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  • The Last Scalping in History? October 26, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing cannot deny it. He has a bit of a thing about the removal of heads this week. First, there was the question of the last western beheadings, second an exploration by photograph of Japanese decapitations in the Second World War and today he is going to move on to a close cousin of beheading, scalping.

    He promises that after that he will leave heads well alone for at least a month.

    Now Beachcombing will hardly surprise any reader if he states that scalping involves removing the top of the scalp from the head with a knife. The scalp is then typically kept for bounty money or as a war souvenir (often with holy connotations, see below). Scalping has been used in various societies in various parts of the world. But it is certainly most easily associated with the American west where both Amerindian and Colonial types resorted to scalp-chopping. Read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the dirt.

    But Beachcombing will probably surprise his readers when he states that the latest instance of scalping he has found comes from the Second World War.

    Beachcombing quotes from The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts by Amerindians (2007), 625.

    Lastly, we would like to point out that trophy taking by some Amerindian individuals and groups has continued well into the modern period. During World War II, a Winnebago serving in the US armed forces took a German scalp and returned with it to a traditional victory dance. Such trophies became cherished family heirlooms and are placed within a family’s war bundle, or they are placed on a grave so that the spirit of the scalped man may serve the deceased in the hereafter.

    This an almost comically downplayed summary of the extraordinary description given in Nancy Lurie Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1961).  Mountain Wolf Woman, the narrator, unfortunately gives no information as to where the scalp was taken. However, she does describe the scalp being welcomed home. Beachcombing invites his readers to enjoy the peyote-fuelled dancing and the unexpected appearance of the German.

    At one time I thought it was just empty talk when they spoke about old religious ways. Once they said they were going to have a scalp dance, a victory dance with the scalp. One of the scalps was going to come back [i.e. the German scalp], they were saying… In the evening they had a victory dance. They danced outside. I was right in the midst of things with my quilt top. I danced and when they were finished with the victory dance and the sun was going down they then danced around the lodge and everybody danced. We danced all around the lodge and then we went inside the lodge. They put the drum down and they stuck in the ground the stick to which the ornamented scalp was attached. In the course of the ceremony people are invited to dance with the scalp, and danced with the scalp. It came time for the feasting and they ate. Then the night dancing was begun. All night long we danced. Outside there were a lot of automobiles. This is something I think and this is why I am telling it. Long ago whenever they did this they did everything in the proper way. But now, late at night, everybody left one by one. It would seem that the people would do things as they are supposed to do them, but they went away. The only ones remaining were Cloud Over There, Queen of Thunder and Water Spirit Woman. These people who were leaving were going to be in their tents outside and they were even sleeping in the cars. When day began to break we sang as loudly as we could so that with our singing we would awaken those who were sleeping. We were singers. Three women singers were left and Cloud Over There, the man who was supposed to give the war whoop at the end of the songs. He would do this. We were doing things according to the rules. It seemed we peyotists were the only ones who were left and who were dancing. They saw us, but that is the way they behaved, those people who were holding the dance. They did not obey the rules.

    They held the dance for two nights and on the second night when day overtook us, I came home. But we had a little narrow cot in the kitchen and I went there to lie down. My granddaughters said, ‘Grandmother, are you tired?’ I was not really sleepy and I said, ‘I am just resting for a little while. I am not very tired but am going to lie down here.’ ‘all right, grandmother, I am going to close the door,’  one of them said, so they would not disturb me. I lay there, closing my eyes now and then. I became rather drowsy but I did not sleep deeply. Suddenly, there was a young man with blond hair combed back in a wavy pompadour. He was a handsome young man and he was wearing a soldier’s uniform. He had on a khaki jacket and he had his hands in the pockets. Oh, he was dancing, dancing the way everyone else was dancing! He began dancing and I saw him glance at me. ‘Oh we beat you!’, I said. ‘We beat you. That is why we are dancing at your expense, with your scalp. Whatever power you had is all going to be ours because we beat you!’. I sat up. I was startled. That is what I saw.

    Later, when we ate, we invited my nephew Lone Man to eat with us. I told him what I had seen. ‘Well, aunt’, he said, ‘you respected that scalp dance from the beginning… You were there two nights. You spent the time properly. That is what you did. You spoke the truth in saying that we beat them, even in doing this you respected the scalp dance. Some do not respect it. They just remain for a short time. Some of them even go home during the dance. That is what they do. But, for as long as you were there, you were dancing. From the beginning you followed through to the end. Some of them do not even dance after a while. You were the only one left, and this did not go unobserved. You certainly spoke the truth. We won. That is why you were dancing with the scalp. Whatever good luck was to have befallen him [who?] we won for ourselves. You spoke well. You spoke the truth, aunt, when you said this.’

    Beachcombing cannot help but think of Johann Schulz or whatever the surprised member of the wehrmacht was called. First, he has the misfortune to die at the hands of a Ho-Chunk warrior with a very sharp knife. Then, next, he finds his spirit in an eternity of playground taunts, serving the family of Mountain Wolf Woman. He probably would have preferred a walk on Linden Strasse and a sugared Berliner, but, hey, that’s the fortunes of war.

    Any other scalping from the Second World War or more recent times? Beachcombing would love to know. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com No serial killers please…


    1st Nov 2010: Richard Dieterle, who has his own excellent site on the Ho-Chunk (Winebago)  has this to say about the scalp dance: ‘it might be worth mentioning that in the old days they took the whole head. Mt Wolf Woman speaks of dancing with the scalp — the charm of having the whole head is that it can be, as they used to say, ‘made to sing its own song’. Indian dancing involves a lot of jumping up and down, and the muscles of the head’s jaws are, of course, totally relaxed. The result is that the jaw moves up and down, causing the mouth to open and close, so that it looks as if the head is singing to the dance music… Before I got to Vietnam, it used to be the practice to take ears as trophies, but the Army put its foot down on that practice. However, it can hardly be doubted that some scalps were taken.’ Beachcombing had wondered about Vietnam… Thanks a million Richard!