A character who is, due to their race or ethnicity, a member of a barbaric or savage tribe (or a group simply perceived as such by others), and because of it portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm. (Often regarded as living the Good Old Ways). In American works, the savages in question are quite often American Indians]. In European works, native African people tend to be more common. Rare nowadays, except as a Sci-Fi alien- though it has made something of a comeback with the idea of Magical Native American people being more in tune with nature than the greedy white people.
Older Than Feudalism — Tacitus wrote of the noble Germanic and Caledonian tribes to contrast with his view of Roman society as decadent and corrupt, and even wrote eloquent Roman-style speeches about liberty and honor for "his versions" of Calgacus and Arminius. The trope has gone in and out of fashion over time, usually contrasting a decadent distrustful "city life" that a thinker feels has tarnished the essentially good nature of humanity. In the USA, the Noble Savage came into style in the mid-1800s, about the time a lot of Western states/territories got their names. This left many geographical features with names of Indian (or at least Indian-sounding) extraction.
Frequently overlaps with the Proud Warrior Race Guy. Easily leads to Unfortunate Implications, a major one being that any problems a Noble Savage faces is a problem of not living up to an idealized character rather than the simple social implications of the world they live in. Another is that taking this view also tends to distort the actual reality of the Noble Savage in favor of the idealized image.
Arcadia brings in the same contrast, with a pastoral (or agricultural) society. The Noble Savage is usually of a different race than the city folks, where the Arcadians are of the same — by whatever definition of "race" is current for them.
Compare with Magic Negro and Ludd Was Right. Contrast with the Hollywood Natives, Corrupt Hick, Mighty Whitey (although the modern form of Mighty Whitey often co-exists with this trope) and Low Culture, High Tech. Occasionally refers to being "Of the People".
See also: Closer to Earth, Barbarian Hero, Nature Hero, and Noble Space Savage. Overlaps with Nubile Savage (the character's natural ways living by wits and strength have developed his/her body in a way that a softened city dweller never can).
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Iron Eyes Cody, the famous Crying Indian in the "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It" public service announcements of the early '70's. Ironically, he wasn't actually Cherokee — he was Sicilian.
And from New Jersey, to boot.
Anime and Manga
Rak, the giant bipedal alligator from Tower of God. He may be a hammy Blood Knight, but nobody is as fair, honest, straight to the point and in tune with himself as he is.
In Tales of the Jedi, the Beast-Riders of Onderon are much more decent and honorable than the citizens of Iziz, whose rulers are part of a dark side cult. (They are also drawn as noticeably darker-skinned than Iziz's citizens, despite the fact that the Beast-Riders are direct descendants of people from Iziz who were exiled to the jungle.)
Double subverted in the French comics De cape et de crocs: the members of the savage tribe are primitive white-skinned people, led by the only black-skinned member of their village, who is actually very educated.
In the Fan Fic of Avatar: The Last Airbender called Kataang Island Adventure, Aang and Katara come across an island tribe who live in the nude and developed a traditional way of life on their own. Their leader named Aratak is a hermaphrodite who accepts them as members of the tribe...and acts rather friendlier to them than the others do.
Film - Animated
Disney's Pocahontas. Historically Chief Powhatan was very much like the Native American version of Napoleon before the English arrived.
He is introduced as returning from a triumphant conquest, which ends up seeming out of character.
Heck, you can still hear about "the spirit of Pocahontas" as you pass through the remains of the Indian village at Disneyland.
For example, wouldn't an Indian shoot a bear if he felt threatened? Or just hunt it for sport? (Yes, yes they would)
Film - Live-Action
Pioneering documentary Nanook Of The North portray Nanook and the Inuk of northern Quebec as this, brave and noble, and expert hunters. This also comes with not a little condescension, like when they're described as "simple" and "happy-go-lucky".
