Saturday, June 10, 2017


A German recreation of an authentic human "scalp".
Germans, via Karl May, are fascinated with NA material culture
and are often makers of "artifakes."

Part two of response to “The Scalp from Sand Creek” on AEON.  This time sticking to the flesh (carne) aspect.  If you get queasy about such things, move on.

Humans collect all sorts of things, including parts of each other.  Or sometimes the whole living “Other.”  (We call it "trafficking" these days.) As a child I asked to see my cut out tonsils, since they were evidently so important to remove, but they didn’t look like much — stewed tomatoes, maybe — and I didn’t ask to keep them.  My brothers, who were younger, went through a period when they saved all nail parings, scabs, skin sheets peeled from sunburns, and hair.  I have no idea why.  My grandmother saved her combings of hair in a little “keeper” on her vanity table, evidently a custom from Victorian days when one could get them made into extensions for one’s hair or maybe coiled and braided into keepsake jewelry, brooches and lockets.  Of course, mothers save baby teeth.

With that as background, perhaps we can consider more ghastly practices without getting freaked out.  Maybe not.  When remains of old Blackfeet, easily collected in the earliest days because they were exposed in trees and on high ridges, were ordered by repatriation law to be sent back to the rez from the Smithsonian or some other point of collection, they were packed with ceremony and valuable blankets into neat square boxes for transporting.  This was done at the museum mostly by younger people, maybe academic people.  When they got to the rez, the same kind of people plus politicians organized the ceremonies of burials.  But the oldest traditional people refused to attend.

“Ghosts are dangerous,” they said.  "They will go home with you.  And they’ve got to be angry about having been locked up so long.”  The younger  assimilated people needed the marker, the admission that bad things happened, plus some ceremonial closure.  They wept and ululated and drummed, but it was pretty much a regular white man style funeral, which is what they knew.

The discussion on such matters as scalps (esp. if there are anthros or soldiers around) tend to be competitions to see who can tell the most horrible stories.  Here’s my most horrible story.  It’s from one of the Central American countries in the throes of violence.  The daughter of one of the generals was killed and her body returned to her father.  She appeared to be pregnant, but she was not.  When they reopened the wound on her abdomen, the head of her lover was inside.  

The discussion in comments related to the article about the Sand Creek massacre included gruesomeness of scalps and whether the owners would want them back.  If they were taken by Indians they might belong to”white” people, right?  What happens to blonde scalps?  Would DNA have to be used to discover the rightful relatives?  There are a lot of theories about scalping, including the idea that Euros started it in order to pay bounties on rebels, like bounties on wolves or gophers.

Someone years ago told me about a time in the Vietnam days when a friend emptied onto her kitchen table a paper bag of what looked like dried apricots.  They were Vietnamese ears, unpaired, unsourced as to the time and place they were collected.  

In the recent real-life murder series called “The Keepers,” at one point the best friend of a murdered nun claimed that the murderer sent him the woman’s uterus.  No photo, no lab analysis of DNA, no explanation.  We’re really into this stuff.  All those movie heads thrown and rolling, so carefully made.  At least "Braveheart" spared us the reality of drawing and quartering by having a dwarf mimic the event with muslin guts.  But then there are the stories about priests whose legs were cooked while they were still alive and then were forced to eat chunks of their own legs.  The story goes that they sang hymns and prayed the whole time.

I think our fondness for all this gore and horror means we’re really after the nature of being human, esp. in circumstances where we would like to pretend that people we don’t like, as Eric Trump says, “are not even people.”  Where are the boundaries?  Does the nature of human change?  What about all these newfound bits of hominins?  And if the essential element is human DNA, what does it mean if there are cave floors where the soil contains human DNA but there are not even bones?

One of the more heartbreaking stories is about the Inuk man and his son Minik who were brought back from Greenland by Admiral Peary.


The other side of the story is that Peary left his DNA behind.  This is one of the great grandsons:

Discussions about the morality of collecting body parts didn’t really arise until they began to be worth money.  Nothing adds monetary value to an object more than a good story.  Many stories about indigenous body parts are about war, which the teller can embellish or attribute as he or she pleases.  THIS is what prevents healing.  It’s not the possession of a bit of mummified flesh, but the story, the emotional attachments, the implications of power and winning, that form a cloud of reinfection.

Parts of saints are scattered all over Eurasia.  Some who took parts from the indigenous people of this continent thought they were taking parts of the Devil.  It is a practice associated with extremes, which are presented as their justification.  And yet there is often a denial, a blindness.

The episode of "Father Brown" I watched last night was about the wickedness of nude photos.  Over the padre's shoulder during a discussion about this, was a crucifix, the naked white body of Jesus hanging dead -- an object of veneration through incarnation.

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