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A Valentine’s Day History: From Beheading to Native Cupids and Roses

Valentine’s Day is now celebrated around the world even in Indian country, though it began with early Roman saints, priests and martyrs. The holiday has moved through the centuries like a rolling stone picking up Native stereotypes, history and pow wows along the way.

Before colonization and Christianity spread throughout Europe, pagans and Indigenous Peoples made up much of the western world, with February 14 noted as a date of fertility celebrations for many. Long appreciated as a day of love, notes it as the day birds began to search for their mate, sparking a similar response in humans.

Coincidently, the Mojave tribe in California will be celebrating February 14 with a day of traditional bird dancing and bird song. Debby Bricker, accounting manager for the Mojave, said, “This is not related to Valentine’s Day. We usually try to schedule our Avi Kwa Ame Pow Wow on President’s Day weekend so everyone has an extra day, and it just happened to land on Valentine’s Day this year. It’s our 20th anniversary pow wow, so it will be a little special, and there may be some Valentine’s songs or dance, but none are scheduled.”

February 14 was also the date of the very early Roman festival Lupercalia, where goats and puppies were sacrificed in purification and fertility ceremonies. According to a National Public Radio article, women were whipped with the bloody stripped skin of goats, which they lined up for, hoping to increase their own fertility.

There were as many as three other Saint Valentine’s, but the most recognized St. Valentine sacrificed his life around the year 270 A.D. to perform marriages for young lovers. Saint Valentine was sentenced to death when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage, believing single men made better warriors.

Valentine was imprisoned and while there he fell in love with a young girl who visited him. Before he was beheaded for his crime, he sent her a note from prison signed “From your Valentine.” His signature line has lived on for centuries.

Wikimedia Commons

This painting from the 1500s by Jacopo Bassano Jacopo da Ponte) shows Saint Valentine baptizing St. Lucilla.

For Hawaiian Natives, February 14 is notable for the killing of Captain Cook. In 1768, Cook was headed for Tahiti on an expedition to track the planet Venus, named for the goddess of love.

After years of travel, Cook and his crewman returned to the shores of Hawaii during a sacred fertility ceremony. Being the first Europeans King Kalaniopuu had seen, Cook and his men were thought to be gods. Cook took advantage of their belief, taking liberties with the women and exploiting the hospitality of the people. However, when one of Cook’s men died, the king recognized the sailors were mere mortals and the tables turned.

Cook and his men attempted a getaway, but a fierce Hawaiian storm refused to let them go, and forced them back to shore. There they were greeted by rocks hurled by the Natives. The crewmen stole a small boat and headed back out to sea, firing on the Hawaiians, and killing a chief. The Hawaiians retaliated, killing Cook and others on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1779.

RELATED: Native History: Cook Explores Hawaiian Islands, Brings TB

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So where did the baby and the bow and arrow come from? Cupid was a Roman god, who was so handsome that men and women alike fell for him. He mistakenly struck a mortal woman with his arrow of love, and because he was a god, she was never able to look upon him. Over the years, Cupid evolved from a handsome god to a chubby, naked baby with a tiny bow and arrow.

Exploitation has always been the name of the colonizer’s game, it wasn’t long before the baby with the bow and arrow became a cute, chubby Native child similarly armed. Greeting cards made a splash in the early 1900s, and many can be found with images of Native Cupids with stereotypical sayings.

Wikimedia Commons

This painting from the 1500s by Jacopo Bassano Jacopo da Ponte) shows Saint Valentine baptizing St. Lucilla.

RELATED: 10 Native-Themed Valentine’s Day Gifts to Avoid

One of the most famous and disturbing events to occur on Valentine’s Day happened in 1929. In Chicago, the Saint Valentines Day Massacre left seven of George “Bugs” Moran's mobsters gunned down in cold blood by two men dressed as policemen. Rival mob boss Al Capone was never proven to be behind the slayings, but Moran’s career was over, leaving Capone the master of Chicago’s organized crime.

Thankfully, the story of Valentine’s Day has since become a holiday all about love. The only riots on Valentine’s Day today are the runs on florists and candy stores.

At Bow-K’s Florist and Bakery in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Pam Trujillo has been working long hours since last weekend, preparing for the lines that will start when she opens her doors at 7 a.m. And she won’t close until her inventory is gone. This is Trujillo’s fourth year and she has come to know what to expect.


Pam Trujillo, Lakota, owner of Bow-K’s Florist and Bakery, is ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers, popcorn balls, candy and stuffed animals.

“We have extra help coming in on Valentine’s Day, and we have help with deliveries. In the past we have had singing telegrams in a cupcake costume,” but this year, Trujillo has geared up with flowers, candy, and stuffed animals. “I have roses and mixed flowers, and we do heart cookies with writing like the little candies, that say, ‘Be Mine.’”

Trujillo said that most of her customers are men and the favorite gift of the ladies is almost always roses. “Everyone likes roses, don’t you?” she asked.