I never thought I would be guest-blogging for an internet publication whose name was (once) a racial slur directed at me and my ancestors. For many years now, “the-blog-formerly-known-as-Savage-Minds,” Anthrodendum, has been engaging the public in discussions about anthropology, but until recently it has alienated the very people upon whom this field is built — due to the desire to cling to an unfortunate name.
First Encounters of the “Savage Mind”
My initial confrontation with the discomfiting title occurred mere weeks into my transition to graduate school, when I met a fellow PhD student who regularly writes for this blog. I remember my gut reaction to his suggestion that some of my thoughts about being an Indigenous woman in academia would make for insightful, provocative contributions to something called “Savage –”
I wasn’t cool enough to listen vinyl at the time, or there might have been a record scratch just then. Ouch. Did this new peer really just hurl a slur at me? I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time, or the only time, that I had experienced racism or discrimination as a Native woman in higher education, but it still stung. The term “savage” has a long, ugly, oppressive, and genocidal history in Native American and Indigenous communities.
From dictionary definitions to historical texts, to modern day slang, “savage” denotes a lack of restraint, inherent violence, primitive nature, or particular cruelty. These negative definitions are precisely why the descriptor was used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples in facilitation of a hallucinated “manifest destiny” in the first place. This “destiny” required a solution to the “Indian Problem,” which mostly meant getting us out of the way, an end goal that produced the mantra “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” (such a fun quote to learn as the only Indigenous person in your AP U.S. History class…). Because it is easier to exterminate animals than people, we were referred to as “savages,” building the perception that Indigenous people were uncivilized, wild, and cruel, and transforming our humanity into animality. There’s much less cognitive dissonance involved in committing genocide when you’ve got the refrain “savages, savages, barely even human!” musically reassuring you of your moral authority and justifying your crimes against
The Trouble with the Name
To be fair, no, my colleague had not intended to be racist, nor was that the intention of this blog when it initially donned such a moniker. As I have been repeatedly informed, the old name was drawn from European anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1962 work “La Pensée Sauvage,” translated into the English “The Savage Mind” in 1966. Understood as both wild flowers (pansies) and wild thoughts, the double-meaning was much less offensive in the original French (though I don’t doubt that some of my ancestors were derided as “sauvage” by early French fur trappers in the Pacific Northwest).
However, intention and impact do not hold equal weight when it comes to conversations about race and racism. Although Anthrodendum may not have intended to be racist when it first named itself “Savage Minds,” the impact was indeed the perpetuation of unchallenged racism. Sadly, I too often encounter anthropologists and other scholars who refuse to recognize the existence of racism and discrimination in academia. The unwillingness to even acknowledge this problem in the first place is what keeps our discipline from solving it.
What’s especially disappointing about the choice for the original name of Anthrodendum is the un-examined reason it is an engaging or interesting title. The “About” page states that “We liked the phrase ‘savage minds’ because it captured the intellectual and unruly nature of academic blogging.” While the name may have done just that, the reason that the titles of “Savages Minds” the blog and Lévi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind” are engaging is because they play off contradicting popular expectations of academia. There is an unspoken understanding between the author and the audience that “savage” is not a word usually associated with “us” (prototypical white anthropologists), and thus the observation that a normally “civilized” group of people can also be “wild” or “unruly” is clever and humorous.
Worse still is that the original title very publicly normalized and implicitly condoned the casual, uninformed (ab)use of the word “savage” by its readers. Malicious intent may be absent, but it is unarguably reckless for a blog whose purpose is to engage in public anthropology to utilize a racial slur while communicating with an audience who is very unlikely to be familiar with the source of the blog’s namesake.
Because the old name depended on stereotypical preconceptions to be clever and provocative, and because the aim of the blog is to engage the public with anthropology, “Savage Minds” did a huge amount of damage when it comes to reinforcing negative beliefs about of Indigenous peoples, regardless of the content of the blog itself. Such reinforcement adds further injury to injury. A historically marginalized group is once again oppressed and marginalized, not just by those in power, but by a discipline whose very roots are bound up in the (sometimes literal) desecrated remains of the people most exploited by its historical entitlement to the pursuit of knowledge.
For these reasons and more, the name change is a welcome, though very long overdue, step in the right direction towards addressing the problems of implicit racism and colonialism in our discipline. Indigenous scholars have enough to worry about in anthropology, and I’m happy that writing as a “savage mind” will no longer be one of them.