I’ve historically been pretty casually aloof about the word “savage” – it’s wormed it’s way into every day slang to mean something cold and harsh and ruthless. It’s a one-word intro to a video on Twitter. I’ve even offered the opinion that it’s not a big deal but I’ve come to a different conclusion. Why? Let me explain.
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his 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.”
This is a justification given by our first Prime Minister to explain why residential schools were necessary.
Hi. My name is Alison Tedford and by 1883 standards, that word would apply to me. I’m an Indigenous woman. I have a beautiful 11 year old boy who would have been taken from me 6-7 years ago in another time, in another place. You’ve seen his photos. You’ve watched him grow up on this blog. My. Baby. He would have been told I was nothing. Because in that time I would have been considered a savage.
I know, I know, 1883 was a long time ago. But let’s try 1996. That’s when the last residential school closed. I was in grade 8, jealous of a girl in my class who had jelly shoes. I had just received my first palette of makeup and was old enough to take the city bus alone. I’ve worked with survivors, I’m a descendent of survivors, but I don’t speak for them. But I remember the words that described what they went through and it makes me uncomfortable to use that language so casually when I know the history of it, that it was used to oppress, assimilate and disparage.
It was colonialist language used to degrade and demean a rich culture that people who wanted land and resources did not understand. I’m proud of my culture and object to its characterization of being primitive just because it’s inconsistent with what white people who brought smallpox found to be familiar. Because let’s be real, being colonized wasn’t fun and games and when we use a racial slur ironically we really do need to acknowledge the truth of things.
We’ve agreed on the “r” word, and the “n” word, but can we agree that using a word that was employed to force children into a situation where they were physically and sexually abused, died, were forced to bury each other, were subject to experiments, starvation, alienated from language and culture, indoctrinated against their families and their teachings probably doesn’t have a place in polite society? What place does it have in a time of reconciliation?
The Establishment wrote a really comprehensive history of the word which you can explore here. This is just the opinion of a woman who would have been once considered as a savage and still has to listen to racist BS because people see my pale skin and think I’m not part of the people they “other” in my presence, laughing, taunting, saying disgusting things.
You can say they are just words, but it’s a word used to justify harm, to dehumanize, to advocate for cultural genocide. Words are like anything else – if you don’t know where it comes from, be careful of putting it in your mouth. So can we not? Please? Thanks.