As citizens of Penobscot Nation, our children are not free to care for the land and river that shares our name. We were not free to live with our parents without fear of the state taking us. Our parents were not free to participate in our traditional ceremonies. Our grandparents were not free to learn our ways without fear of the state kidnapping them to internment camps, euphemistically called boarding schools. Our great-grandparents were not free to vote or be US citizens. Our great-great-grandparents were not free from government Indian agents who controlled all aspects of their lives and called them “degraded and ignorant people.” Their great-great grandparents were not free to live on the lands we belong to without fear of being captured and hunted for their scalps. These abominable practices of state-sanctioned violence, and how we have survived them, constitute our shared history and are deeply enmeshed in the psyche of the United States.
The government paid ordinary citizens massive rewards for hunting, capturing, and scalping Native people: children, women, and men. Our tribal nation was among the many targeted. Our relatives were killed; our ancestors survived.
As lieutenant-governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Spencer Phips proclaimed on Nov. 3, 1755, as shown in Upstander Project’s new film, “Bounty,” “I have therefore . . . thought fit to issue this proclamation, and to declare the Penobscot Tribe of Indians to be Enemies, Rebels and Traitors . . . I do hereby require his Majesty’s Subjects . . . to embrace all Opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
In the Dawnland, rebranded New England by European colonizers, the bounty paid for one scalp of an adult male was about $12,000 in today’s currency. This gruesome practice spanned centuries. Settlers claimed at least 90 bounties, turning in no fewer than 150 human scalps in the Dawnland between 1675 and 1760. As a reward, thousands of individuals and their heirs took tens of thousands of acres of land and received more than $2 million in today’s currency from the public treasury. Colonial authorities destroyed our ancestors’ remains in tar barrels.
Neither scalpers nor colonial authorities had any way of knowing the tribal affiliation of the person whose scalp they took. The effect of marking any Indigenous group for slaughter was to declare open season on all Indigenous People. The language of the bounties mimicked that used for hunting wolves. English scalpers skinned our relatives the same way they would a deer.
Hollywood largely got it wrong. Europeans monetized scalping of Indigenous People and encouraged its common practice to take land, not the other way around.
The first known instance of government-sanctioned scalping in what is now the United States was ordered by the Dutch against Raritan bands of Lenape in lower Manhattan in 1637. The English issued 69 scalp-bounty proclamations in the Dawnland from 1675 to 1760. Most proclamations sought the extermination of Wabanaki tribal nations in the place now called Maine. Prior to colonization, our nation was one of 20 in the Wabanaki Confederacy; now there are five: Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.
From the Dawnland, scalping spread with vengeance to Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Powerful and wealthy landowners pooled money to incentivize impoverished settlers to hunt Native people. One of our ancestors, Margaret Moxa, along with her husband and two-month-old baby boy, was killed and scalped by James Cargill and his men.
Scalping continued after the American Revolution, and notorious scalpers such as Cargill went on to become lawmakers and decorated officers in the Revolutionary Army. Towns were founded on allotments awarded to militia and soldiers who fought and scalped Native people. In Massachusetts, Shirley was named to honor Governor William Shirley, and Spencer was named for his lieutenant governor, Spencer Phips. Both issued scalp-bounty proclamations.
Scalpers may have been motivated by bounty rewards, but those who proclaimed the bounties wanted to clear the land, and scalping was one tool they used. To support this policy of dispossession, the system of settler colonialism dehumanized Native people and invented a false narrative about the origins of the United States, one that continues to erase Native people and relegate them to the past.
Erasure is manifest today in harmful policies, practices, stereotypes, and behaviors that brand Native people as disposable. The term scalping has been turned into everyday jargon for buying overpriced tickets. “Taking scalps” often refers to carrying out workplace retribution. Meanwhile, Native people whose ancestors survived extermination often face hostility, distrust, and insults from non-Native people who tell us to go back to where we came from. The colonizers’ mindset is so ingrained they don’t see that we belong here. Why does most of America know Gabby Petito’s story? And nothing about Beverly Polchies, Anna Mae Aquash, nor thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits, or their ancestors who were hunted and scalped?
Descendants of survivors of people hunted for their scalps carry a heightened startle response, caused by epigenetic inheritance. Even though neuroscientists have only recently caught on, Wabanaki people know about historic and intergenerational trauma. This wretched legacy still wreaks havoc on our communities.
Every summer, Penobscot people participate in a ceremonial journey to Katahdin, our sacred mountain where our people believe life originated and where we have lived for more than 10,000 years. For just one weekend, Wabanaki people can visit Katahdin for free, thanks to a community group that covers the fee. During this ceremony, we pray for the healing of our people and mother earth.
Part of this healing is facing the truth about scalp-bounty hunting and that our people survive genocide. That is why we decided to go with our children to Boston’s Freedom Trail for “Bounty.” We entered the Old State House’s Council Chamber to read our ancestors’ death warrant where it was signed, to break the cycle of ignorance.
False narratives are the foundation upon which big lies are built. Instead, let us acknowledge history and celebrate that our presence here today signals that the wildest dreams of our ancestors came true: We are not vulnerable. We are still here, telling our truth.
Maulian Dana is Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador and co-director of the film “Bounty.” Dawn Neptune Adams is a Penobscot Nation citizen, Sunlight Media Collective cofounder, and co-director of “Bounty.” Mishy Lesser is author of the “Bounty Teacher’s Guide” and learning director for Upstander Project.