First straight but then subverted in The Thin Red Line. The first Melanesian village welcomes the AWOL private Witt with open arms, and there he realizes that the villagers know the true meaning of "love thy neighbour". However, when he's forced back into the army, he visits another village, which unlike the first village had been traumatized by the war and the villagers avoid him with disdain while arguing with each other for petty reasons, not caring about the sick and older villagers. Realizing that the closest thing to a paradise on Earth has been corrupted by the Hell of wars, Witt leaves.
Avatar. The Na'vi are pure exemplars of the Noble Savage. Their way of life is depicted in the film as far nobler than anything on Earth.
A variant appears in Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai; the general theme is in place in regards to the Japanese, but the film presents them as sophisticated and civilised, rather than "savage". Colonel Bagley explicitly refers to the samurai as "savages with bows and arrows". In a bit of an inversion, the Japanese characters also consider the Americans savage brutes.
Richard and Emmeline of The Blue Lagoon, and Richard (son of the couple from the first movie) and Lilli of the sequel.
Although the original inhabitants of the island practice human sacrifice.
In the books, a savage state is portrayed as better in many ways, and the author shows the locals from neighboring islands as human, not better or worse.
Sent up in Carry On Cowboy where Chief Big Heap is not only cleverer than most of the settlers (he clears out a saloon by yelling about a gold strike, and everyone charges out despite not knowing where they're going) but speaks with an posh British accent.
The Marx Brothers film Go West, being a send-up of Westerns, features an inevitable Native American village complete with a medicine man, but more or less avoids this trope. When Groucho tries to impress a comely girl with a necklace, she tells him she wants a Cadillac sedan instead. Meanwhile the Chief and Harpo end up performing a musical number.
Averted in Maverick by Joseph, who, although he's one of the more decent characters in the film, is still a talented con artist who's just playing up the Noble Savage idea to bilk money out of a wealthy Russian hunter.
Skewered in The Rough Riders by the Apache drill instructor who assists in training the recruits. He turns out to be a Gentleman and a Scholar, who bids the recruits farewell with a speech that is both touching, badass and heartbreaking.
The Hork-Bajir from Animorphs before their war with the Yeerks.
Winnetou by Karl May is the most widely known example in many European countries (that is, all those where the films with Pierre Brice are regularly seen on TV). In the DEFA Westerns, Gojko Mitic played that role for Eastern European viewers. Both even gave rise to a Native American Reenactment Movement (so called "Indianervereine") on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Conan the Barbarian, who might be a thief and occasionally a murderer, but who was at least honest about it. However, compared to what some of the civilized people around him did, he could come off as a saint.
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
Cohen (yes, inspired by Conan, but rather more elderly) and most of the barbarians we meet in Discworld tend to be this. The approved method of 'assassination' used by barbarians is to gather all their enemies together for a feast, and then slaughter them while they're drunk, and if anyone survives there's no hard feelings (Cohen actually went bounty hunting for one of fellow horde members once). They consider "civilized" behaviors such as poisoning, mutilation and politics to be highly dishonorable.
The Illuminatus!! Trilogy is highly cynical about almost every human organization in existence... except American Indian tribes.
The Dragonlance novels (and corresponding Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) are in love with this trope. They give us, to name a few, plains barbarians (represented by Riverwind and Goldmoon in the original trilogy), mountain barbarians, ice barbarians, and Kagonesti (Noble Savageelves), all of whom are extremely noble and Closer to Earth than the "civilized" races. Even the sea barbarians, who have mostly degenerated into a culture of piracy, are portrayed as noble Lovable Rogues.
While this is largely true, the very first barbarians we meet in the series (Riverwind and Goldmoon themselves) are exiles from their tribe because they questioned their tribe's taboos, and Riverwind was only not stoned to death because Goldmoon intervened. Not entirely a rose tinted view then, though arguably the barbarians were eventually Flanderized into this trope.
Queequeg in Moby-Dick, although he's also somewhat sinister in his exoticness.
