Savage Faces, Human Places

I’ve been thinking about the word “savage” for about a month now. What does it mean? Who uses it? What purpose does it serve in society? At this point, I think I’m about ready to move on.

I may break up this piece later and turn it into more of a series … for now, here’s where I’ve landed:

According to the Wiktionary entry, the word originated in the “Latin silvaticus (‘wild’; literally, ‘of the woods’)” then moved through late Latin and French to English and eventually became the word “savage” as we know it today. The first thing I notice is that the word has always had an implicit vantage built into it. This unspoken perspective is the place from which savagery was determined. “Of the woods” can be read as “not from the city” or at the very least, “not of us.”

My first question quickly emerged, “From where is this word spoken?”

A few weeks ago, my Richmond Perspectives class discussed the relationship between the Native American Chief Powhatan and the English settler/invader John Smith. One of my handouts that week included the following insight on an entry in John Smith’s journal:

“‘Powhatan carried himself so proudly, yet discretely, in his savage manner, as made us all admire his natural gifts,’ Smith wrote, ‘considering his education.’ Majestic, mighty, and prideful Powhatan may well have been, but, in Smith’s eyes, he was still, and ever would be, a savage” (The River Where America Began, 77). 
 

This quote moved me to wonder about Smith and the British perspective at the time. Was there something particularly savage about Powhatan or had Smith simply decided that every person he encountered would be savage? Clearly, thousands of Native Americans believed Powhatan to be an effective leader, but Smith couldn’t see past his seventeenth-century English perspective of the “New World.” From this vantage, the entire territory, Powhatan’s chiefdom and beyond, was “savage” before it was even encountered.

There was something within John Smith’s mind that prevented him from developing an appreciation for the powerful leader with which he dealt. I’ve landed on three posible explanations for this: 1. Smith came here believing that every inhabitant was inferior, 2. Smith was legitimately shocked by Powhatan’s physical appearance or behavior and lastly, 3. Smith was afraid of Powhatan and used words such as “savage” to demean him and minimize his power.

When I read this quote with my students, I asked them what thought in particular about the word savage. I was actually surprised to hear that they use the world all the time. To them, “savage” is a joke to make fun of friends when they’re not acting proper or just to make fun of someone in general. One mentioned that the projects in Richmond are savage. Another joked that it’s savage when you pick up food off the ground and eat it. I think this conversation actually filled the rest of class and I left that day with a lot to think about.

My history class had just launched itself into the twenty-first century.

When I first started writing this post, I realized the topic was making connections to all sorts of other ideas and semi-related thoughts. This post is the first paragraph of that original piece and I’ll publish the rest in segments. I’m also starting a new page titled, “Power,” where I’ll store these and others because I think perspective and “savagery” are linked to how we position ourselves in relation to each other … identity is a powerful thing.

This post is this first of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

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2 responses to “Savage Faces, Human Places

  1. interesting thoughts!

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