Thursday, April 8, 2010


Jane McCrea was killed and scalped in 1777, during the American Revolution.
John Vanderlyn depicted it in his 1804 painting The Death of Jane McCrea. This painting, below, is, I think, the sort of image that comes to mind when Americans like me think of scalping.
But here's a reversal of (my) expectations:
Hannah Duston Killing the Indians.

Painted in 1847, by Junius Brutus Stearns, this shows colonial American Hannah Duston and her companions (actually just one other woman and a fourteen year old boy) tomahawking their Abenaki Indian captors--a family of two men, three women, and six children.
Duston had been captured and her six-day-old baby killed during a raid on their settlement, Haverhill, Mass., in 1697, during the first round of the French and Indian Wars.

The captives scalped ten of the Abenaki (two escaped) and brought their scalps back to Massachusetts for bounty money.
Hannah became a hero, with a statue and everything, her story written up by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, of Salem Witch Trial fame.

There's a ton of cultural baggage to all this, but there is no doubt in my mind, studying history, that we are a savage species.
And those Puritans... I wouldn't want to meet them in the dark.

More here: Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History,
 by Kathryn Whitford)


  1. Oh, so strange. I just'd finished looking in the indices of a few books from my bedroom shelf to check out stuff about the F & I wars which I think came up in some fragments of dreams i remember from last night. And, of course, where mentioned, scalping comes up. The books are: CUSTER DIED FOR YOUR SINS (Vine Deloria, Jr.), NATIVE ROOTS (Jack Weatherford), and COLUMBUS AND OTHER CANNIBALS (Jack D. Forbes). More First People notes: last night, I read a portion of the NY Times, (which I almost never read), and saw in the obituaries that Wilma Mankiller has died. Late last night I couldn't sleep and had telly on while baby Scorpion stayed up doing homework til the wee hours, and bumped into public telly's life of the Buddha docs. Thought of you and everyone/thing else in the universe as I watched. Some of the animations reminded me of South Park stuff. Made me laugh and cry til the couch pillow was soaked. the pages I opened to this a. m. of Forbes' book were on Buddhism.



  2. Yes; no surer way of being convinced of the Human Beast than studying history.

    Interesting (if not a little dis-heartening) parallel with the paintings.

    Reminds me of the battle song in Disney's Pocahontas (not a good source for accurate Native American studies); both sides are marching towards each other singing "savages, savages, barely even human". To be human is to have a savage inside. But as the Captain pointed out: we are a killer species, but we don't have to kill today!

    Speaking of the savagery of humans, we're studying the Aztecs and Incas in History right now. They would often wear the skin of their captors after killing them.

    The Inca war chant:
    "We will drink from the skull of the enemy,
    We will adorn ourselves with a necklace of his teeth,
    We will play the melody of the pinkullu with flutes made from his bones,
    We will beat the drum made from his skin,
    And thus we will dance."

    And, oh. The human sacrifices. Thousands of them a year.

    I have a lot of trouble imagining how these things actually happened; how we justified this. I mean, that was US; those were HUMANS.

    We have different ways of being savage in the 21st century, but I think we've come a ways.

  3. Oh, Margaret, Fresca, everyone: have we? Greed and a million ways to lie, cheat, rob and kill for tulips, fish, furs, trees, oils, diamonds, gold, uranium, land, minerals for nano/micro-technologies...Yet those little lights of ours, if we let 'em shine, maybe we can overcome our scarey selves--(Puritan, et al!)-- when we meet us in the dark or in the light. Thank you for making me think some more.


  4. STEF: Alas, Buddhists are as guilty of horrors as anyone else (Sri Lanka, etc.); but I like the religion for its teachers who really explore HOW we can cultivate peace?
    In America the Quakers and some the native peoples managed to find a way. For a while...

    MARGARET: Hm. When I listened to country-Western after 9/11, some of the songs sounded pretty much like that Inca chant.

    I wish it were so, but I'm not so sure we've budged, really, as a species, though here in the USA we've veiled our savagery a bit with high-tech curtains.

    But, heavens, we still fry people in electric chairs and debate what counts as torture.


    Meanwhile, Congo, Chechnya, Darfur, Myanmar/Burma...

    There are wonderful things about us, but I don't think we've evolved psychologically the way we've evolved technologically.

    Still, technology can help reduce fear and want, and that can create a better playing field for Peace.

    Health care and jobs are good tools for building peace.

  5. P.S. Stef--your comment came in as I was posting mine---I don't mean to sound pessimistic---if we're a fearful violent species, that doesn't mean we're doomed to it.

    We also have a unique consciousness that makes it POSSIBLE that we can choose, as Margaret quotes Kirk, choose "not to kill today."

    Glow little glow worm, glow!

  6. Yeah, being our own very good captains is important and sometimes difficult play/work. We can't/don't do it alone, we are part of all this life. Often the need to seek without to deal with what's within which is all part of the wheels spinning within the wheels. (For institutional forms of torture right in our backyard: some families, schools, all psychiatric wards and hospitals and prisons, not to mention the military!) Cannot "trust" ourselves, Buddhism, Puritanism, all the other isms we view as "good" or "bad"...and, still we go on desiring/trying to trust and be trusted. Before I forget, all that seeking is manifested in our wish for the "perfect peace" and in our infatuation with humanizing the monstrous, striving to recognize the humanity of our family members those who appear inhuman or commit inhuman acts. Just heard a snippet of an interview on WRITE ON RADIO on KFAI Radio-- something with a womyn author commenting on, vis-a-vis the cultural baggage of vampire-- our insistence on looking in the scary suitcase and befriending our monsters or our monstrous selves...something like that. Reminded me much of a song Claudia Schmidt useta sing about the vampire. And, on a similar note, a song I sing with James written by (Aussie) Judy Small & Pat Humphries: WALLS AND WINDOWS gives voice to this struggle for goodness and humanity...I'll just include the first and last verses here:

    Did you sing your children Lullabies to calm their fears at night?
    Did you hold them gently til they went to sleep?
    Did you plant in them the seeds of hope for new and better lives?
    Did you make them promises you couldn't keep?

