All in Your Head

Black Hawk

Black Hawk

I’ve been exploring how science has affected policies and attitudes regarding American Indians.

We know that reservation life and boarding schools weighed heavily on Native peoples. Few, however, have spent time uncovering how science has been deployed to serve political ends.

The science of phrenology claimed that personality and intelligence could be measured by meticulous examination of a person’s head.

The skull shape was thought to reveal characteristics of the individual.

I’ve discovered some of the science articulated by Samuel Morgan in his 1840-era book Crania Americana.

He claimed Caucasians have the highest intellectual endowment:

The Caucasian Race is characterized by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. The nasal bones are arched, the chin full, and the teeth vertical. This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments.

Africans—whom he labelled the Ethiopian race—had the least intelligence:

Characterised by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair… In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.

And American Indians? Their skull shape made them averse to civilization:

The head is rounded, the nose large, salient and aquiline; the eyes dark brown, and with little or no obliquity of position; the mouth is large and straight, the teeth nearly vertical, and the whole face triangular. The neck is long, the chest broad but rarely deep, the body and limbs muscular and seldom disposed to obesity. In character these nations are warlike, cruel and unforgiving. They turn with aversion from the restraints of civilised life, and have made but trifling progress in mental culture or the useful arts.

Such characterizations of humanity—thought to be empirically sound—furnished anyone looking for a reason to mutilate or murder Indians, Asians, African slaves and other people of color a science-based rationale to go right ahead.

And while phrenology eventually lost favor, its entailments concerning race continue to the present day.

Blog #5 for Native American Heritage Month

The phrenological drawing of Black Hawk points to characteristics including high destructiveness, acquisitiveness, secretiveness and cautiousness. He has moderate conscientiousness and little hope. From the University of Northern Illinois


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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