Scalping in the ‘good’ old days


Earlier this year, Santa Fe’s Museum of Spanish Colonial Art published a handsome, heavily illustrated book, “Converging Streams, Art of the Hispanic and Native American Southwest.” It focuses upon the borrowing by both peoples of a single aspect of culture.

From a long study of New Mexico’s history, I can recall numerous instances in which Indians and Hispanos assimilated cultural elements from one another.
My reading of “Converging Streams” brought to mind an odd example that I discovered several years go. It involved the performance of an Indian-style scalp dance among the people of Manzano, a Hispanic village on the east slope of the Manzano Mountains. The event apparently occurred sometime in the 1860s.
As a result of a winter Apache raid in the area, some men of the community had organized a pursuit. Overtaking the Indians in the wild Sierra Oscura, the next range to the south, they fought a sharp battle killing a number of the offenders.
The Manzanenos then whipped out knives and quickly lifted the top-knots of their fallen enemies. These trophies, dripping blood in the snow, were then tied to the leather strings or each man’s saddle.
Three days later, the party rode into Manzano. The people rejoiced and the partially dried scalps were attached to a long pole to be paraded through the village.
According to an account, that night a special dance was held, “in the manner of the Pueblo Indian scalp ceremony.”
Within their villages, the Pueblos maintained sacred scalp societies, tied to ancient myths and integrated into religious rituals. The dried scalps were usually kept in a kiva along with other ceremonial objects.
At Santa Clara Pueblo, for instance, a formal Women’s Scalp Society existed as a kind of “women’s auxiliary” for the Men’s War Society. Variations in practice, however, occurred from one village to another.
A brief description of the return of warrior carrying fresh scalps comes from Acoma. The men would arrive singing and climb the steep trail to the summit. On top, behind the 17th century mission church, women waited to greet them. The scalps were carried on a pole.
In the early colonial period when the Pueblos often engaged in fighting among themselves, they did not hesitate to scalp each other.
Gen. Diego de Vargas, while putting down an uprising at San Ildefenso in 1694, wrote in his journal that one of his own Pueblo allies scalped a fallen Pueblo rebel. Then the victor and his companions in celebration danced and sang war songs around the victim’s body.
The situation at Isleta is worth a glance because in all likelihood it was the source from which Hispano Manzano, not far beyond the mountains, borrowed its scalping ritual.
Sometime in the mid-19th century, a party of Americans camped overnight on Isleta’s outskirts. They were awakened at a late hour by a clamorous shouting, firing of guns, and the ringing of bells from the village.
Several of the campers volunteered to go and learn what all the noise was about. Entering the pueblo, they were surprised to see the streets and plaza lit up and people rushing about “fantastically dressed,” all dancing and singing with great glee.
Three of the participants carried long lances from which dangled the scalps of Navajo warriors. As was told to the Americans, a woman and five children of Isleta had been kidnapped by a Navajo band.
With the aid of soldiers, Isletans chased after the culprits, attacked them, freed the captives, and brought home the trio of scalps. This had produced the wild and uproarious nighttime celebration.
There are obvious parallels between the scalp ceremonies here and at Manzano, even though the particulars of both are fairly thin. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that Hispanos witnessed and then adopted elements of the Pueblo scalp ritual, and Hispanicized it in the process.
The subject represents one more intriguing albeit shadowy fragment of New Mexican folk culture.