The Indian Women Served as the Official “Scalp Takers”


By Joe Bruner


The American Indian, May, 1927


([Original] Editor’s Note—This is the second installment by Joe Bruner on the History, Traditions, Customs, and Life of the Muskogee Indians—who make up the Five Tribes in Oklahoma.)


            It took hours and hours for these floats to get out of sight.  As the last floats left the shore, the Spokogees gave them a farewell rush and shot from their bows giving them a great shower of arrows.  This was the last of the Mound Builders1 on this continent.

            Among the Mound Builders were little squads of Spokogees, Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws who had rebelled against their respective nations and had joined the Mound Builders and who went away with them.  All this happened hundreds and hundreds of years before Columbus discovered this country, since which exodus of the Mound Builders, some remnants of these people have been found in the Philippine Islands.

            At the World’s Fair2 in Chicago, some of the people visiting the fair discovered a few Indians [who] had been brought over to take part in the exposition from the Philippine Islands and who proved to be a remnant of the Spokogees who had departed from this country years before with the Mound Builders.  It was the Egerto Indians3 from the Philippine Islands who spoke what is now the Creek language.  So it proves that not all of the Mound Builders and their allies were drowned but finally landed upon some of those islands, and it seems as if the Egerto Indians of the Philippine Islands once belonged to the great Spokogee nation.  It is highly probable that they were known as the Egerto tribe among the Spokogees at the time they rebelled and went away with the Mound Builders.

             After getting the Mound Builders and their allies out of the country, the Spokogee nation returned to the interior and lived in the states known now as Georgia, Alabama, and Florida; and it was here that the great nation of the Spokogees lived when Columbus discovered America; and it was on the Florida coast that the Redman met his enemy “Spirituous Liquor.”

            Columbus worked for several days to have a meeting with these natives, but the Redman was very shy.  He did not want to meet this man in daylight who had a white face.  After Columbus failed to get an interview with these people, he thought up a scheme wherein he might be able to reach them.  The Redman was wont to come down to the coast after night, so Columbus arranged with his men to take to the beach some kegs of whisky, open them up on the beach, and leave them overnight.  Some very bright dippers or cups were left, so they would be handy for the Redman to drink out of.  Then Columbus and his men kept a good lookout ashore until daylight, and sure enough, there were several drunks laying about on the beach.  Columbus ordered his men to go ashore at once and bring the Indians on deck, which they did, as the Redmen had taken on more whisky than they could stand.

            Columbus kept the drunken men on his boats several days, teaching them to eat and drink like the whites.  He gave them just enough liquor to keep them friendly and feeling good.  After learning their sign language, Columbus gave [them] beads and other little presents and put them ashore.  This got up a kind of peace between them.  Now and then, Columbus’ men landed and went among the camps of the Redmen, always bringing a little firewater and other presents with them.  It might be said that America was bought with whisky in part.

             The beads were the first money that the Indians knew.  To this day, the Muskogee Indians,4 in talking about money or finances, always mention beads.  For instance, one dollar in the Muskogee language is chutokonower, iron or metal beads.  It used to be a great custom to punch holes in small silver or gold coins, and the children wear them around their necks as ornaments.  The Redman knew nothing about money; he used beads as exchange for whatever he bought.

            Of course, their clothes were of dressed deer skins.  It was the duty of the women to dress the hides; then the men made the moccasins and leggings and other garments—however, the women knew how to make their own clothes.  The bead trimmings were always placed there by the women.  The tendons or sinews off of the loin or back of a deer [were] the Redman’s thread.  The squirrel also furnished sinews from the full length of his tail, which [were] used in case of emergency, as it answered all purposes of thread.  The brains of the deer [were] used for tanning or dressing the hides of deer.

             The brains were taken out and spread out on some fine twigs or grass and placed in the sun where it would become very dry and hard.  When it was needed for dressing hides, it was placed in water and soaked until it became dissolved; this then was rubbed all over the flesh side of the hide a day or two, rubbing it into the hides thoroughly.  Then the hide was stretched between two trees or posts, [and] a paddle about four feet long, sharp edged at one end, was used shovel fashion, maybe two or three days, according to the age and thickness of the hide.  In this way, many women clothed themselves and papoose.


The Red Man’s Eats

            First and foremost comes his sofkee;5 it is thus made: take a couple of gallons of corn, soak [it] in water overnight. It is then put in a wood mortar and a pestle of wood.  The husk is pounded off of the grains of corn with the pestle in the mortar.  The husk is winnowed from the chopped grain with an open or flat basket called a fanner.  The chops of corn [are] then sifted through a sieve made of cane or reeds holding back the whole grains which are placed back in the mortar and given another pounding or punching with the pestle.  This is continued until all of the skinned corn goes through the sieve.  The chopped corn is then placed in an earthen pot with, say, four gallons of water and boiled perfectly tender.  This then is emptied into another earthen vessel and is then ready for use.  This is pronounced a very healthy diet by the doctors of the palefaces.  As long as an Indian can drink sofkee, there [are] hopes for him to live.

            When sick, another meat of the Redman is deer meat dried in the sun until it is like a chip; [it] is then soaked in warm water until soft, then is treated as in corn, pounded fine, until it is just about like fine-cut tobacco.  This is saturated with bear’s lard, and this is dipped in wild honey and eaten.