In Lee Lightner's Warhammer 40,000Space Wolf novel Sons of Fenris, after Ragnor expresses a blunt opinion, Torin says one day he will teach him not to act like a barbarian. Ragnor retorts that you can trust a barbarian.
John the savage in Brave New World. He gets shunned by the others in his village for being the son of an outsider, and takes refuge from his loneliness by reading an aging collection of the works of Shakespeare, which he quotes throughout the book. In the end, instead of indulging in a life of stimulation and ecstasy he opts for the life of a hermit, living out his days in an old abandoned lighthouse. And then he (apparently) kills himself.
Alessandro in the novel Ramona. He is a young California Indian who is more noble, more faithful, and more honest than pretty much any white person around him. Not surprisingly, he winds up being Too Good for This Sinful Earth.
S.M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time plays this fairly straight with the Firnan Boholugi, subverts it with their enemies the Sun People and subverts it with the Olmec (much to the shock of some of the more naive characters).
Also by S. M. Stirling, the Emberverse features plenty of Native American Characters, but most Native Americans appear just to be trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world.
Their relationship with the other peoples is depicted as difficult at best, though. The Rohirrim used to hunt them like animals, and they responded by shooting anybody entering to their woods with poisoned arrows. Only a common enemy managed to get them to cooperate. The Dunlanders in contrast were an example of a very un-noble savages sponsored by Saruman.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet: The People of the Wind in L'Engle's novel; they are close to nature and pacifistic. They are contrasted with greedy and corrupt whites.
Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Toyed with, then averted in the Orson Scott Card novel. One of the characters monitoring the past watches in despair as European explorers rape, murder, and plunder their way through a tribe of "gentle" natives in the Caribbean, and resolves to intervene. It is then discovered that Columbus' voyage to America was the result of an earlier intervention from a different future people, because without European influence, the Americas would have been subjected to an even greater atrocity, the complete subjugation by a local culture fanatically dedicated to human sacrifice. There is even an in-universe aversion: a man of pure Native American blood has to work very hard to convince the more European characters that his ancestors, left to themselves, really would have been that bad.
There's also the issue of slavery. The watcher mentioned above who despairs is of African descent and wishes above all else to find a way to eliminate slavery from history. Then along comes a Turkish meteorologist claiming that slavery was a good thing, considering that it replaced human sacrifice. According to him, it was Noah himself who advocated slavery, along with a nomadic lifestyle, after his homeland of Atlantis (It Makes Sense in Context) was destroyed by a flood at the end of the last Ice Age.
In the Hoka series, the eponymous LARPing teddy bear people used to share a planet with a group of sapient carnivorous Lizard Folk, who the Hokas managed to overcome by setting up their civilization to resemble the Wild West, right down to referring to the Lizard Folk as "injuns". Once they realized they were beaten martially, the "injuns" began intentionally invoking this trope with gusto, writing bestsellers about the decline of their civilization and noble culture, and snagged the planet's best oil lands as reservations. They promptly used all the funding to bribe their way offworld, at which point they dropped the noble pretenses and were last seen on a casino planet, partying.
In Dinotopia, large carnivorous dinosaurs in the Rainy Basin are depicted as sentient but uncivilized barbarians, though they have some form of culture and don't leave the Basin to hunt. There is, however, one Giganatosaurus named Stinktooth who clearly has a concept of honor and helps the protagonist after the protagonist rescues his son.
During Galaxy of Fear: Clones, Tash Arranda is on good terms with most of the Dantari tribesfolk, but doesn't get along with their garoo, sort of their shaman or loremaster. Still...
For the second time, Tash saw past the anger that had built up between them. This time she saw why he had been chosen as garoo. She could see his mind at work, judging her words, judging her expression, reaching an intelligent decision. He wasn't using the Force or any other power, but he was probing her just the same, using only his wits. She realized that she had to stop thinking of him as less intelligent just because his people wore skins and hunted with primitive weapons.
In The Incredible Journey, a Native tribe takes a half-starved bull terrier and Siamese to be spirits giving them a test, and are nice to them in order to bring good fortune.
