A recent comment in the visitor book for the Blackfoot Shirts Project exhibition asked:
Question: ‘scalplock’ is used regarding these shirts but it is nowhere explained beyond the fact that some of the fringe hair is human. Is this hair from the honoured warrior or the scalps of his victims? Why aren’t we told in a straightforward manner? And if these locks are from scalps taken, as your coyness suggests, what will you do when future DNA or other tests shows who these victims are and their descendants come wanting human remains returned. Are you just focusing on ‘lost’ Blackfoot cultural heritage whitewashed for modern tastes for promotion of your project? And how might you compare this with Nazi ‘handcrafts’ with Jewish body parts.’
Beneath this comment is written in another handwriting: GOOD COMMENTS THAT DESERVE ANSWERS.
So: I’ll try to answer.
Who did the scalplocks come from, and under what circumstances? Blackfoot elders were clear that the scalplocks came from from the scalps of victims in warfare. Across the nineteenth century, Blackfoot men defended their territory through warfare, and were encouraged to engage in warfare—including scalping—to demonstrate their courage and power.
In other northern Plains societies, however, senior warriors sometimes gave a lock of hair to a man when he made his war shirt.
DNA tests: Many people have asked us whether we can identify what group the hairlocks come from through DNA testing. DNA testing isn’t as specific as it seems when you watch forensic crime programmes on television, though. The age of a sample can degrade the quality of DNA used for analysis, as can other factors. The hair root yields far better results than the hair shaft, and the hairlocks on the shirts do not have roots on them because they were cut. Most labs don’t do DNA analysis without the hair root. Even with the root, there’s only a 60-70% chance of extracting complete DNA samples, and even when you get a sample, you are generally working with mitochondrial DNA which will tell you a maternal line of descent. Given that women were either exchanged between Plains groups for alliance-making, or often stolen during warfare, a maternal line of descent may not be very helpful to tell us which tribal group a sample comes from…
So it isn’t that simple.
Human remains: Yes, hair on museum objects such as the shirts is indeed human remains. That is part of the reason we have treated the shirts with the greatest respect and tried to interpret them for visitors.
Are you just focusing on ‘lost’ Blackfoot cultural heritage whitewashed for modern tastes for promotion of your project: Blackfoot cultural heritage isn’t lost by any means. Blackfoot and Blackfeet people have, across their communities, a thriving traditional spiritual system, relatively strong language retention rates, and a sense of distinctive identity. Nevertheless, like most Indigenous people, they are concerned at the effects of assimilation policies on culture and cultural identity and are still retrieving many practices that were packed away or went dormant for many years. In this context, the Blackfoot Shirts Project was initiated by senior Blackfoot ceremonialists who asked to bring the shirts home for a visit so that people could learn from them. What we are doing in the Oxford exhibition phase of the project is sharing the process and results of the project with audiences here: showing what happens, and that all of us benefit, from such work.
How might you compare this with Nazi ‘handcrafts’ with Jewish body parts: I wouldn’t make this comparison. It is true that all human societies have ways of using the bodies of captured or defeated enemies, but the similarity ends there. Scalplocks were produced in conditions of warfare between northern Plains peoples and between Plains peoples and Europeans. Such items were considered powerful and were deeply embedded in northern Plains cultures; within these cultures, the taking and display of scalplocks was understood and expected. Nazi works incorporating human body parts were deliberate attempts to humiliate persons who were not considered human, and were produced under widespread conditions of coercion: the contexts were very different.
This comment, like the others, however, makes us consider the cross-cultural nature of exhibitions such as Visiting with the Ancestors. It’s a reminder that not all meanings cross cultural boundaries and that we may need to really think about the underlying meanings of cultural practices to explain them—and that we all bring cultural baggage to such exhibitions. I thank our visitors for raising such challenging questions, as well as for the widespread and very strong appreciation they have expressed about the exhibition.