Bidding “bon voyage” to la pensée sauvage: Why the “Savage Minds” name change couldn’t come soon enough

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 humanity animality.

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.

Thanks, Google! As you can see, it took about 0.75 seconds to uncover that “Savage” might not be the best name for a blog in a discipline built on studying “people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.”

 

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.

Savannah Martin

Savannah Martin is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and a PhD student in biological anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on health disparities in Native American communities and the relationship between chronic diseases and psychosocial stress linked to race, culture, and identity. She is the founder of the Anthropology Students of Color Coalition (ASCC).

12 thoughts on “Bidding “bon voyage” to la pensée sauvage: Why the “Savage Minds” name change couldn’t come soon enough

  1. I totally agree! Many times I have read something on this blog that I wanted to share with others, but refrained from doing so because I thought they might find the name of the blog offensive.

  2. I’d like to propose a nuanced and cautionary take on the matter. There is no question that the term ‘savage’ carries a history of eurocentric oppression, from blatantly racist claims of ‘inferior’ savagery to condescending fantasies of ‘noble savagery’. But also note that in the sometimes colonial, sometimes naive, but often paradigm-shifting western anthropological tradition that goes back at least to Montaigne, a recurring point has been that the real ‘savagery’ in terms of sheer scale of cruelty and destruction has been, and still remains the western colonial tradition that invented the term. That ‘good’ anthropological tradition has also offered important scientific and ethical corrections to the eurocentric discourse that elevates one kind of humanity over others. When the value system of a dominant culture is reified at the levels of everyday practices, assumption, and emotions, the domination can be described as total. 20th century anthropologists (certainly not all of whom were agents of colonialism) have also accomplished great feats in questioning, challenging and reclaiming forms of dominant discourse. From an anti-colonial perspective, the label ‘savage’ can also denote levels of complexity, criticality, and subversion on all levels (from epistemological and social to political and moral) that are *not afforded in the stupidity of ultra-modern colonial regimes. Here is where the politics and poetics of experiential authority lead us in murky waters. As a white male anthropologist who is not particularly fond of many things Modern, I imagine that, were I socially constituted differently, I would be proud to claim the term Savage as my own. When non-white anthropologists and others tell me they are offended by the term, I agree that I have to listen and reconsider my position. I do feel a little saddened that we can’t seem to be able to reclaim and reinvent colonially-constituted meaning.
    Reclaiming stupid colonial terms to celebrate complexity, poetics, and unruliness [as per the terms of colonial ontology – not “unruliness” per se] were at the core of the “cannibalist” early post-colonial philosophies of Brazil. http://www.corner-college.com/udb/cproK3mKYQAndrade_Cannibalistic_Manifesto.pdf
    Levi-Straus had something similar in mind when writing La pensée sauvage. My fear, to conclude, is that in assuming and accepting that a term is in-and-of-itself offensive, we keep reifying the narrow axiological premises of the very discursive regimes that we are allegedly critiquing in the first place.

    Sincerely,

    Samuel Veissiere, McGill University.

  3. Despite the impassioned rejection of the term “savage” by Savannah Martin and other SMers, it may be premature to celebrate the name change to “Anthrodendum.” After all, the root of that peculiar neologism is “anthro-”, from “anthropos.” In both ancient Greek and the New Testament, the term denotes an individual male or the generic “Man” as a species. Shouldn’t we be concerned that “anthropology as the study of Man” contains a gender bias that subverts our effort to eradicate language rooted in our colonialist heritage?
    Note that this rot infects the core of the field and its most important publications. “American Anthropologist” must be renamed and rebranded if it is to represent the views of an enlightened membership. Even more egregious is the doubly offensive “Current Anthropology: A World Journal of the Sciences of Man” (actually triply offensive; note the authoritarian presumption that the discipline is a “science). In 1995 our colleagues across the sea realized the ideological damage their journal, “Man,” inflicted on an awakened social consciousness and renamed it the “Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute” (of course, “royal” is more than a little suspect). Regrettably, those reprobates in France who insinuated the demeaning term, “savage,” into our discussions have staunchly refused to give up their premier journal, “L’homme.” The Gallic audacity of it. Once begun, our purging of professional terms goes deeper, much deeper. It is mistaken to hope that rescue will be found in claiming for ourselves an abstract subject, “humanity.” A shallow pretense, for at its heart is huMANity. Even were to insist that our use of “humanity” is perfectly inclusive, we ignore how parochial and prejudiced, ethnocentric in fact, that term is. Are we to arrogate to ourselves an identity that ignores and tramples the doubtlessly distinctive consciousness of our Homo cousins, including Neandertals and Hobbit people? Why should we be allowed to presume that those vanished species conformed to a pattern we, imperialists to a fault, insist on calling “human evolution”? Does our survival as a species confer that privilege on us? I think not.

