an enemy with one’s weapon without actually assaulting them was considered the ultimate coup. This was a difficult thing to do especially with someone watching.

War honors were a much more tangible coup and consisted of taking an enemy’s weapons, war shirt, or war medicine, which ranked ahead of taking the enemy scalp. The origin of scalping and the reason it elevates a warrior’s social status can be found in the lodge tale as interpreted by George Bird Grinnell called “The Beaver Medicine. ” As the story goes, there was a time when all the tribes were at peace and there was no war. When tribes would meet the chiefs would come out and touch each other with a stick and count coup on each other, and the tribes would then part.

This continued until a chief’s wife fell in love with a very poor man named Api-kunni. At this time, instead of a scalp dance, the women would don the clothing of the one they love and dance and tell tales of all the coups their husband had counted. The chief’s wife wanted very much to participate in the dance, but Api-kunni had no possessions to give her. She finally convinced him to let her participate so Api-kunni gave the woman his tattered clothing and told her to say in the dance that the next spring he would go and count coup on an enemy.

Everyone laughed and made fun of her tattered clothing which hurt Api-kunni’s pride so he left the camp to hide. After travelling a great distance Api-kunni came upon a beaver dam. The resident beaver told him to come in and live with him until spring, learn all the ways of the beaver and from then on the animal would be his war medicine. When winter ended, Api-kunni learned that his tribe was setting out on a war party which he decided to follow so that he could use his beaver medicine to count coup on an enemy. He wanted to count many coups so that he could be important enough to be sung about.

When the party came upon a river they found another tribe on the opposite bank. Api-kunni sang the song the beaver taught him, took the stick the beaver gave him, and swam across the river. The leader of the other tribe began to wade out to meet him, carrying his knife in order to kill the swimmer, but Api-kunni dove under the water and when he came up he stabbed the beaver stick straight through the man. As the story goes, “People in those days never killed one another, and this was the first man ever killed in war. Api-kunni then counted coup on him and in order to give his love something to carry in the dance, and display his bravery as a warrior, he scalped his slain enemy. This was all very good for the poor man for when he returned to the village he was able to give the woman who loved him his war honors. The woman was then able to show that what she had sung before the winter had come true and this gave rise to the scalp dance. The old chief then told Api-kunni that he would now be chief and to take his wife as his own.

In this way, due to scalping, Api-kunni went from being a poor nobody to a chief through the act of scalping. After becoming chief, Api-kunni told his people that this tradition would continue and be handed down to their children. So, “from that time forth, people, when they went to war, killed one another and scalped the dead enemy, as this poor young man had done. ” This story displays two important articles to understand. One is that in Blackfeet culture the passing down of sacred knowledge through stories and ceremonies are the beginnings of connecting with the spirit.

The other, is that this story is a representation of how counting coup upon an enemy, of which taking a scalp is a part, is an act of great bravery which improves ones social standing. Vengeance As mentioned before, the cycle of revenge was common among the Indians. Whether it was between Indians and whites or between two tribes, an Indian warrior could choose whether he wished to exact revenge or not. The historian John Reid claimed that if a Cherokee warrior lost a brother at the hand of a Creek, he might say that he would bury the bloody hatchet after taking a Creek scalp.

Meaning literally that once he took the scalp of a Creek he would literally bury the hatchet he used to kill the warrior with, giving rise to the term: ‘bury the hatchet. ’ The warrior’s vengeance would now be complete and the brother of the victim then had the decision of whether to exact vengeance or not. John C. Ewers, an expert on Blackfeet Indians from the mid-20th century, claims that this would be the same for the Blackfeet tribe against their enemies. The difference though is that the Blackfeet wouldn’t always be satisfied with the taking of a scalp, and would often go as far as to cut off his enemies hand, feet, or entire head.

Neither gender was safe from the act of scalping as many of the tribes held vengeance as highly important and would exact it upon the entire enemy’s settlement or village when possible. A large scalp raid was most common when a large portion of Blackfeet were killed in battle or if any chiefs or prominent warriors were killed. Ewers explains that “Scalp raids generally were prosecuted by relatively large forces [often including hundreds of warriors], often recruited from several of the Blackfoot and allied tribes and led by one or more prominent chiefs. The size of scalp raids displays the importance of obtaining the enemies’ scalps for vengeance. The Blackfeet Indian of the northern Great Plains was known as one of the most violent scalping tribes in America. They lived in a world much different than ours, in a time when the social norms are extremely difficult for us to conceive. Questioning the morality of scalping is nearly impossible because it only leads to the imposition of our parochial standards. As Axtell said it is not our job to judge past actions but make an assessment of what these actions meant to the contemporaries.

