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‘The Revenant’ and the Dark History of Scalping

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Through a Native Lens is a column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the truth about scalping and how that’s depicted in The Revenant.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) is a brutal look at survival in the 19th-century Western wilderness. Set in 1823, the film focuses on the tough Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who survives a near-fatal bear attack and is left for dead by the man who murdered his Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). While the conversation around the release focused on DiCaprio’s performance, which finally landed him an Oscar win, as well as the cinematography by the talented Emmanuel Lubezki, it is time to talk about a recurring action that finds its way into the details of The Revenant.

Movies, books, and pretty much any narratives having to do with the wild, wild West have long associated the act of scalping as a strictly Native practice. It is a stereotype that lives forever in cinematic plots from titles like The Searchers (1956) and Hostiles (2017) and is perpetuated at football games of high schools around the country who hold onto their Chiefs, Indians, or Warriors mascot while yelling “Scalp ’em!” Most stereotypes are based on some fraction of truth and yes, some Native people utilized scalping in their war and fighting routines, but it is incorrect that only North American Indigenous warriors would use a sharp object to remove someone’s hair and skin from the top of their head.

In fact, scalping can be found in the European region as far back as 440 BC when certain groups of Scythians would use an ox bone to “scrape the flesh off the skin.” These prized possessions would then be hung as decorations on a warrior’s horse or sewn together to make clothing. “The best man is the man who has the greatest number,” Herodotus states in his iconic writing from 430 BC.

In colonial pre-America, scalping by non-Native people has not........

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