Monday, February 29, 2016


I've been reading Astoria by Peter Stark, about John Jacob Astor's attempts to build a fur-trading empire on the Northwest Coast in the early 1800s. The book and the write-up about scalping is captivating.

To scalp, the perpetrator typically turned his victim--alive or dead--facedown on the earth. With a knife--a stone knife in the pre-European days, and metal thereafter--he scored around the top of the head, cutting through the scalp to the underlying bone of the skull. Seizing a forelock of hair in his hand and placing one knee in the victim's back, the perpetrator then gave a sharp upward jerk and ripped the large flap of scalp with hits hair intact clean off the victim's skull. Victims who were still alive at this point later reported that the tearing sounded like "distant thunder." ...
Whatever it meant for survivors, for Native American tribes the act of scalping held special meaning beyond simple vengeance. This close personal contact with the enemy and the removal of part of his person allowed the victor to absorb the victim's power. Once removed, the fleshy underside of the scalp was scraped clean and stretched over a wooden hoop. This was then mounted on a tall shaft and displayed aloft as a ceremonial trophy. Though some suggest that Europeans first introduced scalping to Native Americans, other evidence indicates the practice existed long before white men arrived in Sioux or Blackfeet territory. Archaeologists digging near this same section of the Missouri discovered a massacre site from tribe-against-tribe warfare that dates to the 1300s. It contains nearly five hundred human skeletons. According to archaeological interpretation, most of the skulls display the stone-knife scores of scalping. (p. 113)
There's a photoplate in the book of Robert McGee, who'd been scalped by Sioux Chief Little Turtle in 1864 and lived. Obviously, the hair never grows back.