“That’s so savage,” my cousin had said to me when we’d been visiting our family this past weekend. I hadn’t heard the phrase in a while, but I’d decided that I was going to start using it ironically again, so for the rest of the trip, I called everything that I was impressed with “savage”.
My brother lights an illegal firework that makes a loud bang and some cool colors? Savage. My mom takes a pull of vodka for five seconds longer than my cousin? Also savage. My grandmother says a sassy and witty insult that stuns my brother? Totally savage. I turn to my cousin and loudly state, “Grandma is savage.”
She lightly gasps, so my cousins and I both freeze. After a moment of silence, she aggressively replies, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about, but I don’t want any part of it! You guys keep it to yourself!” and with that she storms out of the room, leaving the two of us stunned.
We were unsure of what had set her off. That is until my cousin reminds me that we are of Native American descent, and that long ago, our ancestors were considered savage by European settlers who came to the United States. Thus, the stereotype that my grandmother’s people are savages has also survived.
According to this web page, “when the early colonists needed” the help of Native Americans “to stay alive or help fight a war, the Indians were thought of as brave and noble savages, [but] when the Indians got in the way and threatened the White Man's plans, they became animalistic and bloodthirsty savages.”
When this happened, the colonists began to try and “tame” America’s indigenous people. In trying to do this, they practiced horrific procedures to assimilate them into society. Besides cutting their hair, forcing them to go to school, and moving them into tiny reservations, the Europeans also made them dependent “upon the modern tools brought by the Europeans,” so that they couldn’t return to their own authentic culture.
They even massacred some tribal members because they considered the Natives obstacles to the Manifest Destiny agenda of expanding European presence in America.
All of these events transpired because the immigrants perceived the Native Americans as barbaric savages. That word, savage, has more historical context than we could ever imagine. I’m not suggesting that we eradicate it from our vocabulary, but I am saying that if anybody does still use that word, we should be cautious who we use it around because it might evoke a deep history that is sensitive to some.
I’ve since apologized to my grandmother and have made a self-declaration that I would quit using the word. If it ever happens to slip out again, I am going to make damn sure that it’s not around my beautiful grandmother.