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 only been recorded but memorialized. In fact, the earliest publically funded statue of a woman in the US was of Hannah Duston holding onto a fistful of scalps. Duston was kidnapped by the Abenaki Nation in the late 1600s and was able to kill and escape from her captors. Prior to returning home, she made sure to grab and later show off her souvenirs. The recent statue debate around the nation has brought back the discussion of Duston. Some defend her actions, claiming that she was doing whatever it took to survive, while others understand the bigger settler-colonial picture that European invasion put on all Native communities at this time.
Sure, everyone scalped. Yet one major difference in the white versus Native scalping dilemma lies in who was specifically rewarded and even paid for this brutal action. In 1756, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania stated in his declaration of war against the Lenni Lenape (whose land the state of Pennsylvania still occupies), “For the scalp of every male Indian enemy above the age of twelve years, produced as evidence of their being killed, the sum of one-hundred and thirty pieces of eight . . . for the scalp of every Indian woman produced as evidence of their being killed, the sum of fifty pieces of eight.”
This was followed by similar payment promises in Massachusetts in 1723 and continued as Americans expanded westward. An article in the October 24, 1897, edition of the Los Angeles Tribune entitled “Value of an Indian Scalp: Minnesota Paid Its Pioneers a Bounty for Every Redskin Killed” shares the price of Native scalps during the Indian Wars from years prior was twenty-five dollars, for a total payout of $7,870.06 for “Suppressing Indian War.” This means that over three-hundred Native scalps were not only collected but traded for cash rewards, and these are just the ones that were recorded.
These examples show that scalping should not just be attributed to one group or culture. And the vital difference is that while many participated in the gory act of scalping, one group was rewarded for their deeds while the other was marked with the dirty term of “savage.”
So how does this tie back into The Revenant?
Toward the beginning of the two-hour-and-thirty-six-minute runtime, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) are sitting with Glass, who is mangled from the bear attack. They are essentially waiting for him to die so he can receive a proper burial. However, that isn’t what ends up happening. While they sit, Bridger notices the hairless area of Fitzgerald’s head and asks him if the Ree (another name for the Arikara people) did that. He answers:
“Yeah, they done it. Took their sweet time, too. To start, I didn’t feel nothin’, just the sound of knives scrapin’ against my skull, them all laughin’ and hollerin’ and whoopin’ and what not … Then the blood came, cold, start streakin’ down my face, breathin’ it in, chokin’ on it.
That’s when I felt it. Felt all of it. Got my head turned inside out.”
According to Mairin Odle, a professor who studies cross-cultural body modifications including tattooing and scalping, cutting the skin off of an opponent’s head was not always done with the intent to kill. Scalping survivors was “visual evidence” of an attack that could be seen by those around. While the exact intent is unknown, some believe it was a warning to others or a way to embarrass the afflicted. Odle also states that even if colonial communities had not seen a person who had been scalped, their stories were told via newspapers or memoirs, making survivors of such attacks a sort of stock character for the time. “Survivors might be portrayed as gruesome novelties,” she writes, “but they were also intended to spark solicitude in 19th-century readers, with their scars implicitly justifying the extremes of their Indian-hating violence.”
Ironically, Fitzgerald becomes the clear violent antagonist moments later as he murders Hawk before lying to Bridger, convincing him to leave a dying Glass to the winter elements. This action coupled with the murder of Hawk motivates Glass to become a survivor himself, fighting for his life and nursing himself back to health as he searches for vengeance. This independent mission takes up a majority of the movie and is intense, to say the least.
Eventually, Glass does find himself on the heels of the man he is pursuing. After a short stay and a good meal at Fort Kiowa, he is reunited with Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The two set off to find Fitzgerald, but sadly, Fitzgerald finds and kills the captain while Glass is at a distance. As Captain Henry’s body is revealed, it becomes known that his scalp is missing, meaning that Fitzgerald committed the same atrocity that he himself had once experienced. This detail is never explicitly explained and could be interpreted in a variety of ways, however. The most obvious explanation would be to mislead Glass about who killed the captain.
While The Revenant is based on a true story, many of the details in regards to the actual story of Hugh Glass are embellished to create a compelling story of revenge, perseverance, and forgiveness. Despite this, Iñárritu creates a world where Native characters were represented correctly and ensured that by hiring cultural advisor Craig Falcon to work on set. He assisted the actors with the two Indigenous languages and even got to work as an on-screen extra. In an article by APTN National News, Falcon says “They hit it right on about ninety-seven-percent of the time. There were a couple of things that I didn’t agree with, but you know the director does have his artistic vision in his head of what he sees.” I’m curious if the three percent that Falcon is referring to has to do with this small detail of scalping and the reality that historically it was practiced by anyone and everyone.
That fact ties into the main message of The Revenant, which is not so subtly written on a sign seen hanging on a dead Pawnee man’s neck: “On est tous des sauvages,” which translates to “We are all savages.” And while the history of scalping might also allude to the idea that, yes, we are all the monsters, this is much too simple an explanation of the harsh colonization that hit each and every Native community in a different way. Of course, that is a whole separate issue that would need to be explored in a separate piece of writing.