No scalping in Assassin’s Creed III: A more in-depth examination

Back in March it was announced that scalping, which was originally planned as a feature, had been removed from the up-and-coming Assassin’s Creed III. Even before the announcement was made there had been some developed discussion online about whether or not scalping should be present in the title. While those for argued that it would be a unique killing move rarely seen in video games and would make the game more brutal, those against argued that it could be historically inaccurate depending on the character’s race or could perpetrate a negative and demeaning stereotype.

Development director Tommy Francois cited the reason for the removal as historical inaccuracy, however there has been some debate over whether or not this is true. By now everyone knows that Connor “Ratonhnhaké:ton” Kenway, the game’s protagonist, is half-British, half-Native American, but there has been some confusion over the specifics of his Native heritage. Most sources cite Connor as being Mohawk and living in a Mohawk village which is attacked by Colonists, spurring him into action. However, some sources still say that Connor is Mohave. So which is it, and what difference does it make in terms of historical accuracy? And is historical accuracy really the most powerful influence at play here?

In order to make an informed opinion about whether or not scalping should have been included in Assassin’s Creed III, one must actually be informed on the topics at hand. First, one must briefly examine the history of scalping and perhaps disperse some misconceptions about the practice. Namely, scalping was not just some boogeyman story to demonize Natives, as some people do believe. Certain Native American tribes, most notably the Sioux people, practised scalping as late as the 19th century. However, scalping was by no means only a Native practice in North America during the 17th-19th centuries. As the English and French struggled for power over North American territory, bounties were issued for the scalps of Native men, women, and children by both sides in the interest of annihilating Native peoples. These bounties were published as late as 1756, with people being paid for producing Native scalps as evidence of their being killed. Notably, Assassin’s Creed III will take place from 1753 to 1783, spanning thirty years of Connor’s life. While that does mean that the early parts of the game will technically occur when scalp bounties still existed, it is historically agreed upon that neither the Colonists nor the Loyalists issued scalp bounties during the American Revolution. But, since scalping is known to have even been practised in the American Civil War by Bloody Bill Anderson, it is not a valid argument to say that scalping should not appear in Assassin’s Creed III due to its time period. Because of this, Connor’s Native heritage is important when evaluating historical accuracy.

Sadly, this is also where we hit a hurtle; with sources disagreeing over whether Connor is Mohawk or Mohave is it difficult to come a conclusion. As neither Mohave nor Mohawk people had written language at the time period we’re looking at, recorded historical events are few and far between so it is very difficult to establish what tribe practised what and at what time. However, I must admit that I find the prospect of a Mohave heritage confusing considering the setting and Connor’s British father. While most of the pre-surrender history of the Mohave people has been lost, the events after their surrender in 1859 are well documented. The Mohave people submitted to the United States when threatened with extermination, ending a series of recent territorial disputes. There is no recorded history of relations between settlers and the Mohave people before this event. Connor would not only be long dead by then, but there’s no evidence of any relation between the British and Mohave. Mohawk people, on the other hand, were part of the Iroquois Confederacy which held an alliance with the British, and, though the Iroquois Confederacy was divided during the Revolution, the Mohawk were one of the four out of six tribes that sided with the English. This is why most Mohawk people now live in Eastern Canada, having fled the Sullivan Campaign enacted by George Washington in 1779 to eliminate the British-Iroquois alliance by burning Iroquois villages. And yet again, we see another motivation for writers to make Connor Mohawk, not Mohave, since the main plot of the game starts when Connor’s village is attacked by Colonists. Since it has been confirmed that George Washington will appear in the game, and it has been alluded in other games that he possesses an Apple of Eden, does it not make sense for Connor to go after him in this scenario? In lieu of this information, I am willing to conclude that Connor will most likely be half-Mohawk, not Mohave, and the historical accuracy of scalping in regards to his characters will be assessed according to this judgement.

