The government paid ordinary citizens massive rewards for hunting, capturing and scalping Indigenous people: children, women and men. Our tribal nation was one of many targets. Our relatives were killed; our ancestors survived.
As Lieutenant Governor of the Bay Province of Massachusetts, Spencer Phips proclaimed on November 3, 1755, as shown in the Upstander Project’s new film, “Bounty,” “So I have it. . . saw fit to issue this proclamation and declare the Penobscot Indian tribe as enemies, rebels and traitors. . . I hereby demand the subjects of his majesty. . . seize every opportunity to pursue, captivate, kill and destroy each and every one of the aforementioned Indians.
In Dawnland, renamed New England by European colonizers, the premium paid for an adult male scalp was around $ 12,000 in today’s currency. This horrific practice has gone on for centuries. The settlers demanded at least 90 bounties, returning as many as 150 human scalps to the Land of Dawn between 1675 and 1760. As a reward, thousands of individuals and their heirs took tens of thousands of acres of land. and received over $ 2 million in today’s currency. of the public treasury. The colonial authorities destroyed the remains of our ancestors in barrels of tar.
Neither the scalpers nor the colonial authorities had any way of knowing the tribal affiliation of the person whose scalp they took. The effect of marking all The native slaughter group was to declare the season open on all Native. The language of the bounties mimicked that used for hunting wolves. English scalpers skinned our relatives as they would a deer.
Hollywood was largely wrong. The Europeans monetized the scalping of indigenous peoples and encouraged its common practice of taking land, not the other way around.
The first known case of government-authorized scalping in what is now the United States was ordered by the Dutch against Lenape’s Raritan bands in lower Manhattan in 1637. The English issued 69 scalp-bounty proclamations in the Dawnland from 1675 to 1760. Most of the proclamations sought the extermination of the Wabanaki tribal nations in the place now called Maine. Before colonization, our nation was one of 20 in the Wabanaki Confederacy; there are now five: the Abenaki, the Maliseet, the Mi’kmaq, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot.
From Dawn Land, scalping has spread with vengeance in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Arizona and the Texas. Powerful and wealthy landowners pooled money to encourage impoverished settlers to drive out the Indigenous people. One of our ancestors, Margaret Moxa, along with her husband and two-month-old baby boy, were killed and scalped by James Cargill and his men.
Scalping continued after the American Revolution, and notorious scalpers such as Cargill became lawmakers and decorated officers of the Revolutionary Army. The towns were founded on the lots allocated to the militiamen and soldiers who fought and scalped the Natives. In Massachusetts, Shirley was named in honor of Governor William Shirley, and Spencer was named in honor of his Lieutenant Governor, Spencer Phips. Both have issued scalp bounty proclamations.
The scalpers may have been motivated by the bounty rewards, but those who proclaimed the bounties wanted to clear the land, and scalping was one of the tools they used. To support this policy of dispossession, the system of settlement colonialism has dehumanized Indigenous peoples and fabricated a false story about the origins of the United States, one that continues to erase Indigenous peoples and relegate them to the past.
Erasure is manifested today in harmful policies, practices, stereotypes and behaviors that characterize indigenous people as disposable. The term scalping has become everyday jargon for buying overpriced tickets. “Taking scalps” often refers to retaliation in the workplace. Meanwhile, Indigenous people whose ancestors survived the extermination often face hostility, mistrust and insults from non-Indigenous people who tell us to go back to where we came from. The mindset of the colonizers is so ingrained that they fail to see that we belong here. Why Do Most Americans Know Gabby Petito’s Story? And nothing about Beverly Polchies, Anna Mae Aquash, or the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited, or their ancestors who were hunted and scalped?
The descendants of survivors of people hunted for their scalp carry an increased startle response, caused by epigenetic inheritance. Although neuroscientists have only recently realized this, the Wabanaki know historical and intergenerational trauma. This miserable legacy still wreaks havoc in our communities.
Each summer, the Penobscots take a ceremonial journey to Katahdin, our sacred mountain where our people believe life was born and where we have lived for over 10,000 years. For one weekend only, the Wabanaki can visit Katahdin for free, thanks to a community group that covers the costs. During this ceremony, we pray for the healing of our people and mother earth.
Part of that healing is facing the truth about the scalp bounty hunt and our people surviving the genocide. That’s why we decided to go with our children to the Freedom Trail in Boston for “Bounty”. We walked into the boardroom of the Old State House to read our ancestors’ death warrant where it was signed, to break the cycle of ignorance.
False narratives are the basis on which great lies are built. Instead, let’s recognize history and celebrate that our presence here today is a signal that the wildest dreams of our ancestors have come true: we are not vulnerable. We are always here to speak our truth.
Maulian Dana is a tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and co-director of the film “Bounty”. Dawn Neptune Adams is a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, co-founder of Sunlight Media Collective and co-director of “Bounty”. Mishy Lesser is the author of the Bounty Teacher’s Guide and the Learning Director for the Upstander Project.