Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bones and Scalps Coming out of the Closet


"What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it" -Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770 - 1831


Many readers of the Portland Press Herald may have been surprised this morning to see the story headlined

"Offer to Sell 'Maine Indian' Scalps Probed."

Anyone who has consumed popular Westerns, in film or literature form, might not be surprised by the association of the term "Indian" and "scalping" since the skulking and scalping savage hidden in our woods stands as one of most prevalent and pernicious Indian stereotypes in our nation's history (take Seth Eastman's 1847 Death Whoop, for example, at right). Countless cowboy and Indian movies, sports mascots (think tomahawk chop), dime novels, and juvenile literature have replicated this savage imagery.

Many Mainers might not know, however, that early colonists, including those in what is now Maine, scalped Wabanaki peoples and received a bounty for their efforts.
The current investigation into the craigslist posting of "Maine Indian scalps" for sale brings this ugly history to light. Since LD291 became state law, in 2001 (an "Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine's Schools") it's worth reviewing this history.

The Native American practice of taking scalps as a trophy of war is thought to predate European colonization, although it was not nearly as widespread nor as predominant as stereotypes would purport. To put things in perspective, Europeans themselves came with a well-developed heritage of taking and displaying the heads (and other body parts) of enemies as trophies. When Wampanoag sachem, Metacom (also known as King Philip), was killed in 1676 during a war that bears his name, Plymouth settlers posted his head on a pike for over two decades. In the context of trying to wrest homelands away from Native peoples, European settlers started with their own brutality in war, adopted, and effectively institutionalized the scalping practice, making it their own.

One of the significant landmarks in this violent history was February 20, 1725 when a posse of New Hampshire volunteers attacked a Native American encampment and took 10 scalps, receiving a bounty of 100 pounds per scalp from colonial authorities in Boston. Bringing it closer to home, in 1755, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips of Massachusetts Bay colony issued a proclamation calling upon his Majesty's subjects to "embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians." Phips promised a payout from the "Publick Treasury" of 40 pounds for the scalp of every male Penobscot Indian; the scalps of women and children earned 20 pounds.
The Phips Proclamation endorsed this colonial violence and widened the cultural divide between settlers and Native residents.

But you might be thinking, that was a long time ago, right? What does it have to do with us today? Let's return to how the scalps of Native American individuals from Maine might have ended up on craiglist. It goes far beyond taking trophies amid warfare. Colonization of the Americas rendered Native peoples as other-than-human, categorizing their bodies and possessions as "artifacts" attractive for collection, exhibition, and interpretation. This legacy lives on with museum and private collections whose holdings have historically included human remains, particularly Native American ones. If this isn't a prank, what the craigslist incident may show is that these scalps were passed down in a family from generation to generation, held in a kind of private cabinet of curiosities.

Public outrage in the 1980s over the coveting of human remains as "artifacts" fortunately led to the passage of a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, also known as NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Now, it's not only illegal to traffic in human remains (
Illegal trafficking), it's also illegal to curate human remains in museum collections if a tribe is eligible to reclaim them, usually for reburial.

The repatriations completed in compliance with the federal law have enabled at least some progress and healing. According to statistics compiled by the National NAGPRA program in November 2006, in the sixteen years since the passage of NAGPRA, 31,995 Native American human remains had been repatriated to tribes, as well as 3,584 sacred objects. Some Wabanaki human remains reported as eligible for repatriation were recovered by archaeological or construction activity. or were recovered from shell heaps and later donated to a museum.

As John Bear Mitchell (Penobscot) said to the press about the possible sale of scalps, "This doesn't just affect people in the past. It affects us today, people who are living." One of the first steps in securing the human rights and civil rights of the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Maine is to recognize the humanity of the Wabanaki peoples and cease identifying them as extinct or exotic artifacts of the past.
Let's hope Hegel was wrong and that we can learn from history.

1 comment:

  1. Woliwon, Patricia, for your fine piece on this issue! I appreciate your fine historical sense and your message of humanizing the "other". It is long past time that this was begun and the work many of us are doing has that as an essential goal. It is worth noting, however sadly, that the collecting of scalps has continued in the American Armed Services, first during the final consolidation actions of the Cavalry and up to the Vietnam War era. I have not seen any evidence that it is occurring in the current conflicts: perhaps we have learned from our history. Be well. Joseph

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