21 March 2011

The complex ethics of war and scalping among Native Americans

Excerpts from The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, by Anton Treuer:
A surprising aspect of ongoing hostilities between the Dakota and Ojibwe was the practice the Ojibwe called biindigodaadiwin.  The word literally means "to enter one another's lodges."  The practice amounted to temporary truces in order to hunt, arising largely out of economic need.... People would literally enter one another's lodges, sleep in the same buildings, smoke the same pipes, frequently adopt one another, form friendships, and even marriages, and then be at war again the next spring." (p. 32-33)

For both the Ojibwe and Dakota, scalping after death was widely expected and always considered an honor... The Ojibwe said they "consider it an honour to have the scalps of our countrymen exhibited in the villages of our enemies, in testimony of our valour."  Being scalped was deemed a far better fate than being killed and not scalped. 

Scalping was not simply vindictive mutilation.  Scalps were taken as symbols of the enemy killed in battle and brought back to communities for important religious ceremonies... Food put in the fire during a scalp dance was an offering to the spirit of the deceased... Because scalped enemies were seen to fulfill the scalper's important spiritual need, the scalped individuals received special treatment.  Although successful war parties had much to rejoice about, the victorious warrirors blackened their faces on their way home as a symbol of mourning for those they had slain. (p. 33-4)
And a brief note re the terms "Chippewa" and "Ojibwe."  When I was growing up in the 1950s, natives of northern Minnesota were called Chippewa, a word which still persists in names of towns, lakes, and waterways, but which nowadays has been supplanted by the more ethnographically correct "Ojibwe."
To avoid confusion, it must also be noted that the word Chippewa, frequently used in reference to the Ojibwe, especially in the United States, is actually a corruption of the word Ojibwe.  Europeans frequently missed subtleties of Ojibwe pronunciation, hardening sounds and omitting letters.  The soft Ojibwe j was written down as ch, and the soft b was written as p.  The o was not even written, and the e was written as a short a.   (p. xviii)
Image: Anonymous drawing, probably Lakota or Cheyenne, of warfare scene, with warrior dismounted to scalp a fallen enemy, ca. 1876. From the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.

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