Evidently some did, which unarguably is savage behavior. But how best to define the group of savages we’re talking about? Candidates:
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the facts:
The earliest mention I can find of American Indian 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 10 or 12 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.
In Blackfeet society, the status of women, even faithful ones, was far from exalted. According to Maximilian, a man interested in hooking up with a woman simply agreed on a price with his intended’s father, whereupon she moved in—no formal marriage took place. If the man tired of the woman, he sent her back whence she came with her belongings. He kept the kids.
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. The nose wasn’t always singled out; apparently, an unfaithful Creek woman could have her ears cut off instead. I’ve even seen it said the cuckolded husband might bite his straying spouse’s nose off, but admittedly this comes from a secondary source.
To this point, we’re mostly seeing evidence for premise No. 1 above, which attributes such savagery specifically to Native Americans. However, it’s not difficult to make the case for Premise 2: 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. Maximilian says white men who’d taken Indian wives punished adultery the same way Blackfeet males did. Perhaps he only meant they hacked off their hair rather than their noses, but who knows?
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. I observe no cases of Afghan women mutilating their husbands, though surely some must have grounds. On the contrary, in the few cases of Afghan violence initiated by women I’m aware of, the women set fire to themselves in protest or despair.
Getting back to American Indians, 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.
Send questions to Cecil via StraightDope.com or write him c/o Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Subscribe to the Straight Dope podcast at the iTunes Store.