Thomas W. Strong, lithograph publisher, New York/Wikimedia Commons
“Death of Father Sebastian Rale of the Society of Jesus. Killed by the English and Mohawks at Norridgewock, Aug. 23, 1724;” frontispiece from Indian Good Book by Eugene Vetromile (1819-1880).

Native History: Scalping of 10 Abenaki Celebrated; Where Did it Begin?

Alysa Landry

“It was fairly common to survive scalping,” he said. “There were medical journals that included articles about the care and management of a scalped head.”

The practice was similar to what Europeans did in warfare, Axtell said.

“Europeans were always taking heads,” he said. “If you take the whole head, there’s no doubt that person is dead and will stay dead. Scalping is not torture, just trophy-taking.”

Despite the evidence of colonists scalping Natives, the word “scalp” is culturally loaded, and most Americans assume the practice is rooted in Native tradition. Natives argue that the practice was learned from Europeans—possibly from traders who arrived centuries before Columbus—and used in retaliation against the colonists.

Anthropologists cite evidence that Natives were taking scalps long before Columbus arrived, Snow said.

“Europeans were busy burning each other at the stake or quartering people who were not yet dead,” he said. “Scalping was a prehistoric practice here among the Indians. We’ve got some evidence that it was going on 300 years before Columbus, but not in Europe.”

Axtell cites linguistic evidence to show that scalping originated among the Natives. Indian languages had words for scalping, along with customs that were unique to each tribe, he said.

Yet Native historians adamantly deny that First Americans took scalps before contact with Europeans. In a 2000 article that ran in the Boston Globe, representatives of two Eastern tribes denied the practice took place prior to the mid-1700s.

Mashantucket Pequot spokesman Buddy Gwin said scalping “was not a practice traditional to First Nations peoples” until becoming “a retaliatory act” against colonists. John Brown, of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Indians, said bodily mutilation was considered “dishonorable” until it was “learned” from Europeans.

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