Black Hawk’s Skull

Painting of Black Hawk by George Catlin, 1832

Painting of Black Hawk by George Catlin, 1832

Science is often deployed to meet political ends but we don’t always recognize when.

Phrenology emerged as a pseudo-scientific way to define race through empirical means.

Scientists used painstaking measurements to show how the landscape of the skull—its ridges and bumps—reveal personality characteristics.

Researchers collected not hundreds but thousands of skulls of indigenous peoples, comparing their crania to those of White Europeans.

The skull of the Sauk leader Black Hawk was featured in the 1838 issue of the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. A drawing of his head is matched to the qualities of what the skull allegedly reveals.

The author of the study described the Indian leader as intelligent and combative, superstitious and perceptive, based on the furrows on his cranium.

The article was published the same year Black Hawk died of natural causes. What I haven’t been able to confirm is whether he was alive at the time the phrenological drawing was made.

Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak) was buried in the traditional manner of his people: body underground and head above ground. He was covered with a small mountain of rocks.

According to an eye-witness, Black Hawk wore “a suit of military clothes, four new nice blankets were wrapped around him, a pillow of feathers was under his head, a plug hat was on his head.”

His head was facing west.

Some months after his burial in Iowa, Black Hawk’s remains were purloined: his skull and skeleton vanished.

History books say James Turner, a physician and friend of the Indian leader, stole Black Hawk’s remains, boiled the body down to bones and put them on exhibit in Illinois.

Black Hawk’s sons were distraught and used all their leverage to convince the governor of the Iowa territory to track down the skeleton. It took about a year, but the bones were recovered and returned.

Black Hawk shared his personal stories, resulting in an 1833 autobiography still available today. The notion that Indians roiled against the idea that land could be commodified is due, in part, to the best-selling book.

“My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold,” Black Hawk said.

“The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.”

Blog #6 for Native American Heritage Month


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.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, Black Hawk, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, phrenology, science, science communication, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Black Hawk’s Skull

  1. Max says:

    I really like this article.


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