Noble savage

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Idealized Native Canadian portrayed in The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West.
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How it didn't happen

The noble savage is a common, romanticized stereotype of various indigenous peoples. The visual trappings and associations change depending on the culture, but the underlying idea is constant. The noble savage is portrayed as ignorant and simple-minded but simultaneously uncorrupted by any of the moral failings of modern civilization and possessing an innate wisdom and connection to nature. Thus, there is often a paradoxical quality to the way the stereotype is presented — in one way, the life of the noble savage is desirable because of its simplicity but pitiable for its backwardness. An ultra-romanticized version of the trope often forms the basis for "state of nature" political theories, such as anarcho-primitivist writings (such as those of philosopher John Zerzan), where humans lived in an ideal, classless, totally egalitarian state until "the fall" of man, aka civilization. As a result, these often read like the Garden of Eden myth without the God and snake Satan snake bits. The stereotype has its origins in European imperialism. It is often mis-attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[1] In reality, the first use of the term dates back to John Dryden's play The Conquest of Granada:

I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.[2]

It was at least prefigured by the Roman historian TacitusWikipedia, who wrote in the Germania, about the Teutonic peoples:[3]

No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted.
—Tacitus, Germania XIX

A few Native American examples[edit]

American media[edit]

  • The Noble Savage motif first emerged in nineteenth century literature, such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855).
  • Popular and successful films, such as A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, and Dances With Wolves, have aspects of the Noble Savage, as the Native Americans depicted in the movies are savage and wild in regards to technology, but beautiful and wise when it comes to nature.[note 1]
  • TV shows from The Lone Ranger to Grizzly Adams to Young Riders all had a wise sage Indian adviser who helped everyone, while the other "enemy" tribe ate flesh and killed indiscriminately.

"Historical" presentations[edit]

Watercolor drawing by John White.
  • Chief Seattle's famous speech, in protection of the land, shows the nobility of Native Americans; the stories of Crazy Horse highlight this same romanticized savage aspect. In actual fact, Seattle's speech refers to specific burial grounds being sacred, having nothing to do with environmentalism; the most famous version of the speech was written in the 1970's by screenwriter Ted Perry.
  • The supposed biography Black Elk Speaks is a fictionalized image of what Lakota life was like, and what the spiritual world is like - designed to highlight that which would have been entertaining to the readers, including scenes of savage battle paired with the wise and sage religious advice of Black Elk.
  • Famous photos taken in the late 1800s (e.g., by Edward S. Curtis) are carefully staged elegant poses of these contemplative, wise, stoic Indians.
  • Historical paintings that hang in national museums of wild flailing arms in dance, frightening Sun Dance dancers, and costumed elders are less "attempts to accurately picture Indians as they were" and more attempts to play on images that the painter knew would sell.[4]
  • Early portrayals of indigenous peoples in films and documentaries like Nanook of the North often used staged scenes and omitted interactions with Westerners.[5] Anthropologist Catherine Russell coined the term "playing primitive" to describe this.[note 2]
  • Wyandot (Huron) embroidery in Quebec. Moose-hair embroidery attached to jewelry boxes, cigar tins, and other assorted tchotchkes and knickknacks became popular among tourists during the 19th century. Some of the women producing the embroidery began to update the portrayal of their tribe, producing pictorials with Huron wearing old American and British military uniforms, drinking alcohol out of glass bottles, and toting guns. This didn't go over so well with the tourists, who preferred the earlier noble savage depictions on the embroidery, which were ironically seen as more "authentic."[6]

Primitivism in art[edit]

The primitivist movement of the early 20th century in art sprang from the concept of the noble savage and an attempt to return to a pre-civilization golden age. The primitivists were inspired by sculptures and other ceremonial and artistic pieces that were imported from European colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Paul Gaugin famously left Europe to live with the native Tahitians. Pablo Picasso drew heavily on African styles in his early primitivist art and this carried over into his cubist phase.[7]

Racism and pseudohistory[edit]

The noble-savage stereotype is generally considered racist, ethnocentric, or (at the very least) culturally insensitive - due to its association with a long history of imperialism, colonialism, and scientific racism which attempted to "prove" that indigenous peoples were biologically inferior to whites.

A good deal of colonial histories and perceptions of indigenous people were based on myths, legends, and pseudohistory. In North America, James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, while it became a literary classic, helped to spread the noble-savage stereotype.[8] In modern times, Disney's appropriation of Pocahontas (1995) is an example of a pseudohistorical account of Native Americans (though the filmmakers had the decency to admit they wanted a legend rather than a biopic, and to cast Native voice-actors). Post-colonial historians and anthropologists have attempted to revise and dispel these stereotypes.