Notably averted in the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Police Procedural series by Tony Hillerman, which centers on the Navajo and other Southwestern tribes. Native Americans are portrayed as regular people who deal with stuff like politics and bureaucracy.
Live Action TV
The Lone Ranger: Classic example: Tonto, faithful sidekick of the Lone Ranger.
Adam and Eve are noble savages of a sort. They live in uncorrupted innocence and harmony with nature until they partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, i.e. became "civilized". Seeing how God's punishment includes the fact that man will now have to grow his own food, the fall of man can be read as a metaphor for the dawn of agriculture, with the Garden of Eden representing a nostalgic take on the prior hunter-gatherer age.
In Deadlands: Hell on Earth, one of the few groups to weather Judgement Day were the Sioux Nations assembled in the Dakotas. They had sensed mankind's technology would be its undoing, and so had sworn it off. No one thought saturation-bombing the Indian lands was a worthwhile use of nukes. It doesn't change the fact that "Old Wayers" have a bad rep in the setting, though: general sentiment is they sit around gloating about how they were right.
Warhammer 40,000: A non-playable faction of the Eldar called the Exodites has this as their hat: after The Fall of the Eldar, rather than taking the path of the Monk or the Hedonist, they chose to abandon all but the most essential of advanced technologies. It's their hope that they can be the noblest of Noble Savages, thus escaping the ravages of Slaneesh.
Averted they're only this by Eldar Standards, they're still far higher tech than a number of human worlds.
Also from Warhammer 40000, Tau propaganda depicts Kroot auxiliaries as this, and there's more than a little truth to the propaganda, too (though more savage than noble).
Some Feral World tribes are this, as are the Fenrisians (Space Vikings), the best of which are allowed to join the Space Wolves (Viking-ier Space Vikings), and the White Scars (Space Mongols).
Initially played straight in the Shadowrun products, then subverted with the addition of Native nations that abuse the land as terribly as any Mega Corp., and the revelation that their "noble" use of blood magic to re-take their land helped draw the Horrors to Earth centuries ahead of schedule. Also appears in-universe, both in NAN propaganda and in how some metahuman neo-tribal groups emulate pop-culture Native American motifs.
Hollow Earth Expedition, supplement Mysteries of the Hollow Earth. There are entire tribes of this character type in the Hollow Earth. They are regal and wise, respecting nature and trying to maintain the ecological balance of the area where they live.
Furbolgs would qualify, especially the Timbermaw (one of the few tribes which isn't being driven mad by demonic influence).
The Tuskarr, humanoid walruses based on Inuit and Pacific Islander cultures; and to a lesser extent, the Oracle tribe of Gorlocs (who are more a group of innocent Wide Eyed Idealists, except for one Deadpan Snarker). Although one of their quests has you steal wolven babies away from the tribe, and most likely incidentally killing their mothers. Ostensibly they're going to raised by the Tuskarr so that the Wolvar tribe doesn't get totally wiped out in the fighting, but there is no Wolvar orphanage to be seen only fat walrus men.
For that matter, the Orcs qualify too, as long as they are not under demonic sway. This is exactly why the Orcs and Tauren got along so well from the beginning of the Orc campaign in Warcraft III.
The Trolls are straight-up savages, though. The tribe that joined the Horde being the one exception. They're still savages, just not as evil as the other ones. While the Tauren are based on native Americans, and the Tuskarr are based on the Inuit, the Trolls are based on native African tribes. (Don't let the Jamaican accent fool you.) The tribal music, the masks, the shamanism, and the predilection for cannibalism all come from "deepest darkest Africa" savage stereotypes.
The Serenwilde Commune of Lusternia. It was Seren druids who helped heal the ruined earth after the Vernal Wars, Seren wiccans who travelled to the Ethereal Realm to heal the fae... and years later, when Celest was on the brink of releasing The Taint, it was Serenwilde (and the other communes, who did not survive the resultant cataclysm) who advised against it. In the modern era they're more flawed, nuanced and interesting, but in the histories they were practically a Mary Suetopia.
