Spiritual and religious aspects of torture and scalping among the Indian cultures in Eastern North America, from ancient to colonial times


  • Juha Hiltunen University of Oulu


Violence, Torture, Ritual, Indians of North America, Indigenous peoples, United States, Colonialism and neocolonialism, Noble savage, Archaeology, Stereotype (Psychology), Postcolonialism, War


Only a few decades ago a common perception prevailed that the historic­al Native Americans were very prone to violence and warfare. Scalping and torture were seen as a specific custom attached into their ideology and sociocultural ethos. However in the 1960s a completely reversed picture started to emerge, following the course of other worldwide movements, such as ethnic rights, pan-Indianism, ecological conscience, revisionist historiography and so on. Immediately the Native American people came to be seen as the victims of the European colonialism and the Whites were the bad guys who massacred innocent women and children, either at Sand Creek or in Vietnam. Books were written in which the historians pointed out that the practice of scalping was actually not present in the Americas before the whites came. This theory drew sustenance from some early colonial accounts, especially from the Dutch and New England colonies, where it was documented that a special bounty was offered for Indian scalps. According to this idea, the practice of scalping among the Indians escalated only after this. On the other hand, the blame fell on the Iroquois tribesmen, whose cruel fighting spread terror throughout the seventeenth century, when they expanded an empire in the north eastern wilderness. This accords with those theorists who wanted to maintain a more balanced view of the diffusion of scalping and torture, agreeing that these traits were indeed present in Pre-Columbian America, but limited only to the Iroquoians of the east. Colonial American history has been rewritten every now and then. In the 1980s, and in the field of archaeology especially, a completely new set of insights have arisen. There has been a secondary burial of the myth of Noble Savage and a return of the old Wild Indian idea, but this time stripped of its cartoon stereo­typical attachments. The Indians are now seen as being like any other human beings, with their usual mixture of vices and virtues. Understanding this, one may approach such a topic as scalping and torture without more bias than when reading of any practice of atrocities in human history.



How to Cite

Hiltunen, J. (2011). Spiritual and religious aspects of torture and scalping among the Indian cultures in Eastern North America, from ancient to colonial times. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 23, 115–128. https://doi.org/10.30674/scripta.67402