The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America

By James Axtell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT Scalping: The Ethnohistory of a Moral Question

IN 1956 WILCOMB WASHBURN REMINDED ONE OF THE EARLY GATHerings of ethnohistorians that "when one studies the contact of two cultures, value problems--that is, moral problems-immediately spring up to challenge the writer."* His audience needed reminding -at the time, and so do most ethnohistorians today.

The past domination of the ethnohistorical enterprise by anthropologists and the current infatuation of historians in general with the methods and mores of the "hard" social sciences have tended to blind most ethnohistorians , new and old, to two elemental facts. First, as Washburn suggested, ethnohistorians must not only attempt to understand each culture in its own terms, but when these cultures clash, they must come to interpretive grips with the conflict without imposing the parochial standards of their own day on the past. Second, ethnohistorians (who tend to worship at the feet of "scientific detachment") cannot avoid making an assessment of what the clash of cultural values meant to contemporaries (and perhaps what it means for us) even if they would like to. The richly normative character of our language, not just the "colorful" words but all of it, prevents them. In other words, morality is part of the subject matter of history, and historians, perhaps especially ethnohistorians, are perforce moral critics. To recognize and accept these facts, it seems to me,

____________________
*
Wilcomb E. Washburn, "A Moral History of Indian-White Relations: Needs and Opportunities for Study", Ethnohistory, 4 ( 1957), 47-61 at 56.

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