Blackfeet Perspective on Scalping

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In 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. 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...
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