  4. Sir, I appreciate your abundantly detailed response. Unfortunately, I cannot see the parallel you are attempting to draw here, as I am unaware of any group whose attempted genocide was predicated upon dehuMANization through propaganda regarding their status as “anthros.” I am disappointed, however, at your implied comparison between Indigenous peoples (who are still alive today, and are sometimes even your academic colleagues) and extinct Homo ancestors and creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien’s wonderfully creative world. I assure you, Indigenous people do not live in the past or in fairytale books, and the pain caused us by the unfortunate use of a racial slur is as real as we are. In contrast, I’m sure that none of our extinct Neandertal cousins or any fictional hole-dwelling adventurers resent our studies in huMANthropology. 🙂 I promise, beginning to respect scholars of color will not lead to the downfall of our discipline, no matter how catastrophic such unprecedented equity may seem to some.

  5. Apparently I did not make myself clear. My argument is simply that abandoning the (ironic) use of “savage” in favor of an anthro- /anthropos name does nothing to scrub away the negative connotations of “savage” because both usages are fraught with bad associations. To declare ourselves students of “Anthropos” is to ignore the inherently sexist and racist meanings of that word. Also, in terms of genocidal behavior we anthropoids have been depressingly consistent, whether our victims have been the indigenous peoples of the Americas or the Pacific islands. Further back in time that list includes the indigenous people of Western Europe (Neandertals) and the Indonesian island of Flores, home of Homo floresiensis (“Flores Man”) nicknamed “hobbit people” because of their small stature. By the way, I’d assumed my reference here would have been clear to anthropologists, guess I was wrong.
    The one important point I’ve tried to make here is that exorcising words from our discourse is a dangerous course of action for a community whose members are or should be committed to understanding how society-culture is put together. Language is thought, and policing language is policing thought. Does a particular word offend one’s sensibilities? Well, then arrange (through government decree or an influential website) to have it replaced with a more agreeable term. In short, turn the matter over to the Rewrite Department in the Ministry of Truth (I trust this allusion, unlike that to the hobbits, will be understood). If we have not quite reached that state of institutional effectiveness, then we are left with some disturbing questions. Who will decide which words are appropriate and which inappropriate? Are there authorities here to whom we must defer? Will we be given a list of those authorities, so we will know right off whose opinions to accept and whose to reject? The field of anthropology, whose adherents have blazed so many new paths in social thought, should not be shackled in this way.

  6. You have certainly made yourself clear; the issue is that your argument is flawed. The “(ironic)” use of the word is itself a problem, which I explained in my original blog post, if you care to read it again, free from your own prejudices against the name change. Secondly, I did not argue that changing the name “scrub[s] away” any of the negative DEnotations of the word “savage;” indeed these negative denotations remain, which is why the word, historically and presently used as a racial slur, is not appropriate for the title of a public anthropology website (also in my original post, see above). The “whataboutism” you employ regarding the root “anthro/pos” is irrelevant to the current topic, which I’ll remind you is “why ‘savage’ is not appropriate,” not “what strawman argument can we build against any other name proposed?”
    Regarding your assertions about Neandertals: Homo neanderthalensis was NOT subject to pre-meditated, purposeful genocide at the hands of Homo sapiens; this point does not support your argument but instead highlights your ignorance regarding Neandertal extinction. Even if purposeful attempts at Neandertal genocide were somehow the case, Neandertals no longer exist, as Indigenous peoples do, and Neandertals aren’t anthropologists who have to deal with the implicit and explicit racism of their Homo sapiens colleagues (as I clearly must as a living Indigenous anthropologist interacting with commenters on this blog post). As far as your references to Homo floresiensis, the common reference is “the Hobbit,” not “Hobbit people.” Generally, biological anthropologists refer to the first discovered specimen in singular, not as some sort of group. Your condescension here is unnecessary and unfitting of a professional.
    Let me make myself clear: I have never argued for the “exorcism” of this word from our vocabulary; “savage” can continue to exist and we can continue to discuss it, but we should not name things after a racial slur. I merely advocate for concerted efforts to make anthropology a more inclusive discipline, and that starts with respect for Indigenous anthropologists and anthropologists of color. Indeed, a particular word has offended not one, but many scholars’ sensibilities, and we have done exactly as you advise: we arranged through the influential website Anthrodendum to exert its wide influence in setting up proper expectations regarding the respect of ALL academics, including those who have been denigrated as “savage” and prefer not to be assaulted by the word yet again during intellectual exchanges.
    The field of anthropology and its compassionate, conscientious, and culturally inclusive anthropologists will decide when racial slurs are inappropriate and negatively impact the diversity of thought and progress in our discipline, and we have done just that. “Savage Minds” is gone and Anthrodendum is here to stay, thanks to the progressive efforts of the leadership of this blog. I’m happy to participate in this small but important step, and to have my humanity respected by at least some of my academic colleagues.

