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Stop Calling People ‘Savage’

In bringing ‘savage’ into the cultural lexicon, we’ve ignored an ugly history of abuse against Indigenous peoples.

It’s early morning. As you walk around your classroom before your day starts, you overhear two boys talking about how “disgusting” they find it that women can breastfeed in public. You give them a cut-eye that you hope conveys your own disgust at their conversation. You haven’t had coffee. Nearby, Stephanie is being called either “Headphanie” or “Heifernie,” but before you have the chance to put a stop to it or debate Young M.A lyrics, you see one of your students walk in wearing an offensive t-shirt. Someone, perhaps from a classroom down the hall, uses the R-word. Somewhere, it seems in another galaxy altogether, a bottle flips.

As a teacher, I’m responsible for the creation and implementation of my classroom’s rules. What is unacceptable? What battles am I willing to fight? What will I pretend not to hear?

You’re probably not a teacher, yet this is something you do every day, perhaps not with students, but with friends, family, co-workers, and definitely with strangers on Twitter.

Of the battles I choose to fight with students, friends, and egg avatars, one is met not only with the familiar defensiveness, but with a unique confusion that borders on bemusement: the use of the word “savage.”

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In my experience, here’s how most other conversations go when calling someone out on their choice of words:

P1: “Please refrain from using that word; it’s quite offensive to a lot of people.”

P2: <expected reaction> (“true” / “fuck you” / “I didn’t mean it like that” etc.)

Here’s how calling someone out on their use of “savage” usually goes:

P1: “Please refrain from using that word; it’s quite offensive to a lot of people.”

P2: “Oh? Why?”

It’s time we answered that question.

If you’re like me, you see “savage” used pretty much every day. On Instagram. On Twitter. On TV. I hear it from my students. I took a break from writing this article to watch the newest episode of the YouTube series Hot Ones only to have the interviewer start a question with, “What was the most savage…?” If you’ve not come across it, simply do a search for “savage” on Twitter (perhaps even restrict it to results from people you follow), and you will quickly understand the word’s ubiquity.

Even reputable media outlets have taken to casually using the term, as Vox did on Facebook when discussing the GOP’s handling of health care, or Bustle did in a story about a woman who took a selfie while her sister gave birth, or Complex did when it published the story “Fifth Harmony Makes Savage Statement About Camila Cabello at 2017 VMAs.”

“Savage” is usually used to describe someone (often a person of note) who does or says something particularly cold-blooded or ruthless (good replacements for the word, by the way) and shows no remorse for their actions. The term’s been used this way for quite a while.

But more importantly, before that, it was used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to advance and normalize their erasure from this land.

Thomas Jefferson wrote about the “merciless Indian savages” and thought it the duty of the government to “pursue them to extermination.” He was the first president to propose policies of forced assimilation and forced removal, which violently displaced Indigenous peoples from their lands across America. He called the West “the crowded wilderness,” a term that suggests he acknowledged the fact that the land was settled, but not that it belonged to someone else. The language Jefferson used was important, as language tends to be, since it allowed the government to spin a narrative that would influence violent expansion westward, which continues to affect Indigenous lives to this day.

Since Jefferson’s days, “savage” has been used repeatedly as a mechanism of oppression. Several U.S. Supreme Court cases have directly or indirectly referred to Indigenous peoples as savages in order to deny them equal rights. Les Couchi, a member of the Nipissing First Nation, recently pored through the Toronto Star’s archives and noted the abundance of “language that depicted the Indigenous community as savage, unruly, drunk and lazy” that “reinforced the racist attitudes in the social system.”

'Savage' was used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to advance and normalize their erasure from this land. Click To Tweet

“Savage” also played a key role in the perpetuation of boarding schools, which were constructed to eradicate the language, customs, beliefs, and bonds of Indigenous peoples. In 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, commissioned a study of these boarding schools, arguing that:

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write … [T]he Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

The repeated use of the word “savage” in this statement — and the dehumanized way with which Macdonald refers to the children — are very much related.

Residential/boarding schools were designed and used to destroy “the structures and practices that allow [a] group to continue as a group,” which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada* defines as cultural genocide. This narrative of the “savages” — often coupled with that of the “noble savage,” which fetishized the “freedom” of Indigenous peoples while simultaneously seeking to take it away — was used as fuel for this cultural genocide. The last federally run residential school closed in 1996. The effects are ongoing.

“Savage” is a colonialist term that has, in effect, been used for centuries to cast Indigenous peoples as less than human in order to make it easier to justify abuses against them. Today, when we use the word so flippantly — often in the context of “funny” social-media memes or blithe clickbait stories — we say we either don’t know or don’t care about the word’s historic relationship with ignorance and erasure, violence and hate.

More troublingly still, this flippancy seems rooted in a long-standing ignorance about what colonialism has done to these communities. Dr. Susan D. Dion has written and spoken about teachers adopting the position of the “perfect stranger,” which allows them to essentially say they don’t know enough about Indigenous peoples to challenge dangerous narratives about them to students. In my own experience teaching, I’ve found that many teachers teach as if they don’t know a single Indigenous person, so when it comes to teaching about these communities, they’re quite comfortable adopting a “perfect stranger” position.

‘Savage’ has been used for centuries to cast Indigenous people as less than human in order to make it easier to justify abuses against them. Click To Tweet

This position is not, of course, exclusive just to teachers. Many people, in many fields, act as “perfect strangers,” preferring willful ignorance to confronting an ugly history of abuse, and the privileges we hold as treaty people living on stolen land.

Every time “savage” is used without consideration for its unique connection to the oppression of Indigenous peoples, we cling more tightly to this ignorance, looking the other way on a history we would rather not face. But for equality to be achieved, we must face it.

So the next time you hear or see someone casually use the word “savage,” take the chance to deny them the position of “perfect stranger.” Ask them to think about how “savage” has been employed to hurt Indigenous peoples for centuries. Ask them to think about the impacts of colonialist brutality.

Then ask them to simply consider using a different word instead.