Monday, December 23, 2013

2011-1700 - Woodland Indian Torture: A Perspective for Educators

Woodland Indian Torture: A Perspective for Educators

Jessica Diemer-Eaton
Europeans and early white Americans had recently stepped into the so-called enlightenment period, which included a growing disgust of inhumane treatment of criminals and prisoners. Only a century earlier, public executions was usual entertainment in European town squares. In fact, the French had introduced the guillotine as a way to publicly to execute prisoners (of any class) more humanly (sudden death). The guillotine first sparked much anger among the French spectators who were use to watching more slower, torturous executions. Europeans were quite known for their public displays of humiliating, torturing, and executing accused criminals. While this may have been on the decline publicly, Western cultures still continued to terrorize other "races" (1).

To the Native People of the Eastern Woodlands, Europeans violated Native women, conducted extermination warfare, and kidnapped and enslave their families (Native People from North America were captured and transported to the Caribbean where they were enslaved. As Native People died out under slave conditions, they were replaced with captured Africans). Many scholars suspect that Native torture may have increased in intensity and frequency in response to European invasion. Indeed, much of the observed torture practices were especially against white prisoners. In fact, the practice of scalping may have been more instituted by Europeans than Native Americans (scalping most likely was invented by and originated with the Native Peoples, however, the guiding influence that created a "scalping culture" was in large part due to Europeans). Bounties were paid to Native persons willing to kill enemy Native People. The mercenaries first presented body parts like ears to prove how many they killed. Europeans later insisted scalps were a more acceptable proof of death (as it was very hard to survive a scalping, although a few did). White soldiers were also known to cut pieces of flesh of slain Native men, women, and children to keep as war trophies.

Students who must be exposed to the knowledge that Native Peoples practiced torture and public executions must first accept that these practices are not unique to just Native society. This subject should be balanced in its delivery, with the acknowledgement of Westerners' treatment of prisoners and enemy captives too. Remember to examine Native culture in the same context and with the same respect we would examine each of our own ethnic histories and nationalities. When we accept what we deem to be our own 'flaws,' we can view what we may believe to be other culture's 'flaws' as just that - flaws, and not a reason to demonize another people.

Native Torture in the Eyes of the Native People, 1700
In the public curts of Europe criminals were humiliated and executed. Spectators watched with excitement, and participated in the throwing of both taunts and objects at accused counrtymen. What would have the Native People thought of a society that turned on their own for the pettiest of supposed crimes. Usual punishments for fellow Native villagers ranged usually from gossip to payment in materials or service. In rare cases, a murder may be resolved with violence between the offended party and the accused, but it was of nobody else's business to deal the punishment. The worse punishment by far, even above a death for a murder, was being "forgotten" - to be told to leave and not return to your community.

When the Native People carried out their taunting and public executions, it was of strangers of enemy nations, not people of their own community, village, or tribe. For Europeans to have such fun and enjoyment at the expense of a countryman may seem much more socially barbaric than Native Peoples torturing actual enemies. Europeans enjoyed the agony of criminals who never personally hurt them, and Native People were satisfied by the torturing of enemies who represented foreign nations that directly hurt every family within that community. With that one distinction made, we know that sociologists acknowledge in large part that feelings of enjoyment or satisfaction of another's suffering in a public spectacle is a direct reflection on societal strain (from the inside or outside).

This brings us to a major point in Woodland Indian torture - the involvement of women and children. While men of a fighting age could take out their aggressions "on the battlefield," it was much harder for a culture that generally wanted women and children to remain safely away from warfare to also take their aggressions out. By securing prisoners, warriors were able to transport them home to be "punished" by all members of their community, in a way that did not threaten the safety of their families. Some Woodland Indian gauntlets (a parallel line of people that a prisoner had to run through while being beaten with sticks or rocks) were even comprised of only women and children, and Native women were noted to be some of the main tortures and executors of prisoners.

The reader of this article should focus not on the act of torture as much as on how Native societies provided an outlet for their female populations to take out their aggressions. Women, like men, feel anger and need revenge. They too express themselves through violence.

Further Reading:
-"Natives and Newcomers, The Cultural Origins of North America" by James Axtell (Ch. 11 - The Moral Dilemmas of Scalping).
-"Scalping and Torture Warfare Practices Among The North American Indians" by Georg Friederici, Nathaniel Knowles, and Gabriel Nadeau.

(1) This article does seek to "level the playing field" or point out more "moral flaws" of the Europeans of the time. As James Axtell points out that when it comes to the many ways the "moral dilemmas" of scalping have been addressed in colonial America, "The other interpretation sought (often unconsciously) to elevate the Indians by degrading the colonists (261)." The author does not argue this point and in fact, concurs that this short article consciously seeks to compare Native and Europeans likes for torture (keep in mind that Axtell is addressing the moral of scalping, including the market for it, while the author is speaking on torture, however she feels their are obvious connections in how both are thought of in today's society). If this "degrades" colonists, it is only because their actual culture is still not exposed to and accepted by general audiences. If it "elevates" the Indian People, it does so by only putting in Native perspectives, a perspective of torture less exposed (not so much blaming torture on Europeans, but exposing why and who and comparing to European changing views of torture). What the author does want to point out, the reasoning for this article to be written - addressing educators on this subject, is that to what extent Axtell believes that European faults are ever highlighted alongside of Native ones for the general public and general school-age students. It is the author's experience that while many historians and scholars may be well educated in this subject, the audience the author works for on a day-to-day basis have no such comparisons presented to them. Axtell may be correct that many scholarly and a few common opinions (of the past) have linked our denial with Indian-white guilt (259). Yet still there exists a sort of blaming of Native Peoples among mainstream America, whether it be their torture practices glorified in historical battle reenactments, museums showcasing their technology as "primitive," or what we are taught at early ages to be their supposed "simple" idea (or lack of) land ownership, all to subconsciously justify early white colonization. This article is an introduction for the people never exposed to ideas of the cultural perspectives of Native torture in the greater framework they were being judged, or the framework of today we judge their actions by (on the basis that European culture was much less "barbaric"). Indeed, other readers may be scarred to address such a taboo subject ("torture" and "possible negative Indian practices" both taboo) which is where Axtell's "modern guilt" shines, in the timidness of people to publicly question or learn about a subject that may expose the Native People in a negative light but turn around and unknowingly do such by the way they (educators) address the subject when cornered to to such). The author writes articles to address problems she sees while in the field of public outreach. The general population may have yet to benefit from these many research papers, as no matter how many times ideas may have been circulated through the experts as well-known facts and theories, this does not mean it "trickles down."
Published by Jessica Diemer-Eaton
Jessica Diemer-Eaton is a historical interpreter of Native American lifeways, and owner of Woodland Indian Educational Programs ( She provides educational programs for students, p...  View profile