Book Review: Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization by Robert A. Williams

In Robert A. Williams’ new book, Savage Anxieties (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), the legal scholar traces the origins of the trope of Indigenous peoples as subhuman and savage, drawing on examples from Greek antiquity to the present and everything in between. Williams is covering broad ground here, and his analysis is cutting and relevant. Williams argues that understanding the origins of the idea of the savage and the permutations of this idea in every sector of society is necessary to decoding and resisting decisions made about Indigenous and other non-Western peoples made from this racist perspective.

I was introduced to Williams’ Like a Loaded Weapon (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) by a fellow Alaska Native in college. Like a Loaded Weapon critically analyzes the origins of the trope of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples as subhuman and savage in landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, and the ways this trope is evoked to impede tribal sovereignty. In that book, Williams shows how the ‘Marshall Trilogy’ of Supreme Court cases (Johnson v. M’Intosh, 1823, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 1831, Worcester v. Georgia, 1832) establishing the legal basis for the political relationship between sovereign American Indian tribes and the U.S. federal government are saturated with racist language and attitudes about American Indians as savage and subhuman. Because the racist language of Indian savagery is enshrined within the earliest legal precedent shaping the political relationship between tribes and the U.S., Williams argues, “a long legacy of hostile, romanticized, and incongruously imagined stereotypes of Indians as incommensurable savages continues to shape the way the justices view and understand the legal history, and therefore the legal rights, of Indian tribes.”

Savage Anxieties expands this analysis of the savage Indian trope to encompass Greek mythology, Western philosophy, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and contemporary pop culture. Williams shows how imbedded in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are representations of non-Western peoples and beings as terrifyingly alien, inherently savage and hostile, and therefore worthy of conquest and colonization. Williams goes on to illustrate how “Julius Caesar, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and the United States Supreme Court have all described non-Westernized tribal peoples according to the same basic set of cultural markers, stereotypes, and identifying categories that Homer first introduced to Western civilization nearly three thousand years ago in his mythical tale of the one-eyed Cyclops monster.” But Williams is at his best when he turns his gaze to current events, surgically uncovering the ways that a language of tribal savagery and alienness remain ubiquitous in the news media and popular culture.

“Think of all the different ways that twenty-first century politicians, military generals, and talking heads on cable news programs use a language of savagery in describing the West’s violent, dangerously opposed enemies in the “primitive” mountain ranges and “tribally controlled” territories of Afghanistan or Pakistan. People over there are stuck in the “Stone Age”; they are possessed of a “medieval” mentality.”     Telling the story of the emergence of this trope is important because the popular stereotype about Indigenous peoples as savage and subhuman continues to shape our reality.”

Savage Anxieties is a useful tool that Indigenous peoples and allies can use to recognize and work to dismantle stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as inherently savage and backward when they surface, as well as the political purposes these stereotypes and assumptions have served. More often than not, these stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous peoples as inherently savage and inferior are disguised by “good intentions.” We can use the book and its coherent narrative about how Western society continues to frame Indigenous peoples as savage, for example, to better understand and resist the racist attitudes, stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous peoples as inherenlty savage and incapable that are motivating education policies that seek to mold Inuit high school students into miners rather than college students; or the racist language of savagery used recently by the American Freedom Defense Initiative in their recent, hateful subway ad that seeks to drum up support for Israel by calling Arabs savages and Israelis and the West “civilized.”

The marathon work of deconstructing the political, legal and social realities for Indigenous peoples that are informed by racist language, stereotypes and assumptions about indigenous peoples as savage and backward begins with changing the colonizing language that is its offspring. In a beautifully written op-ed for Indian Country Today, legal scholar Steven Newcombe describes this work eloquently: “We take a significant step toward decolonizing our minds when we awaken to the nature of language, and the fact that a shift in language creates a shift in reality. For example, a shift from the terminology of “tribes” to the terminology of “nations” results in a shift from the reality of tribes to the reality of nations. We need to be able to engage in mental decolonization, but we first of all need the desire to decolonize ourselves, and the discipline to do so.”

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