    (CHORUS): Do think of me as enemy or could you call me friend?
    Or will we let our differences destroy us in the end?
    The wall that stands between us could be a window, too.
    When I look into the mirror
    I see you.

    Oh, may we live to see the day when walls of words and fear
    No longer stand between the truth and dreams,
    When walls of window rise into the darkness
    And we dare to look into the mirror and see peace.

    Love and Solidarity preferably while wielding a "FANTABOW"!


  7. Well, now I'm in tears, because, probably, you are right.

    A word in our defense:
    we're in a damn complicated place as a species. That "unique consciousness" is a blessing, yes. But oh, a curse, too. Not animals, not gods; it's just us who are half-breeds on this lonely, in-between plane. If we are fearful (*raises hand*), can we be blamed? Again, as Kirk said "the blood of a million savage years is on our hands", but if this is a result, in part, of fear....

    All I mean is: no wonder we're scared! Animals can kill, and eat their young, and it's nothing. All is natural. Now, what if you were to give a lion consciousness, (silly idea, but work with me)? He'd be pretty messed up over it, I imagine.

    And at least we're aware (to some small degree) of our savage nature, and can therefore wrestle with it. That's SOMETHING, right?

  8. Fearful?
    *raises hand*

    *raises hand again*

    I agree, Margaret, that we're in a precarious position:
    Just cause we haven't evolved to make full use of that mixed blessing of consciousness yet doesn't mean we won't.

    We can study and learn how to do things differently.
    After all, reading and writing aren't in our biological programming either, but we developed them and they have become "normal."

    Who knows what GOOD things are slouching toward us?!

  9. Re: Margaret weeping.

    We might as well be hopeful because what are the options if we're not?

    Besides, there is amazing goodness in the addition to amazing evil. The evil is more dazzling but it doesn't negate the good.

  10. bink: "We might as well be hopeful because what are the options if we're not?"

    Well put.

  11. My great, great, great, great grandmother (I might have one too many greats in there) was on the trail of tears. Lost the sight in one eye. She was the one I wrote about last month who rescued the orphan from the well and raised her as her own.

    The duality you are all discussing is expressed pretty succinctly right there. To have survived that savagery and respond with kindness - don't know if I'd be able to do that.

  12. Well, you obviously hit a nerve, much like a Vulcan nerve pinch!

    I always enjoy coming here.
    I enjoyed so much also Sarah Vowell's latest "The Wordy Shipmates", a fascinating look at Puritans (get away from me, you monsters!) and what they even did to their own was pretty gruesome at times. (Anne Hutchinson comes to mine.)
    Also, "Mistress Bradstreet" about Anne Bradstreet, America's first poet -- kind of.

    I've read the book about Anne Bradstreet a couple of times. And each time, I wonder, what was it really all for? Freedom to slip the bonds of what was considered one type of tyrant only to become a tyrant to others in your own right?

    The mind boggles.
    Take care!
    Candace, Still in Athens.

  13. My favorite American Lit teacher (who also served on my master's committee) was nuts about Hannah Duston.

    He had serious doubts about the veracity of the story, suggesting that it was more likely that the natives were simply trying to recruit the whites into their tribe-- and that often the white women were sympathetic with their captors (Stockholm syndrome?). There's a lot of research on captivity narratives (like Duston's). Mather's retelling (which differs wildly from her own reflections) is a profound cultural moment with ripples all the way into the 20th century.

    My prof displayed a particularly gory Jim Beam commemorative flask (issued in the mid twentieth century) that glorified Duston raising a scalp in the air.

  14. Blogging is so curious--I never know what topics will elicit comments. I don't try and plan for it; I just write about what comes up in my life, but it's always nice when something sparks conversation.

    BINK & MARGARET: I agree with the choice (insofar as we have a choice) to be hopeful:
    It's like Pascal's wager: what do I lose if I'm *wrong*?

    CLOWNCAR: That's an amazing story about your grandmother adopting the little stranger girl.
    If it doesn't turn us into monsters, sometimes suffering can make us more compassionate:
    maybe we see ourselves in other people who suffer?

    My own suffering has not been extreme, and I find it has indeed stretched my heart--I'm much less judgmental, much more aware that everyone carries some pain.

    CANDACE: Thanks for the book recommendations, which I will look into when I'm done with this nonfiction project---don't want to mix fact with fiction!

    A historian of the F&I War commented that colonial Anglo-American women who chose to stay with the Indians who adopted them may have been exhibiting something like Stockholm Syndrome (identifying with your captors) but also the women had more options in those lives.

    I'd never met the captivity narratives until I started this project. Now I want to know more.
    Some of it is easy enough to understand, but some truly crosses wires and shorts out my brain:
    It's so odd to me, for instance, that Anglo-Americans made Duston a hero for the most UN-ladylike act of scalping children...

  15. CANDACE: My mistake. I see "The Wordy Shipmates" is nonfiction---I need to read this!