To the whites, and to modern society, scalping was a gruesome custom that is highly frowned upon. To the Blackfeet who lived during times of scalping it was a way of life and not something to fret over. Evidence of this is found from the story of Chief White Calf as told to Richard Lancaster while recounting a tale where he went into battle he said, “Young Pine scalped one, and then I scalped the other. ” We can be repulsed by the act of scalping but we must not let our emotions cloud our understanding of this tradition in its own context.

To the contemporary Blackfeet Indian the act of scalping gave him power against the spirits, a higher social standing, and provided him a way to prove his vengeance complete. In a world that is difficult to understand, this was perfectly acceptable. Works Consulted-Primary Bell, Charles. The Journal of Henry Kelsey. Winnipeg: Dawson Richardson, 1928. This book did not have an effect on my article. It was not in the correct time period and did not discuss scalping. “The Blackfeet Indians Take Sixteen Cree Scalps in Canada. ” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, June 8, 1881, http://infotrac. alegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). This newspaper article mentions an altercation between the Blackfeet and Cree where sixteen Cree were scalped because they stole the horses of the Blackfeet warriors. The fight took place in Canada and was reported in Milwaukee. The article shows that scalping was written about in newspapers during the late 19th century, though Milwaukee is much further east than the Blackfeet region. The battle took place at Fort Walsh which may have been in Alberta making it appropriate. Catlin, George.

Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. New York: Dover Publications, 1973. Catlin spent eight years during the 1830s travelling around the Great Plains collecting ethnographic information on different tribes and painting pictures of them and their lives. Part of his writings included a discussion of scalping and the scalp dance where he was rather defensive of the Indians. This gave me a sense of the views of his intended audience, which was abhorrence towards Indians for their savage practices. Chardon, Francis.

Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-18439. Edited by Annie Heloise Abel. Pierre: Department of History, State of South Dakota, 1932. The content of Chardon’s Journal was fairly useless for me except a couple notes the editor entered by the Indian sub-agent John F. A. Sanford. Sanford discussed Blackfeet violence, and seemed to loath them. Since he was supposed to be somewhat of a diplomat to the tribes, this provides more insights to the sentiments towards the Blackfeet. Early Western Travels: 1748-1846. Vol. V. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. , 1904.

This volume contains a story which depicts a couple fur trappers who were attacked by the Blackfeet, or so they claim. One of the fur trappers, John Colter, survived the attack and made it back to a fort where he retold his tale. The other trapper was apparently killed and scalped. The validity of this story is impossible to verify, but the fact that he could tell the tale and have it believed (or at least written about) provides an idea of how Indians could have been used as scapegoats. Early Western Travels: 1748-1846. Vol. VI. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. 1904 This volume called the Blackfeet “a ferocious savage race, who have conceived the most deadly hatred to the Americans” (28). Very helpful in showing opinions towards the Blackfeet. Early Western Travels: 1748-1846. Vol. VII. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. , 1904 This volume turned out unhelpful. Early Western Travels: 1748-1846. Vol. XXI. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. , 1904 This volume told a story of a white man with a small band of Blackfeet who invited a trapper to visit them. While in plain sight of a fort, the white man killed and scalped the trapper.

How the man got away with this, it does not say. Editorial, The Richmond Examiner, July 5, 1864, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). This newspaper column was discussing rules of engagement having little to do with Indians let alone Blackfeet. The opening statement describes how certain enemies were put to death “with as little ceremony … as the backwoodsman does a painted Blackfoot or Comanche warrior when he is caught with a bloody scalp dangling from his girdle. ” Showing me that in some areas the Blackfeet warriors were seen as constantly scalping and doing little else.

Ewers, John. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958. Ewers spent a number of years living with and studying the Blackfeet tribe during the mid-20th century. Chapter seven “Raiding for Horses and Scalps” provided half a chapter worth of information discussing scalping from the Blackfeet point of view. The book provided excellent information but was still written by a white American and has difficulty encompassing the full Blackfeet opinion. Ewers, John. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, with Comparative Material from Other Western Tribes.

Washington D. C. : U. S. Govt. Print. Off. , 1955. I decided to put this in the primary section because Ewers spent so much time talking with tribal elders and essentially writing ethnographies through them. The section on scalping in this book is short and provides only a small amount of basic information on the tradition. Gaines, Edmund P.. “It is Not an Act of War… ” The National Advocate, February 10, 1818, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). Gaines describes an incident where seven people were massacred and scalped including a woman and infants.

The gist of his article was to declare war upon the offenders because he has little confidence in friendly relations with the Indians. This publication in the early 19th century provided information on sentiment towards Indians. Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1972. Grinnell spent a number of years with American Indians and was considered a close friend to the Blackfeet tribe. He also published a number of books on plains Indians.

