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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dark Mimesis : a cultural history of the scalping paradigm Peotto, Thomas


This thesis examines the history of scalp bounties, i.e., the payment of money or trade goods in wartime to volunteers, militias, and mercenaries, for the scalps of indigenous North Americans in the British North American colonies and the post-Revolutionary United States, from the mid-1630s to the end of the 19th century. Out of a general Euro-American colonial backdrop of military alliances with indigenous peoples against indigenous third parties and rival European colonies, and the offering of bounties for captives and proofs of death to indigenous and European volunteers, British colonists parted ways with other Europeans by grafting a specific request for scalps, per eastern North American practice, with a broader policy of ethnic cleansing against indigenous peoples, and the outsourcing of this work to frontier populations with a vested interest in seizing indigenous land and resources. Synthesizing and surveying primary and secondary sources, I argue that Euro-American scalp bounties and the pursuit of those bounties, popularly known as scalp-hunting, were informed by 16th-century designations of indigenous Americans as illegitimate combatants, cross-cultural misreadings of indigenous warfare as a primordial or dysfunctional version of Europeans’, and a broader context of genocidal intent towards indigenous peoples collectively. Imagining themselves as the potential victims of Indian uprisings, Anglo-Americans invoked scalping to metonymize nightmare images of indigenous warriors as merciless and cruel; in turn, scalping was invoked to justify vigilante killings, pre-emptive violence, slave trading, and scorched earth campaigns of extirpation. Whites scalping Indians, on the other hand, was imagined as historically inevitable, and portrayed in art and culture as exemplifying their inheritance and supersession of indigenous lands, resources, and ‘American’ identity. I argue that scalp bounties among Anglo-Americans, and their justification as historically inevitable, is best understood as mimetic re-enactment of the dehumanizing stereotypes which rendered indigenous peoples as illegitimate combatants and the negative mirror image of Euro-American settlers. I refer to this bundle of ideas, truisms, stock images and narratives as “the scalping paradigm.”

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