Through a Native Lens is a column by film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Shea Vassar, that explores the nuance of the best and worst cases of indigenous representation in cinema. This entry delves into the truth about scalping and how it is presented in The Revenant.
Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s The revenant (2015) is a brutal look at survival in the western wilderness of the 19th century. Set in 1823, the film focuses on tough Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who survives a near-fatal bear attack and is pronounced dead by the man who murdered his Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). While the release talk has centered on DiCaprio’s performance that eventually earned him an Oscar, as well as the cinematography of the talented Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s time to talk about a recurring action that finds its way into the details of The Revenant.
Movies, books, and pretty much all of the wild, wild west-related stories have long associated the act of scalping as a purely indigenous practice. It’s a stereotype that lives forever in cinematic acts of titles like The seekers (1956) and Hostile ones (2017) and is immortalized at soccer games by high schools across the country who hold onto their chief, Indian or warrior mascot while saying “Scalp ’em!” Most stereotypes are based on a fraction of the truth, and yes, some Native Americans used scalping in their war and combat routines, but it is wrong that only North American Indigenous warriors would use a sharp object to get someone’s hair and skin off the top of theirs remove head.
In fact, there are in the European region as early as 440 BC. BC Scalping, when certain groups of Scythians used an ox bone to “scrape the flesh off the skin”. These valuable possessions would then be hung on a warrior’s horse as a decoration or sewn together to make clothing. “The best man is the man who has the greatest number,” says Herodotus in his iconic writing from 430 BC.
In colonial pre-America, scalping by non-natives was not only recorded but also brought to mind. In fact, the earliest publicly funded statue of a woman in the United States was Hannah Duston, holding onto a handful of scalp. Duston was kidnapped by the Abenaki Nation in the late 17th century and was able to kill and escape their kidnappers. Before returning home, she made sure to grab her souvenirs and show them off later. The recent statute debate across the country has brought back the discussion of Duston. Some defend her actions, claiming she did everything possible to survive, while others understand the larger settler-colonial picture that the European invasion at the time imposed on all indigenous communities.
Sure, everyone has scalped. However, a key difference between the white and the native scalping dilemma is who was specifically rewarded and even paid for this brutal action. In 1756 the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania declared in his declaration of war against the Lenni Lenape (whose land the state of Pennsylvania still occupies): “For the scalp of any Indian male enemy over twelve years, as evidence of their being killed, the sum of one hundred and thirty pieces out of eight . . . for the scalp of every Indian woman presented as evidence of her death, the sum of fifty eighths. “
This was followed by similar promises to pay in Massachusetts in 1723 and continued as Americans expanded west. An article in the October 24, 1897 issue of the Los Angeles Tribune titled “Value of an Indian Scalp: Minnesota Paid Its Pioneers a Bounty for Each Red Skin Killed” divides the price of an Indian scalp during the Indian Wars of the previous years at age 20 . five dollars for a total of $ 7,870.06 for “Suppression of the Indian War.” This means that over three hundred native scalps were not only collected but also exchanged for cash rewards. These are just the ones that have been recorded.
These examples show that scalping should not be assigned to just one group or culture. And the key difference is that while many participated in the bloody act of scalping, one group was rewarded for their deeds, while the other was labeled with the dirty term “wild”.
How does that tie in with The Revenant?
At the beginning of the running time of two hours and thirty-six minutes, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Peltier) sit with Glass, who is mutilated by the bear attack. You’re essentially waiting for him to die so he can get a proper funeral. However, this is not the case. While they are sitting, Bridger notices the hairless area on Fitzgerald’s head and asks him if the Ree (another name for the Arikara) did this. He replies:
“Yes, they did it. Took up her sweet time too. At first I felt nothing, just the sound of knives scratching my skull, they all laughed and yelled and howled and what not … Then the blood came, cold, began to brush my face. breathe it in, choke on it.
I felt it then. Felt everything. Turned my head “
According to Mairin Odle, a professor who studies cross-cultural body modifications such as tattooing and scalping, cutting the skin off an opponent’s head was not always done with the intent of killing. The scalping of survivors was “visual evidence” of an attack that people around them could see. While the exact intent is unknown, some believe it was a warning to others or a way to embarrass those affected. Odle also states that even if colonial communities hadn’t seen a person who had been scalped, their stories were told through newspapers or memoirs, making survivors of such attacks kind of stock-market for the time. “Survivors could be portrayed as gruesome novelties,” she writes, “but they should also cause concern among nineteenth-century readers as their scars implicitly justify the extremes of their Native American hateful violence.”
Ironically, Fitzgerald becomes a clear violent antagonist moments later when he murders Hawk before lying to Bridger and convincing him to hand over a dying glass to the winter elements. This action, combined with the Hawk murder, motivates Glass to become a survivor himself, fight for his life and recover in search of revenge. This independent mission takes up much of the film and is intense to say the least.
In the end, Glass is on the heels of the man he’s chasing. After a short stay and a good meal in Fort Kiowa, he is reunited with Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The two set off to find Fitzgerald, but unfortunately Fitzgerald finds and kills the captain while Glass is some distance away. When Captain Henry’s body is revealed, it is revealed that his scalp is missing, meaning that Fitzgerald committed the same atrocity he once witnessed himself. This detail is never explicitly explained but can be interpreted in different ways. The most obvious explanation would be to mislead Glass about who killed the captain.
While The Revenant is based on a true story, many details regarding the actual story are embellished by Hugh Glass to create a compelling tale of vengeance, perseverance, and forgiveness. Even so, Iñárritu creates a world in which native characters were portrayed correctly and ensured this by hiring a cultural advisor Craig Falcon work on the set. He supported the actors with the two indigenous languages and even worked as an on-screen extra. In an article on APTN National News, Falcon says, “You hit it right about ninety-seven percent of the time. There were a couple of things that I disagreed with, but you know the director has his artistic vision in mind of what he sees. “I’m curious to see if the three percent Falcon is referring to has to do with that little detail of scalping and the reality that it has historically been practiced by everyone.
This fact ties in with The Revenant’s main message, which is not so subtly written on a sign hanging on the neck of a dead Pawnee man: “On est tous des sauvages”, which translates as “We are all savages”. And while the history of scalping might hint at the idea that we are all monsters, this is a far too simple explanation for the harsh colonization that hit each and every native community in different ways. This is, of course, a completely different subject that should be dealt with in a separate publication.