Scalping is the act of removing another person's scalp or a portion of their scalp, either from a dead body or from a living person.
The purpose of scalping is to provide a trophy of battle or portable proof of a combatant's prowess in war.
Scalping is often associated with frontier warfare in North America, and was practiced by Native Americans, colonists, and frontiersmen across centuries of violent conflict. William Brandon and Keith Rosenberg, Native American specialists, state that some Mexican (e.g., Sonora and Chihuahua) and American territories (e.g., Arizona) paid bounties for enemy Native American scalps. Contrary to popular belief, scalping was far from universal amongst Native Americans.
The Scythian soldier scrapes the scalp clean of flesh and softening it by rubbing between their hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps and hangs them from his bridle rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks by sewing a quantity of these scalps together.
Scalps were taken in wars between the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons in the 9th century, according to the writings of Abbé Emmanuel H. D. Domenech. His sources included the decalvare of the ancient Germans, the capillos et cutem detrahere of the code of the Visigoths, and the Annals of Flodoard.
Certain tribes of Native Americans practiced scalping, in some instances up until the 19th century. Archaeological evidence for such practices in North America dates to at least the early 14th century; a mass grave from that period, containing nearly 500 victims (some with evidence of scalping), was found in South Dakota.
During "Dummer's War" (c. 1721–1725), British colonial authorities offered £100 per Indian scalp – which adjusted for inflation would be about US $20,000 (£14,000) in present-day money; explorer John Lovewell is known to have conducted scalp-hunting expeditions to gain this generous bounty. Other examples of the payment for scalps are those issued by the government of Massachusetts in 1744 for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children; Governor Edward Cornwallis' proclamation of 1749 to settlers of Halifax of payment for Indian scalps; and French colonists in 1749 offering payments to Indians for the scalps of British soldiers. In Canada, a 1756 British proclamation issued by Governor Charles Lawrence offering a reward for scalps has yet to be officially repealed, although it is not in effect anymore.
In the American Revolutionary War, Henry Hamilton, the British lieutenant-governor of Province of Quebec (1763-1791), was known by American Patriots as the "hair-buyer general" because they believed he encouraged and paid his Native American allies to scalp American settlers. When Hamilton was captured in the war by the colonists, he was treated as a war criminal instead of a prisoner of war because of this. However, American historians have conceded that there was no positive proof that he had ever offered rewards for scalps. It is now assumed that during the American Revolution, no British officer paid for scalps.
Supposedly, General Custer (who was known for his hair) was not scalped after the Battle of Little Big Horn because he was deemed filthy in the eyes of the Sioux – to lay hands on him would sully the hands of the warrior.
In motion pictures, popular literature, and entertainment
The act of scalping featured prominently in some Westerns such as the 1966 Burt Reynolds spaghetti western Navajo Joe which opens with an Indian massacre in which a white profiteer scalps an Indian woman, and the 1990 film Dances with Wolves which shows Pawnee Indians with scalps hanging from their bow or lance. The Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian is about a group of mercenaries making a living off Indian scalps and references the activity extensively, and in Karl May's novels the character Sam Hawkins had been scalped by Indian warriors and survives. The first work in the Lonesome Dove series, Dead Man's Walk features a scalping, as does James Carlos Blake's In the Rogue Blood. Likewise, George Macdonald Fraser's antihero, Harry Flashman, observes scalping and is himself partially scalped in Flashman and the Redskins.
Stories that are not strictly Westerns but feature Native American characters or themes also deal with the practice. For example, the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper shows many acts of scalping throughout the film, notably in the battle-scenes between the Native Americans and European troops. In the 1994 film Legends of the Fall Tristan Ludlow (Brad Pitt) scalps many German soldiers in the First World War resulting in his discharge from army service.
The horror genre uses scalping as a violent and sensationalistic act, the most notorious depiction being a sequence in the 1981 slasher film Maniac, featuring shockingly realistic makeup effects by Tom Savini. Later examples include the 2002 film Deathwatch where Pte. Thomas Quinn (Andy Serkis) wears a vest made from German scalps and is seen scalping an executed prisoner in one scene; the 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds (also starring Brad Pitt) where American irregulars collect scalps of killed Wehrmacht servicemen, with orders from their commanding officer to collect 100 scalps each; the 2007 film Saw IV where a woman named Brenda is put into a scalping chair torture device; and the video game Gun where the player is able to scalp dying enemies after purchasing a special scalping knife.
One of the female victims in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Salò is depicted being scalped during the film's courtyard torture scenes.
- The American Heritage Book of Indians (1961), by William Brandon.
- World of the American Indian, by Jules B. Billard, National Geographic Society; First Printing edition (1974), Washington, D.C.
- Alfred D. Godley, trans., Heroditus, History, Vol. 4, Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1963.
- Crow Creek Massacre Paleopathology. The University of Iowa.
- British Scalp Proclamation: 1756
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: Henry Hamilton
- Kelsey pg. 303
- Northern Cheyenne break vow of silence,Independent Record, Helena
- Kelsey, Isabel, Joseph Brant 1743–1807 Man of Two Worlds, 1984, ISBN 0-8156-0182-4
- Axtell, James. "Scalps and Scalping" from Encyclopedia of North American Indians
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: Henry Hamilton