At first glance, the Ashland Tribes from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind seem to be this. They were cast away into the barren Ashlands by the Dunmer civilization, proudly keep the oldest Dunmer traditions alive—including their belief in the return of The Nerevarine — and are totally right about that. However, Ashlanders are actually a notable aversion to this trope. While most of them live by strict rules of honour and courtesy—at least amongst themselves—a good number really are violent raiders who attack innocent travellers without provocation. They're ignorant, violently racist and xenophobic (even by normal Dunmer standards) and openly rude and contemptuous towards anyone who isn't an Ashlander. And while some of their religious doctrines turn out to be correct, they still manage to conveniently 'lose' the parts they're not happy with (like the fact that the Nerevarine will be an outlander). Individually some of them are noble, but overall they're no better or worse than anyone else in Morrowind.
In addition to the natural variance from individual to individual, it also varies from tribe to tribe — the Ahemmusa are probably the closest to this (they are indicated to be amongst the more peaceful, spiritual of the tribes — at the time they don't even have an Ashkhan, giving that authority to their Wise Woman instead. They are also indicated to be the weakest of the tribes), the Urshilaku are the ones that take the Nerevarine prophecies and cult most seriously which plays in your favour since you fulfil those prophecies, the Erabenimsun are currently controlled by a warlike, aggressive leadership, and the Zainab are the least 'savage', having developed a Settled Dunmer-like understanding of trade (and the fact that it can have political implications) and even going so far as to run an ebony mine of their own, for sale to others.
The Sacae in Fire Emblem Elibe comes across to be this at times. They are tribal nomadic people who are more honest and honorable than everyone else.
The witch-doctor and the barbarian in Diablo III both fit this. The templar almost quotes the trope name in a bit of dialogue towards the end of the game.
The Clan of the Hawk from Wandering Ones fits this one to a T. They attempted to invoke this with William Ghostraven, but before the plague, he was a casino worker.
A Discussed Trope in Schlock Mercenary. According to Petey, "The noble savage dies young, and all he has to teach you is that when the food runs out it's okay to eat the babies."
In his review of Avatar, Mr. Plinkett calls the movie out on its rosy portrayal of the Na'vi (an Anvilicious stand-in for Native Americans) as utterly perfect, peace-loving space hippies in harmony with nature:
Plinkett:Let me let you in on a little secret: savage races without technology or money can be just as fucking brutal to each other as we can. Plus, they don't got things like antibiotics, indoor plumbing, or Taco Bell.
Futurama: Subverted with the native Martians — they talk a good game about loving nature and respecting their native lands and all, but, once they discover that the "bead" their ancestors traded away their land for is actually a giant diamond, they have no problem at all leaving their "sacred lands" behind.
Martian chief: We'll buy new land, and pretend it's sacred. With cash like this, who's going to argue? No one, that's who.
There was actually a character named Noble/Savage in the Beast Machines Transformers series.
The Foggy Swamp Water Tribe are a bit of an aversion, as they're played for humor as the embarrassing redneck cousins, but the 'live in harmony with nature' thing comes up here, albeit from a shaman who specializes in controlling plants by bending the contents of their vascular systems.
Also Averted with the Northern Water Tribe who are a massive city state on par with most Earth Kingdom cities.
In "The Burns and the Bees", an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa assumes Muck Mu is a Noble Savage, but he actually enjoys killing whales for fun.
A major view held by Marshall Sahlins, who theorized the hunter-gatherer society, whom earlier anthropologists postulated were the lowest order of social evolution, were in fact the original affluent society. This was supported by the fact that former modern hunter-gatherer societies like the !kun of Southern Africa showed evidence of being far better off than any other more industrialized and thus "civilized" societies. Their varied diet, lack of rigid status and inequality, opportunity to move away from disease, little materialistic goods, leisure time, and knack for sharing with those beyond their immediate family formed the basis of Marshall's argument that hunter-gatherer societies are able to acquire a "Zen" road to affluence that a civilized society cannot provide.
