Awesome people in history: Frank Hamilton Cushing

Today, I’m introducing a new category for my blog: “Awesome People in History.” I am a huge fan of history, and sometimes I hear stories that are just so awesome I have to share them. These stories may be things I’ve read online, seen on History Channel, learned about in one of my classes (like today’s person), or read in a book. I’m not claiming to be the most historically accurate person in the world, though I will try to show my sources whenever possible. The point is entertainment, so just read and enjoy!

Today’s Awesome Person in History is a man named Frank Hamilton Cushing, who lived from 1857 to 1900. I learned about him in my Native American studies class. He worked for the Smithsonian Institution as an anthropologist, back when that was a brand-new field of study. In 1879, he was assigned to study the Zuñi Indians of New Mexico.

Frank Hamilton Cushing

The Zuñi were naturally suspicious of the white guy working for the government who was escorted by soldiers. That kind of thing hadn’t worked out so well for Indians in the past. They were openly hostile to Cushing, and told him to leave. Cushing, knowing he wasn’t liked, decided to earn the Zuñi’s trust by moving in with one of them. You know, because we all totally let people we don’t trust crash in our cribs.

While living with the Zuñi, he sketched out their ceremonies and daily lives, sending reports back to Washington, D.C. The Zuñi didn’t like this guy prying into their lives and telling other white people about everything they did. At one point, they decided to confront him. Violently. Now, at that point, most people would have run. But Cushing just pulled out his knife and said some 19th-century equivalent of “bring it”. And you know what? That earned him respect. The townsfolk started to be more welcoming and accepting of this guy.

By 1881, the Zuñi trusted him so much that they offered to let him in to their elite “Priesthood of the Bow.” In order to get in, you had to prove your loyalty by bringing three scalps to the initiation ceremony. Now, we know that Cushing had his dad send him two preserved scalps via the mail from his medical collection. But that left Cushing one short. The third scalp he presented was, according to eyewitnesses, quite fresh, and probably came from an Apache’s head. Now, there has never been any agreement as to how Cushing came by this scalp. So we can’t be sure where this third scalp came from, and it would be inappropriate for me to make any kind of assertion on this matter.

(Cushing straight-up murdered an Apache)

Cushing spent a total of four and a half years among the Zuñi, but in 1884 he was recalled to Washington for participating in a battle between the Zuñi and Navajo. Yes, you read that right. By the time he returned, he had laid the foundations for modern anthropological field work and also became a major advocate for Native American rights. So, he wasn’t just awesome, he was influential.

You can read more about his life here. That page is also the source of the image.