This particular book is his interpretation of a number of stories that were told to him by Blackfeet elders in which he tried to keep them as close to the literal translation as he could. I consider this a primary document because they are written oral tradition, even though they are translated into English. “Has Scalps by the Score. ” The Owyhee Avalanche, April 28, 1899, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). This article described a white man who scalped Indians for vengeance but I did not use it in final draft. King, Charles. “Indian Dances. The Sunday Oregonian, June 29, 1890, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). In this article, King describes a number of dances performed by Indians and claims that across the nation tribes are pretty much all the same. This was great insight into how many white Americans felt about Indian tribes. But this showed me the possibility that if the Blackfeet are discussed in an article, it may not actually be the Blackfeet tribe. Lancaster, Richard. Piegan: A Look from Within at the Life, Times, and Legacy of an American Indian Tribe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

This book was Lancaster’s interpretation of Chief White Calf’s life story. Chief White Calf was born in the 1860s and participated in scalping at sometime during his life. This was rather late for scalping, but it showed how integral it was to the Blackfeet as White Calf was rather blunt about it. “A Report was in Town Yesterday… ” Missouri Republican, July 16, 1823, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). This article discusses a trapping party that was attacked by a group of Blackfeet. The author of the article claims that the recollection is doubted by those acquainted with the subject.

This goes to show that in many cases the news articles of scalping could have been exaggerated. “Seven Years a Prisoner of the Black Feet Indians: A Horrible History. ” The Wisconsin State Register, July 2, 1871, http://infotrac. galegroup. com (accessed April 16, 2011). I found this publication to be published in two different Wisconsin newspapers and one in San Francisco. The atrocity of the story adds to the sentiments towards Blackfeet Indians and shows that it was widely published. Works Consulted-Secondary Andrews, Ralph Warren. Indians as the Westerners Saw Them.

Seattle: Superior Pub. Co. , 1963. Andrews discusses scalping in chapter five. He describes some methods and motives of scalping. This book was helpful for a basic overview and opinionated view on scalping, but gave little tribal specific information. Axtell, James. “Scalping: The Ethnohistory of a Moral Question,” in The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. Edited by James Axtell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Axtell discussed the importance of understanding moral questions in context with their contemporaries.

Although he did not discuss Blackfeet specifically, his work gave me a basis for assessing scalping rather than judging the act. Axtell, James. “Scalps and Scalping,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Edited by Fredrick Hoxie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1996. http://www. netlibrary. com (accessed March 30, 2011). In this work Axtell provides a basic overview of the act of scalping in a very similar fashion to that of Andrews. It was very broad and not tribal specific. Bastien, Betty. Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi.

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004. Bastien, as a current historian, sought to describe the ways the Blackfeet tribe keeps their history and understands the world. Using this in support of Grinnell’s works, helps with the validity of using the Lodge Tales as a primary source. Binnema, Theodore. “Allegiances and Interests: Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) Trade, Diplomacy, and Warfare, 1806-1831. ” The Western Historical Quarterly 37, no. 3 (2006): 327. This article claims that the Gros Ventres tribe was often grouped with the Blackfeet by early fur-traders.

Binnema claims that the Gros Ventres were much more violent than the Blackfeet attributing to their reputation. This article also attributes to the fact that when the Blackfeet tribe is mentioned, it may not actually be the Blackfeet. Binnema, Theodore. “‘Like the Greedy Wolf’: The Blackfeet, the St. Louis Fur Trade, and War Fever, 1807-1831. ” Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 3 (2009): 411-440. This article discusses relations with the Blackfeet up until the period of peace between them and white Americans. Binnema discusses a number of contributions to the violence but does not discuss scalping in depth.

The article is useful in understanding relations, but not so useful in the argument for Blackfeet scalping. Conaty, Gerald T. Review of Blackoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi, by Betty Bastien. Histoire Sociale 38, no. 76 (2005): 499. Used for background on Bastien. Dempsey, Hugh A. “Blackfoot” in Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 13, pt. 1. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001. 604-628. Dempsey provides a somewhat detailed overview of the tribe itself but spends little time discussing warfare let alone scalping.

This was helpful in gathering details but not so much in the discussion of scaping. Kipp, Darrell Robes. “Blackfoot” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Edited by Fredrick Hoxie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1996. http://www. netlibrary. com (accessed March 30, 2011). This entry was only used for basic background knowledge of the Blackfeet. LaPier, Rosalyn. “Blackfeet” in Dictionary of American History. Vol 1. Edited by Stanley I. Kutler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. http://go. galegroup. com (accessed March 21, 2011).

This entry was only used for basic background knowledge of the Blackfeet. Sherrow, Victoria. “Scalping” in Encylopedia of Hair. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 2006. 344-45. This entry did not provide any information on Blackfeet specific customs. Spitzer, Allen. Review of The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, by John C. Ewers. American Anthropologist 61, no. 1 (1959): 145-146. Used for information on Ewers. Washburn, Wilcomb E. Review of Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, by George Catlin. The American Historical Review 81, no. 5 (1976): 1243. Used for information on Catlin.

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Blackfeet Perspective on Scalping. (2017, May 15). Retrieved from

Blackfeet Perspective on Scalping
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