Other scholars and researchers have also deconstructed this argument. This is usually shown by pointing out the biases, selective lenses and idealized framing that tends to come along with this trope, as well as the tendencies for double standards and condescending attitudes. Evidence has also long been found that even hunter-gatherer societies may not be as "one with nature" or "Edenic" as often imagined. The result is akin to painting an image as distorted from reality as those of them being brutal savages.
Heck, freaking Chimpanzee communities aren't as "equal" and "close to nature" as he claimed for this kind of culture and they barely use tools.
The assumption of the Noble Savage is based off of generalizations on the second impression of Native Americans with less racism between the two cultures. The majority of Native American Tribes had vastly different values that from modern standards are quite noble. Although stereotypical, many tribes did say that people live within nature rather than lording over it, made war for less economically focused reasons, and were much more matriarchal in general. These ideals may be a generalization, but after the racism and violence of the Take Over of the New World the concept of Noble Savage seems quite true.
There are noble values in Western culture, too. There are noble values in any culture — and, because all human cultures are made up of real live human beings, some of the members of each one live up to their values and some don't. The reason that this trope has Unfortunate Implications is because it implies that this fact, which is true about all human beings, is not true about Native Americans — which, in turn, implies that Native Americans aren't human.
Like all other people in the world, modern Noble Savages are as rare/common as Noble people in every ethnicity. Due to forced and voluntary assimilation, values have changed. So people with those values seen as noble may not be as frequent as they used to be.
Also, even before Europeans came to the Americas the Native peoples fought with one another for things like the most fertile territories and the best trade routes note yes, they traded goods with one another...in other words, for many of the very same reasons that Europeans, Africans and Asians were waging war with one another. Like the Europeans, many of them also signed treaties with one another and made diplomatic marriages...customs that they would later extend to the Europeans.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau all but stated that man was better off when we were little more than animals. He also said that in an unarmed fight a "savage" would easily defeat a "civilized man". Otherwise, his Noble Savage theory has been subject to misinterpretation and reworking by the author himself.
Certain schools of Taoism believe that true balance of yin and yang was once achieved when man lived in a pre-societal stage. Where his life is in harmony with the world around him. This was in protest against China's Warring States period, where kingdoms with their huge armies cause so much chaos and destruction all across China during the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE.
People have been known to demand this trope from things like literary depictions of Aztecs, to the extent that they complain terms like 'provincial' and 'months' ought to be avoided in favor of 'country' and 'moons' (in spite of the fact that using 'moons' to render the Nahuatl term for 'month' would be ridiculous since the periods were subdivisions of the solar calendar with no relation to the moon at all), because a fifteenth-century Mexica living in classical Tenochtitlan can't talk sophisticated, obviously. He's still an Injun, after all. T'weren't a proper empire. The best part being that the civilizations in the High Plane of Mexico and the Yucatan were in fact civilized: millions of people living in various cities, they had agriculture, social stratification including aristocracies and underclasses, writing, organized warfare and religion and were nothing like the hunter-gather cultures in North and South America.
For that matter, there were significant civilizations in North America too. The western Peublo peoples and Ohio's mound-builders are a few examples. Early explorers reported traveling through large and diverse cities, before the diseases they introduced wiped out 90% of the people on the continent.
In general, a common criticism of most post colonial scholarship, is that it tends to over indulge in this trope. Unquestioningly praising "native" people and cultures while glossing over the some the less pleasant aspects, whilst branding anyone whose complexion is lighter than a paper bag as evil.
According to the Ancient Greek writer Hesiod, there were five "Ages of Man". The first of these, the "Golden Age", was before man invented the arts, farming, etc. As you might have gathered from the name, Hesiod thought this "Golden Age" was a primitive utopia and the greatest time in history.