Is it true Native Americans cut off the noses of adulterous wives? Sounds like European propaganda about “savages.” —Lisa W.

Evidently some did, which unarguably is savage behavior. But how best to define the group of savages we’re talking about? Candidates:

1. Native Americans.

2. The human race. Seriously, you ever hear of cocker spaniels doing this?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the facts.

The earliest mention I can find of Native American women having their noses cut off for adultery is in a memoir by Alexander Maximilian, a Prussian prince, naturalist, and ethnographer who explored the Great Plains in the 1830s. He said this about the men of the Blackfeet tribe: “They generally punish infidelity in their wives very seriously, cutting off their noses in such cases; and we saw, about Fort McKenzie, a great many of these poor creatures horribly disfigured. When ten or twelve tents were together, we were sure to see six or seven women mutilated in this manner. The husband also cuts off the hair by way of punishment.”

Repudiated by her mate, the mutilated woman was no longer marriageable and ended her days laboring for other households—perhaps counting herself lucky she hadn’t been killed outright, as sometimes occurred. Did her paramour, meanwhile, have any appendages cut off? Not that we hear about—he might have to surrender his horse. Not a trivial sanction, maybe, but to my way of thinking not terribly comparable.

Nose-cutting of adulteresses, though hardly universal among American Indians, was fairly widespread—we have credible reports of its occurrence among the Creek, Sioux, and Navajo. In the 1870s, General George Crook reported Arizona Apache men both beat their wives and cut their noses off for infidelity. Crook tried to stop the practice by imprisoning a nose-cutting husband for a year, with unknown success.

To this point we’re mostly seeing evidence for premise number one above, which attributes such savagery specifically to Native Americans. However, it’s not difficult to make the case for premise two: The savages here are people in general—or at the very least, male people in general. Christopher Columbus ordered his men to cut off the nose and ears of any native guilty of theft. After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, Andrew Jackson’s soldiers cut off the noses of 557 slain Red Stick Creek Indians, and some skinned the bodies to make souvenir bridle reins. So nonnatives weren’t known for their high-class behavior either.

Instances of nose-cutting and other punitive mutilation can be found throughout the world, making it reasonable to include the entire species in the savagery indictment. In Afghanistan today, for example, cases have been reported of abusive men cutting off the ears and noses of their wives to punish various acts of perceived disobedience, or sometimes seemingly on general principle. The Afghan Taliban meanwhile threatened to cut off the ears and nose of anyone who voted in the 2009 elections.

Getting back to Native Americans, not all tribes punished adultery brutally. Cuckolded Cherokee men, it’s said, just sent their wives away. More generally, in some tribes, women enjoyed considerable autonomy stemming from the traditional division of labor: Men did the hunting and fighting, women farmed. Europeans supposedly upset this egalitarian arrangement by insisting the men take over the farming work, thus reducing women’s status. I’m not saying this makes nose-cutting the fault of the white man. I merely note that, in the long-running project of treating women like dirt, there’s lots of blame to spread around. —Cecil Adams

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