Popular culture allows racial slurs in the 21st century. Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word Savage with four definitions; two of which are: “Not domesticated or under human control” and, “lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings.” Growing up as a Native American from the Dine’ (Navajo) tribe, I was taught that the word Savage is a discriminatory word against my Native people. The word to me meant, “untamed animals.” I have never heard any TV actor, politician, or singer use that word until 2015. The only time I have heard the word, was in the animated Disney movie Pocahontas, as a prejudiced insult toward Pocahontas and her Powhatan people. Today I see the word on t-shirts, song titles, in every day slang, artist names, and more. Artists like 21 Savage, Beyonce, Meghan Thee Stallion, Bahari, and many more artists have used Savage in their song titles or as their artist name. Society has accepted bigotry as a causal “new” hip word to define Savage as a fearless wild animal staking their stance on being a bad bitch. When I search "savage responses" on YouTube, the site's algorithm generates "Most Savage Interview COMEBACKS!!" The list continues for other Savage moments in popular culture.
Words matter and cultural stigmas for the past 500 years for Native Americans still affect us today. United States’ historical documents like the Declaration of Independence negatively deploy the word Savage, and it was used across actions like the Indian Removal Acts, and abusive institutions like Indian Boarding Schools. There is a deep history of the word used to dehumanize and categorize Native Americans going back centuries. Many in Generation Z and Millennials have demonstrated that they are not aware of this history. The definition of Savage needs to return to its origin as a racial slur and no longer used as a cool pun or slang word.
Before I proceed further, it is important to understand the documents, speeches, and actions taken by former colonists, presidents, and military officials on the usage of the word Savage and steps to deprave the Indigenous people of America. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published. Its purpose was to declare America's independence from King George III of England. Not only did former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison draft the document but colonists like Benjamin Franklin, Robert R, Livingston, and Roger Sherman contributed to the declaration as well. The men felt justified to write, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” (The declaration of Independence). The derogatory term for Native Americans is to paint them as untamed animals who destroy everything innocent and pure. Yet, the indigenous people had their land stolen and killed by infectious diseases by the colonists. The rhetoric used by the former presidents, lawyers, and inventors established more bias toward the American Indians. The titles these “prodigious” men held used their ethos to direct their people’s ideology that the Savages threaten their wellbeing and way of life. Also, paving the path for more prejudice, threats, and violence in the future. Former president Andrew Jackson helped remove over 50,000 tribal members off their own land.
The leader of our country in 1829 lacked restraint and contrition. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in May 1830. The action was to remove Native Americans from their tribal lands. By 1838, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw indigenous people were removed and walked over 2,000 miles to reservations in Oklahoma from Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. During the journey mothers, children, and men died of starvation and diseases. The journey was called the Trail of Tears. Jackson sent a message to Congress in December 1830, six months after he signed the act, to reiterate and rationalize his mission for the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral home. “It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters,” he said, and then asked, “And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?” (Indian Removal Act). The document contains eight other references to Savage. Andrew Jackson pushes the bias further and is unaware of the example he is leading for the country.
Captain Richard Henry Pratt was a military officer and served during the Indian wars. He founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879 and was the superintendent. Captain Pratt’s mission for the institution was to assimilate the native children into Anglo culture. In his 1892 speech at the National Conference in Colorado, he famously remarked that his goal was to “Kill the Indian in him, and Save the Man." In the speech, which was also reproduced in his book, The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites, he also said, “The Indians under our care remained savage, because they were forced back upon themselves and away from association with English-speaking and civilized people, and because of our savage example and treatment of them” (The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites). Pratt explicitly speaks of the American Indians as an uncivilized people. The children were forced to assimilate into European-Anglo culture by learning English, a new religion, and obliterate their language and culture. The school was open for thirty years; from 1879 to 1918, 168 students died from pneumonia, the flu, and tuberculosis. The term Savage cannot be separated from its history, racisim, dehumanization, and humiliation. Yet it is still used today.
Generation Z and Millennials popularized Savage to be a wild animal when attacked. A song called Savage by Meghan Thee Stallion featuring Beyonce singing, ”I’m a savage (yeah). Classy, bougie, ratchet (yeah). Sassy, moody, nasty (hey, hey, yeah)”. On social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth, individuals use Savage as a cool slang word for being quick or fierce when stating an opinion or replying with a quick jab. The word is an everyday pun, where "As Fuck" (AF) is also used at the end of the word. The word is also the name for a lingerie line, Savage X Fenty by the pop artist Rihanna created in 2018. While the word is often used in a complementary and ironic way, to describe an act without even referencing Native Americans it still draws on a history of harm that continues today. Stating someone is acting Savage is someone displaying exactly what the word means, an uncivilized animal who is poked or disturbed, will rage on and destroy you with their fist or words. For young adults or society to justify every insult or compliment accompanying the word is more hurtful and prejudiced. When I hear or see the word, all I think about is the unjust murder and the humiliating word labeling my ancestors as destructive, uncivilized, merciless Indian savages.
Since I was a child, whenever someone asked what my heritage or race was--I would get a surprised reaction when I said I was Native American. “Oh…. I didn’t know there were any Natives left?” Not only is my people’s presence unknown, but I’m also reminded every day of the horrifying word of Savage rolling off people’s tongues or splashed across the screen in front of me. The written words by our respected leaders, inventors, military officers, and musical artists have proven their ignorant, prejudice, and presumptuous rhetoric on against Native Americans. The genocide of the Indigenous people of the United States is a big red stain that cannot be erased or forgotten. This genocide continued through the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by former president Jackson and by Captain Pratt for opening the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879. In the 21st century, the legacy of genocide against Native Americans is still with us. Continuing to use the word Savage, and forgetting the last 4 centuries that characterized the brutal and harsh treatments of 574 Native American nations is a reminder of how far we have to go. Continuing to use the word cuts deep and recants the bloody history and reminds me everyday that in the eyes of so many, my people are still Savages.
Definition of SAVAGE. Meriam-Webster Dictionary
Indian Removal Act: Primary Documents in American History (Virtual Programs & Services,
Library of Congress).
Milestones: 1830-1860-Office of the Historian.
President Jackson's Message to Congress "On Indian Removal", December 6, 1830; Records of
the United States Senate, 1789‐1990; Record Group 46; Records of the United States Senate,
1789‐1990; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA]
Pratt, H. Richard. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites’.” National Conference
of Charities and Correction, 23-29 June 1892. Boston: press of Geo. H. Ellis.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars
(Teaching with Historic Places) (U.S. National Park Service).
Stallion, Thee Meghan and Knowles-Carter, Beyonce. “Savage”, Suga, 300 Entertainment,
“Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830”. Office of the Historian.
Veronica Yellowhair lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two German Shepard dogs. She is Native American from the Dine’(Navajo) nation and a sophomore at Boise State University. Veronica enjoys dancing women’s fancy shawl, writing, reading, and learning about her Dine’language and culture from her mother.