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Setting the Record Straight About Native Peoples: Scalping

Q: Who invented scalping? My history book says it was the Indians but the tribe who lives near me says the colonists used to scalp them.
A: They're both right. Scalping--cutting off the scalp of a dead enemy as proof of his demise-- was common practice throughout North America before colonists got here. It is described in Indian oral histories, and preserved scalps were found at archaeological sites. Colonists learned to scalp enemies from the Indians. (The European custom was to cut off people's heads for proof/trophies, originally, but scalps are easier to transport and preserve, so the colonists quickly switched to the Indian method.) Once they picked up the technique, the English did a tremendous amount of scalping, both of natives and of rival Frenchmen. Here's a bounty notice from 1755 offering varying rewards for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. (These scalps, incidentally, were commonly referred to as "redskins," one reason why that is considered such a rude racial slur by many Native Americans today.) American and Canadian frontiersmen kept up the tradition of scalping until the turn of the 20th century, though in some places, like California, they reverted back to severed heads. There was actually still a law on the books in Canada as of the year 2000 promising bounties in exchange for Indian scalps, though the embarrassed Canadian government was hurrying to repeal it (here's an article on that).

In other words, the scalping technique came from the American Indians, the idea of taking a piece of a dead enemy's body as a war prize was well known to Indians and Europeans alike, and the idea of paying bounties for dead body parts came from the Europeans.



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