Saturday, November 01, 2008

The New Indian Mythology: Part 1

Back a week or so, I wrote this piece about the meaning of words. It was, in part, a rant about the Indian Industry's quite successful attempt to convince the world that the every utterance of the word savage throughout the history of European contact with indigenous North Americans is evidence of the most vile form of racism.

That, of course, is wrong on many levels and I could go on, but this particular entry today is about one member of the academic wing of the Indian Industry and a particular myth that this member is teaching my niece's class at the University of Saskatchewan, namely, the history of scalping. Specifically, this "professor", and I use the term loosely, is teaching that Europeans taught Indians to scalp.

Anyone with access to academic journals may be able to read my principle source for this thesis, if they can find a paper entitled "The Unkindest Cut, Or Who Invented Scalping?" by James Axtell and William Sturtevant, published in the William and Mary Quarterly, July, 1980 issue. It's a killer, as it lays to rest every single silly piece of the Indian Industry's politically correct double speak. If you can't get access to that, try searching for the book The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, which is a collection of essays by ethnohistorian, James Axtell.

Axtell draws upon both primary and secondary historical documents, as well as ethnological, linguistic and archeaological evidence, including evidence from human remains that date prior to the arrival of any European at North America's shores. As he says:
"The new myth is understandable as a product of Indian activism and white guilt feelings. However, the factual basis for the novel concoction seems to have been non-existent in the late 1960s - or, for that matter, at any other time in the twentieth century."
He lists numerous secondary sources, in English and German, that any academic worth his salt, would have to have consulted if he were to write on the subject, sources which exhaustively document the primary sources that speak to the custom of scalping. And he also cites some of those primary sources from the earliest European accounts of contacts with Indians, one being Jacques Cartier, famous to Canadian history, who, on his second voyage up the St. Lawrence River in 1535, was shown "the skins of five men's heads, stretched on hoops, like parchment". They were, apparently, the scalps of Micmac (who still live on the East coast of Canada and the upper American seaboard in Maine), who were "continually at war" with the Iroquois.

Although this is a very early date in the contact between Europeans and Indians, the more important piece of information in Cartier's account is the fact that, only 43 years after Columbus's famous landing in the Caribbean, and 38 years after John Cabot "discovered" Newfoundland, the Iroquois already had a tradition of taking scalps during war and had informed Cartier that their war with the Micmacs had been ongoing for some very long time. Axtell cites numerous other written accounts of scalping from places as far from Micmac/Iroquois territory as Florida and the accounts of Spanish explorer, Hernando De Sotos and his men.

Back to Canada in 1603 and 1609, Samuel de Champlain witnesses scalping ritual among the Algonquin. Well into the first third of the seventeenth century, more and and more accounts of first contact, the primary sources, contain descriptions of war practices including scalping and various elaborate rituals and customs accompanying it, which Axtell presents in summary form.

Surely, if scalping had been introduced by Europeans, it took very little time to be adopted and thoroughly integrated into the cultural practices of many different tribes across a wide stretch of territory in which Europeans were greatly outnumbered, and in most places, even absent. In fact, Axtell asserts that a characteristic shared in most of these European accounts is an "expression of surprise at the discovery of such a novel practice".

In other words, nothing of the sort existed in the memory of the European explorers who were scouting around America's eastern coastline. By comparison, the cultural integration of the practice amongst Indian tribes, was so deep that the rituals were highly varied from one culture to another, including the widely worn scalplock, a special arrangement of the hair customarily worn by adult Indian men on the East coast, which "possessed ancient religious meaning among most tribes":
"If the whites had taught the Indians to scalp one another for money, there is little reason to believe that they were also cozened into making it easier for their enemies by growing partible and portable locks. Something far deeper in Native culture and history must account for the practice."
But actual historical accounts from European witnesses are only part of what Axtell calls a "wall of evidence to the contrary". Even more damning to the Indian Industry's rhetoric is the linguistic and archaeological evidence. Words describing the noun "scalp" were known in several European languages in the seventeenth century and earlier, but turn the word into a verb, describing an action, which is what scalping is, and it was necessary to use a variety of words close in meaning: to carve, engrave, scrape, scratch, skin, flay, excoriate. On the other hand, to quote Axtell:
"...the Indian languages of the East contain many specialized expressions referring to the scalp, to scalping, and the victim of scalping....implying considerable antiquity for scalping."
He further elaborates on the significance of this fact from a linguistic science perspective, but to make a long story short, the rich and varied abundance of words in the Indian languages implies the practice of scalping originated in North America. And finally, the archeaological evidence consists of the discovery of human skulls dating to pre-Columbian times, with the characteristic scars on the bone that could only have been produced by a scalping.

Case closed.

So why are Native Studies Departments still getting away with this nonsense, and why are public funds being used to support it? Is teaching lies supposed to make Indians feel good about themselves? If so, why not tell the entire truth, which is that all cultures have brutality in their past. No one comes through history with lily white hands.

No, I think my readers know where my sentiments lie. It is more likely meant simply to stifle academic inquiry and further the cause of the Indian Industry, both inside and outside of academia.

Anyway, come back often. Axtell is certainly not my only source. I have been a student of Indian and White relations for nearly forty years. I've read copiously through both primary and secondary sources, and have accumulated a large library on the topic. Throughout those forty years, I have also lived and worked with First Nations people. Rest assured, there will be other installments of the New Indian Mythology to come. The academic wing cannot stop me.


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