  7. Having myself experienced the firm-hand-on-the-tiller policy of SM’s “moderation” policy, I was surprised to find Savannah Martin’s post laced with invective directed against my person:
    “your own prejudices”
    “the ‘whataboutism’ you employ” [a reference to an old Soviet propaganda technique]
    my “strawman argument”
    “your ignorance”
    “your condescension”
    And lastly, the cruelest cut of all,
    “I’m happy to . . . have my humanity respected by at least some [italicized for emphasis] of my academic colleagues.”
    I take this last remark as a scarcely veiled accusation of racism on my part: that I, unlike others, do not respect an individual’s humanity.
    Is this the sort of dialogue SM’s editors seek to promote in casting out the now-offensive term, “savage”?
    Rather than add to the polemic, I think it’s important to conduct ourselves as anthropologists, to wit, directly engaging the question of whether “savage” as used in “Savage Minds” is, as Martin and others claim “presently a racial slur.” The emotional treatment of the matter here supposes that, yes, of course, “savage” is a dreadful racial slur prevalent in American society and needs to be removed from a righteous publication like Savage Minds. But is it? Has anyone done anything resembling a cultural or ethnographic analysis of the contemporary usage of “savage”?
    In the brief space available here I’ll make two observations. First, the etymology of “savage” is strictly as an adjective: wild, from the woods. As such, it designates a quality or property of any number of things, and not principally a person. That is precisely how the word is used in “Savage Minds.” However, like hundreds, probably thousands of words in the English language, “savage” is also used as a noun. What seems to bother SMers anxious for a name change is that they believe the word is now commonly used as a noun rather than an adjective, and for the purpose of denigrating a person or group. Is it? That, I submit, is an empirical question, one for ethnography rather than ideology. How might we begin to conduct such an ethnography? As a start, I took a list of the top ten novels of 2016, went to Amazon and its “Look Inside” function, and searched for the word, “savage.” I suggest such an inquiry, sketchy as it is, yields a fair picture of what Americans write, read, and, probably think about. Certainly more representative of our society than a few anthro publications with a relative handful of readers. The survey results? Five of the ten bestseller excerpts contained no occurrence of “savage.” Of the other five, there were eleven instances of the word used as an adjective – none applied to an ethnic group. There were eight nouns, four in dialogues referring to African slaves (in a book about the slave trade). Of the remaining four, none referred to indigenous Americans. Where is the pervasive racial slur?

  8. It is interesting how much energy you are willing to put into defending the use of racial slur that has very real negative consequences for an oppressed group of people, and how little energy you are willing to put into a genuine, empathetic, compassionate understanding of the issue and desire not to harm others.

    Your “empirical survey” has little grounding in the real, daily experiences of those of us subjected to racism and discrimination. It merely reflects the good sense of publishers not to engage in discriminatory behavior and the public’s preference for literature that does not rely on the use of racial slurs. You, sir, are not an expert in the pervasive use of the word “savage” and the negative stereotype it engenders or the harm it causes; I am. Unlike those books, this expertise is not something you can find on Amazon.

    Anthropologists rely on “informants” and community members for their most accurate ethnographic information, do they not? Well here I am, and I’m telling you, you’re wrong.

  9. My bookmark remains Savage Minds. Anthrodendum makes me think ‘appendum’ ‘after thought’ ‘unimportant’. It is a poor choice. As an aside, I have lived as a member of a minority in first China and then Hong Kong since 1988. I’m white, male, homosexual and 61. I’m described with words in Mandarin and Cantonese which I personally find offensive. Sometimes I object, sometimes I don’t. Savannah Martin is correct; language has the ability to hurt. The person who feels the hurt is the one best able to describe and express the hurt.

  10. The title of this blog post bids a bon voyage, not adieu, to Savage Minds. In that spirit, I have a few logistical questions for the new authorities about the journey to a new name.

    My questions are prompted by a fact also observed by Bill Proudfit (and others, no doubt): the uniform resource locator of this blog post references the domain name savageminds.org. The same holds for the Facebook group associated with this blog, it is titled “Anthrodendum, the blog formerly known as ‘Savage Minds'” but carries a URL of https://www.facebook.com/savagemindsblog. A url (uniform resource locator) is a particular kind of metadata that forms part of the address system for locating resources on the internet. In the broader URI system, the URL functions like an internet street address. To change the domain name from savageminds.org to anthrodendum.org by eliminating the former in favor of the latter would break a good many links and render obsolete more than a few citations. For now, the name Savage Minds is on a journey, it would seem, from the blog masthead to the antipodes of savageminds.org where the name continues its quiet work of resolving urls and directing traffic to content.

    Is savageminds.org to be banished, or just regulated to the (mostly) hidden infrastructure this blog is perched upon? Despite the strong words from both sides, the name of this blog, according to ICANN’s authoritative namespace assignment, has not changed at all. The blog’s name, at least when you want to read it, remains savageminds.org.

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