             We forgot one of the ingredients in sofkee; it is strong lye from wood ashes, say a pint of lye to two gallons of sofkee while boiling.

            The women take corn, pound it until the husk is off, then parch.  This with ashes, in equal quantity, is then placed back into the mortar and pounded until it makes a fine meal.  This is made up or kneaded with lye—no water—then baked hoecake fashion.  This bread will stand all kinds of weather and last, pure and sound, for four or six months, water or rain having no effect upon it.

            And another one.  Take corn and parch it.  Place this in the mortar or the Indian mill and pound it to a fine meal; and take about two gallons of the meal and about a pint of honey, pour this into the meal; then rub the honey thoroughly into the meal until the meal absorbs the honey; it is then ready for use.  By pouring a quart of any kind of water into something and placing therein about five tablespoons of the parched meal, this makes a very healthy drink, and the meal will purify any bad water.

            This stuff was carried always on long camp hunts.  And again there is a wild potato that grows on rich bottoms called Bog potatoes, that the women gathered and cooked with the peelings on, or in other words with the packet on.  After the potato is done, the women gather, or [have] at hand, a lot of hickory nuts which they pound up very fine.  This is put in a vessel and boiled several hours.  The oil of the nut is extracted in this way, as the oil floats up and is skimmed off.  It is used as gravy for the bog potato and is considered as very delicious by the Redman.  The women make also a fine dish out of wild grapes.  The Redman does not go much on milk or butter, but if he has corn, it is impossible to starve him out.  He is a nut eater.  The women make hundreds of varieties of dishes out of straight corn.  Give the Redman his corn, and he will live well and happy without meat; or give him meat without bread-stuff, and he will live well and happy.

            Years ago in the wild swamps of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, [there] was a great brier, maybe now known as bramble brier.  This plant had, when dug up, a large root—as large as an apple.  Maybe as much as a bushel of these roots [was] taken from one vine.  The roots were shaped like an Irish potato.  This was chopped into small cubes, then put into the Indian mill or mortar, and was pounded very fine.  After this process, it was soaked in water overnight, then the water was poured off, leaving the sediment, which was very much like the wheat flour of today.  This was shortened with either bear or deer grease and made an extra fine bread.  This plant was called kuntee by the Muskogees.

             And again the Muskogees made a sofkee seasoned with hickory nuts and nut oil which was very delicious and rich.  Sofkee was made with beans mixed into the water, which was a great diet.  Also, they, the women, made all kinds of soups out of fine-pounded corn, for instance, deer backbone, which made a delicious soup.  Fish of all kinds were a favorite dish.  The women barbecued large fish.  This they made into soup which dish was highly esteemed as a diet.

            The Redman had a great many charms.  The hunter had lots of charms.  He had something that resembled diamonds which was sacked up in little bundles, covered with buckskin, and buried in vermillion or red paint which he prized very highly.  There seemed to be all [the] colors of the rainbow in these charms.  The charms were kept away from their teepees or wigwams as it was supposed to cause sickness if kept in the teepee.  There were certain weeds also considered charms.  Now the old warriors used these charms for their great camp hunts, taming the game by singing to the charms in the great forests.  The young men used the same charms for attracting their girls, singing to the charms before seeing their dusky mates.

            Now we read a great lot about the tomahawk and scalping knife.  By this it would make one believe the tomahawk was a great weapon of war with the Redman, but this is a big mistake.  There never was a regular scalping knife, and the tomahawk was not a regular war tool.  The scalping was done mostly by the women; only a few scalps were taken by the warrior.  The tomahawk was nothing more nor less than a pipe and also an ornament.  Of course, it came in handy for fighting just as any good club would be.  The women did most of the scalping in this way: in battle with other tribes or people, some became prisoners.  After getting back to camp, these prisoners were turned over to the custody of the women, to do as they pleased.  The women most always tomahawked these prisoners, and also scalped them, after killing them.  The women at camp are the people who furnished the scalps for the scalp dance.  Now the writer has visited the scalp dances and knows whereof he writes.  The whole thing having been explained to him as it really happened.

             The scalp dance is like this: time is set for the scalp dance; the men go to the woods [to] procure a long switch or very small poles.  The single or more scalps are fastened to the small end, and men and women join in the dance.  Certain songs are sung in chorus by both men and women as they dance in a circle.  At the close of the song, all join in a yell or whoop, waving the scalps over their heads.  The refrain of the song is, “He, the deceased, came to his death altogether at his own fault.  He knew that his scalp would grace the ends of our poles, and we would sing to our pleasure of his death, etc., etc.”                       (To be continued.)



1Mound Builders: A reference to the Mississippian cultures that built a series of mound structures of various shapes and sizes primarily in the middle of the continent before white contact.


2World’s Fair: World’s Columbian Exposition 1893

3Egerto Indians: No known relationship exists between the indigenous people of North America and those of the Philippines.


4Muskogee Indians: Actually Muscogee, the name of the Indian nation referred to by whites and others as “Creeks.”


5Sofkee: A drink made of corn, used by indigenous peoples of the southeastern United States