Explicit and implicit claims that "uncivilized" indigenous peoples lived peacefully with one another and in harmony with nature is not well supported.[note 3] Violence within and between indigenous peoplesWikipedia was a common occurrence, often unrestrained by norms against harm to non-combatants or against their enslavement. The environmental damage inflicted by indigenous cultures was often limited only by their technological capacity;[9] indeed, some scientists have advanced the theory that when most of the population of the Americas was wiped out by European diseases, the resulting collapse of agriculture brought about the Little Ice Age.[10] The perception of Native Americans as more connected to nature is also born from a fallacy of association: most of the survivors of colonial plague and genocide abandoned flourishing cities and settlements. The most notable examples are the Aztec and Inca, but other examples include the Marajoara culture of Brazil and Cahokia.

On the flip side, though, there is also a "myth of the myth" of the noble savage. Racist 19th-century anthropologists such as John CrawfurdWikipedia (1783-1868) condemned depictions of indigenous peoples as "noble savages" in the ethnographic record as a straw man. Said anthropologists used this rhetorical tactic to portray indigenous peoples as somehow inherently violent.[1]

Use in woo, marketing, and marketing woo[edit]

Well-meaning entrepreneurs, especially New Age aficionados, often use noble-savage stereotypes to sell woo, especially nature woo, due to the perception that indigenous people are more "in tune" with nature or have some ancient and secret knowledge. Because many Native American tribes regarded crystals (especially quartz crystals) as ceremonial or sacred objects, crystal healing invokes this trope often. As some tribes consider certain rituals too sacred to divulge to outsiders, crystal healers have the opportunity to advertise their junk with slogans about "previously undisclosed information from tribal elders".[note 4]

"Traditional" Chinese "Medicine" and Ayurvedic "medicine" build on "ancient wisdom re-discovered" as well.[11]

Stereotypes of conveniently remote and little-known hunter-gatherer societies help fuel things such as the urban caveman movement, the paleo diet and some broscience.

Slapping a noble savage image on a product or ad, as in the infamous 1970 "crying Indian" ad,[12][13] is a common method of invoking a sense of "heritage". Sex may sell, but guilt and nostalgia sell too. "Madison Avenue" aims certain products, such as the "Nike Air Native" shoe, at indigenous peoples.[14]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. All three of these films use a trope, common in American films where "white guy becomes the best savage and wise man of all the Natives and ends up rescuing them all." See the TV Tropes entry for Mighty Whitey
  2. One instance of the use of the term: Russell, Catherine Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self, excerpted from Experimental Ethnography, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
  3. For example, compare accounts of the Mfecane in southern Africa.
  4. Big Quartz, hawking crystal and vibrational healing, offers a pretty typical example.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ter Ellingson (2001). The Myth of the Noble Savage.
  2. Dryden, John. The Conquest of Granada. Part I. Act I. Sc. 1. 1672.
  3. Tacitus, Germania XIX: Nemo enim illic vitia ridet, nec corrumpere et corrumpi saeculum vocatur.
  4. Lubbers, Klause Colonial images of Native Americans: problems of authenticity, 1992
  5. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty, 1922.
  6. Philips, Ruth B. "Nuns, Ladies, and Queens of the Huron," in Unpacking Culture, eds. Ruth B. Philips and Christopher B. Steiner, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. [1]
  7. The Primitivism of the Fauves, Art History Unstuffed
  8. Arnold, A. James (2003). "Perilous Symmetry: Exoticism and the Geography of Colonial and Postcolonial Culture". GEO/GRAPHIES: Mapping the Imagination in French and Francophone Literature and Film. French literature series, ISSN 0271-6607. 30. Amsterdam: Rodopi. p. 6. ISBN 9789042011540. Retrieved 2 July 2022. "In Cooper's vision the Mohican and Delaware allies of the English and American colonists present the positive traits of the noble savage. Cooper gave new life to [...] stereotypes that he had inherited from the late colonial period [...]." 
  9. Lawrence H. Keeley. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Louis Bergeron, Reforestation helped trigger Little Ice Age, researchers say. Stanford University, 7 January 2009.
  11. Oriental Medicine or Medical Orientalism? Science-Based Medicine
  12. Keep America Beautiful: The Crying Indian (1970) on YouTube.
  13. Iron Eyes Cody, The actor in the "Crying Indian" ad, was actually Italian-American.
  14. Andrew Adam Newman, Nike shoe for Native Americans is criticized. The New York Times, 3 October 2007.