Now that we’ve concluded that Connor’s heritage is most likely Mohawk, what does that mean? Well, the Mohawk people do have a history of scalping. Most prolifically, Mohawk people scalped an ambassador from the Pequot tribe starting the Pequot War, a four-year conflict which resulted in the annihilation of the Pequot people. In fact, what’s known of Mohawk history is full of stories of them wiping out other tribes in wars, including the Mahicans. So it’s safe to say that the Mohawks were some pretty bad-ass warriors. However, it is very difficult to find any evidence that either proves or disproves that the Mohawk people still practised scalping at the time of the Revolution. Since it’s present in their history it can not be ruled out entirely but without evidence it can’t be proven either. And I personally believe that it was this lack of evidence that resulted in Ubisoft Montreal’s decision to remove scalping from the game; without the ability that Mohawk people practised scalping during the Revolution they were walking into the political correctness whirlwind.

Let’s face it, no matter what appears in the game there is going to be somebody somewhere calling it racist against Native Americans. People are already calling it racist against the British since trailers haven’t shown Connor killing enough Colonists for their liking. The moment the American Revolution setting was announced for the game the internet was buzzing people complaining about how nationalistic the game was going to be, despite it being directed by an Australian in the Montreal studio of a French software company. And somebody out there probably thinks I’m racist for saying all this or even writing this article in the first place. It’s impossible to please everyone. But Native Americans are such an underrepresented group that Assassin’s Creed III will be closely scrutinized as an example of how Native Americans are cast in modern media. As a result, Ubisoft needs to be very careful about giving critics as little ammunition as possible and essentially be as politically correct as they can without losing credibility. We could argue for days about the accusations made against Capcom’s Resident Evil 5, however I believe that the argument “the game is racist because it’s a strong Caucasian male shooting predominantly African enemies” holds no weight since the game is set in Africa and the Caucasian male in question is a long-time character in the series (again, I’m talking about this argument specifically, not any other). It makes sense that the majini/zombies are mostly Black because it reflects the population of Africa. However, when you look at a game like Call of Juarez, where the only level in the game where you get an achievement for killing a certain number of enemies is also the only level where every single enemy is Black, critics have every reason to call foul. So when faced with a sensitive subject like scalping why take the chance? If there was concrete evidence of Mohawk people scalping felled opponents during the Revolution Ubisoft could afford to be bold and include it in the game. They would still face an outcry, but they would at least have the evidence on their side and most rational people would be okay with the feature’s inclusion. However, since we don’t have evidence either way you have to weigh the pros and cons: providing players with a unique point collection system by harvesting the scalps of your enemies V.S. public outcry of racism and negative stereotyping. To be honest, I think Ubisoft made the right call here.

Scalping is a brutal, gruesome practice and, while many kills in the Assassin’s Creed series have been gory and over-the-top, is it really necessary to take it that one step further? Players looking for gore will have Connor’s tomahawk to feed their bloodlust, along with a myriad of other weapons. Also, I never considered blood and guts to be one of the drawing points of the Assassin’s Creed series; this isn’t Condemned 2. We don’t need a feature that’s just going to gross us out for the fun of it; we have plenty of other games, movies, and YouTube videos to fill that need. And if removing it means that Ubisoft can avoid insulting some people, I’m fine with that. Native Americans have it hard enough as it is without Fox News putting a camera in their face to ask them if they feel offended by a video game, though, admittedly, that will probably happen anyways. It will just be over a lot quicker without the scalping issue egging it on.

All this to say that it seems as though Ubisoft has claimed that scalping would be historically inaccurate in order to hide a more political motivation. As there does not seem to be any evidence to prove or disprove scalping by the Mohawks during the Revolution, developers appear to be erring on the side of caution and political correctness. With the world watching, this is good move and hopefully players won’t be disappointed by what is realistically a very small loss. I have a feeling the game is still going to do very well when it hits shelves on October 30th in North American and October 31st in Europe.

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Genevieve LeBlanc
Genevieve LeBlanc 126 posts

Genevieve LeBlanc is a contributing writer for NerdReactor.com and lives in snowy Canada.