Idle No More: Who’s Scalping Who?

Strangely enough, the stereotype is that Native American Indians made a habit of scalping non-Natives up until the 20th century, and that non-Natives merely defended themselves with guns and bullets against roaming bands of Indian marauders intent on seriously trimming back settlers’ hairlines.  But do you really know who was busy scalping whom back in the 1800s?

The practice of paying bounties for Native American Indian heads became big trade as soldiers collected heads for the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s “Indian Crania Study”  back in the 1800s.   The first of many collections was founded in 1862, and museum curator, George A. Otis informed field doctors in 1867 of the following: “Medical officers will enhance the value of their contributions by transmitting with the specimens the fullest attainable memoranda specifying the locality whence the skulls where derived, the presumed age and sex …

A year later, in 1868, U.S. Army Surgeon General Joseph Barnes sought to “augment the collection of Indian crania” and arranged an exchange with the Smithsonian thanks to successful discussions with Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.   To make matters worse,  both the U.S. Army as well as the Smithsonian Museum used to advertise, and pay for, whole Indians as well as parts of Indians for study. Yes, they advertised for collectors to harvest Indian heads since there was an insufficient supply of heads and bodies being sent to them.  It wasn’t long before other museums joined in on this study, including, but not limited to, the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Field Museum of National History (Chicago), and the Peabody Museum (Harvard University, Cambridge). Most of the museums and universities involved have since returned, or agreed to return, the remains for proper burial.

UPDATE ON 17 December 2013:  Read what’s happening in Colorado by following this LINK.

The purpose of the study was to prove that Caucasians were superior to all other races, and that Europeans and Americans were superior to Native American Indians. It was a premise held as fact by such people as Samuel G. Morton and Thomas Jefferson. In order for this theory to be proven, the government required “Indian craniums” which led to troops such as the one led by Methodist minister, Colonel John Chivington being dispatched not only deal with the “Indian problem” but to make sure that a steady supply of “Indian craniums” was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. In order to be successful in the second part of his duties, Chivington made certain that newspapers carried his message far and wide.

$200 reward for dead indians

To drive home the point, Chivington was quoted as saying:


And any means possible was what he used to get as many heads submitted to the “Indian  Crania Study.”  Sometimes that meant inciting non-Natives to be fearful and mistrustful of Native American Indians, and to libel and slander Native American Indians at every chance.   For example, on August 8, 1887 the Chicago Tribune published a news story which they entitled, “Wholesale Slaughter of Indians on the Plains: An Account of the Bloody Fight by Col. Chivington, the Leader of the White Forces” complete with a subheading that read, “About Eight Hundred Redskins Killed in the Engagement: Savage Atrocities Which Provoked the Fearful Retribution.”

If your only source of information was the biased newspapers, then it was easy to see how settlers were fomented into believing that their very existence was imperiled by those roaming bands of  Indian marauders intent on harming them and possibly leaving them for dead.  But the atrocities attributed to the Native American Indian population weren’t as horrendous as non-Natives were led to believe.

For example, do you know that the atrocity committed by Chief Sitting Bull and his half-brother Chief Big Foot in 1890 was that they dared to violate the ban against dancing?  Dancing. And how do we know that dancing was fearsome to non-Native people back in 1890? Because of missives such as the one sent by an Indian Agent in December of 1890 with regards to what was happening in his area that read: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy… we need protection and we need it now.”

What happened next, because of that missive, became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.  And all because the crime of dancing had been committed.

And maybe now, for those who are unclear about why the use of certain terms — terms such as Redskins for sports teams — are offensive, and why it’s important to fight against the misappropriation of Native American cultures.  It has everything to do with the history behind the prejudice, the discrimination, and the horrors of what happened to Native American Indians over the generations.

Elyse Bruce


2 Responses to “Idle No More: Who’s Scalping Who?”

  1. Idle No More: Keep The Redskins Name, Change The Logo | Elyse Bruce Says:

    […] may have changed with the American Civil War, but the bounty on North American Indian scalps […]

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