Newcomb: On ‘savages’


On Oct. 23, 2008, Dick Pound, a high profile Canadian Olympic official, was giving an interview to a French-language newspaper. In addressing whether China should have been awarded the Olympics given its human rights record, Pound said, in French, that Canada was a “land of savages” 400 years ago. He later apologized and said it was not his intention to cause “harm” to First Nations people.

Let’s see, four centuries ago would take us back to 1608, one year after the British colonizers founded Jamestown in May 1607. That colony was founded on the basis of the First Virginia Charter of April 10, 1606, a British royal document that authorized the establishment of a colony in the part “of America commonly called Virginia, and other parts and territories in America either appertaining to us or which are not now actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.”

Part of the stated rationale for the Virginia grant was to propagate the “Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God” and to “in time bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to humane civility and to a settled and quiet government.” Thus, the concept savages has a religious dimension related to “infidels” and “heathens,” or, specifically, those nations and peoples that were not Christian.

The term savage (“salvage” or “wild”) has been used as a slur for a very long time indeed. In his book “The Invasion of America” (1975), Francis Jennings pointed out that in 1395, “Richard II of England excoriated the ‘wild’ Irish who maintained independence of his rule.” King Richard and his officials in Ireland “used the term repeatedly and hanged those Irishmen when they caught them,” despite the Irish being Christian.

According to this view, “savages” are forest dwellers whose values and way of life are a result of their interaction with the forest.

Jennings noted that the term “wild Irish” is really a translation from the Norman-French used by the conquest aristocracy. The words actually written by Richard were ‘irrois savages, nos enemies” – literally ‘savage Irish, our enemies’” The difference between “savage” and “civilized” was political.

“What made Irishmen [supposedly] morally inferior to Englishmen, and thus imposed a duty on England’s kings to conquer the ‘other island’ [Ireland],” says Jennings, “was the government of most of Ireland by independent tribes and clans instead of subject vassal lords.” Indeed, “the Norman-French kings of England set themselves up as carriers of civilization to a savage people.”

From the viewpoint of those who desired to subject the Irish to their rule, the “wild savages” had committed the “crime” of remaining free. The “lords” believed themselves destined to subjugate others. Thus, they considered it morally wrong for free peoples, such as the Irish, to stay free of imposed lordship and foreign rule.

The “civilized-uncivilized distinction,” said Jennings, “is a moral sanction” and is not based on “any given combination of social traits susceptible to objective definition.” The supposed distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized,” along with the epithet “savages,” is, said Jennings, “a weapon of attack rather then a standard of measurement.”

The term “savage” (“salvage” or “wild”) has been used as a slur for a very long time indeed.

The term “savage,” or the French sauvage, is derived from the Latin root silva, “woods,” and “sylvan” is a term used to portray “woodland serenity and beauty.” The word “savage” connotes “woodland people,” or simply “a people who dwell in the forest.” According to this view, “savages” are forest dwellers whose values and way of life are a result of their interaction with the forest. Traditionally, such a way of life is predicated on a daily appreciation and thanks for all the elements and forms of life: water, land, air, sunlight and so forth.

The great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who, during the War of 1812, saved Canada from the United States, celebrated forest values whenever he addressed Native audiences: “You are the rightful owners of this beautiful land,” he would tell them. “The Great Spirit placed you here and gave it to you and your children to defend.” Tecumseh was dedicated to a free and independent forest way of life, with the deer and the buffalo, the woodland birds with their sweet songs, the wild flowers, the rivers and streams.

Tecumseh condemned the colonizers who falsely called themselves “civilizers” or “settlers” whom, he said to his Indian audiences, “are determined to destroy you and your children and to occupy this goodly land themselves.” He decried the process of colonization that “will destroy these forests, whose branches wave in the winds above the graves of your fathers [and mothers], chanting their praises. “If you doubt it,” said Tecumseh, “come, go with me eastward or southward a few days’ journey along your ancient trails, and I will show you a land you once occupied made desolate.”

If anyone were to take him up on his offer, said Tecumseh, he would show them where “the forests of untold years [old growth forests] have been hewn down and cast into the fire!” The forest dwelling nations worked hard to preserve and defend the lands that made their free and independent way of life viable.

Behind Mr. Pound’s statement that our Native ancestors were “savages” is the fact that our ancestors existed free and independent for thousands of years. They possessed the knowledge and wisdom necessary to live comfortably on this Turtle Island. Our ancestors evolved ecologically sensible and sustainable lifestyles, philosophies and paradigms that are very much needed by the world at this time of ecological crisis, a crisis brought on by the destructive legacy of colonizing peoples who have thoughtlessly poisoned and degraded so much of the planet on the basis of their false claim to a superior Christian European “civilization.”

Steven Newcomb is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008, Fulcrum).