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The Savage Indian
The Death of Jane McCrea,
John Vanderlyn (1804)

With hue and cry, with hatchet red,
They danced amongst our noble dead!
But when our soldiers took the field,
The savage hordes could only yield!
A Motorized Patriot, describing the Battle of Wounded Knee. note 

The Native Americans are frequently portrayed in modern fiction as a tragic group of people subject to prejudice of the White Man and now are suffering in an age of darkness. Seems like it is standard fare for Native Americans to be like that?

Not quite.

Though not common today, in older works the default was the Savage Indian, a native of their land who is a bloodthirsty man or woman who only wishes to kill and hunt trophies for the sake of satiating their unquenchable thirst or desire for heads. They are brutal, uncompromising and are seen as "Better you than me" type of people if one must work with them. They are most of the time exiled by their tribes for being too violent, but if a foreigner comes in, expect the Savage Indian to reject the outsider first with a weapon up their vital organs. Sometimes they will be the rival tribe/griyo that the Noble Indians want to see defeated or at least no longer hurting them and the people they are making peace with but couldn't due to unfortunate damage done by them.

This trope has ancient forerunners as practically every culture has identified a more primitive neighbor as 'savages', particularly when there existed a conflict of interests. It became especially common in the age of imperialism during which blatantly racist ideas were used to advance a policy of European nations "civilizing" the rest of the world. In the United States, expanding settlers repeatedly came into conflict with the native tribes. Infrequent abhorrent acts of violence perpetrated by the natives against the intruders led to the perception that all natives were brutal savages, especially considering that the settlers were all saints. Battles against savage Indians were commonplace in Western fiction up until the modern era, putting this on the edge of becoming a Dead Horse Trope. In the era of the "Revisionist Western," (the era in which we find ourselves) fiction often attempts to provide a more diverse and historically accurate view of violence by and against Native Americans.

May get a touch of praise for courage, hardiness, or other stern virtues, but do not rely on it.

A subtrope of Hollywood Natives. Often overlaps with other stereotypes including Braids, Beads and Buckskins and Tonto Talk. Compare and Contrast Magical Native American and Noble Savage.


Examples

Anime and Manga
  • In Shaman King, in Hao's life 500 years ago, he went so far as to destroy cultures because they don't want to join him in his quest to rid the world of muggles. One of the last survivors of that thinks that Silva and the rest are just like Hao. Which is...really weird in The Nineties.

Comic Books
  • Heavily subverted in the Tintin comics The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners Of The Sun. The Incas who target the Belgian archaeologists are arguably the smartest and most determined antagonists in the whole series, and only targeted the archaeologists to punish them for what they thought was the looting of an Incan ancestral tomb. When Tintin explains to the Incas that the Europeans were seeking knowledge rather than wealth, they immediately heal the archaeologists.

Fan Fiction
  • In the Discworld continuum, the fictions Small Medium, Large Headache and Rincewind Among the Redskins expand on the throwaway joke from Reaper Man which gives spirit medium Mrs Cake a Red Indian spirit guide, the hapless drunk One-Man-Bucket. Terry Pratchett places the Discworld's Red Indians in Howondaland, his expy of Africa. In an attempt to resolve and expand on this, author A.A. Pessimal wrote a tale of how the Indian peoples of Howondaland fight and defeat a certain General Ruster, in a plot owing much to the movie Little Big Man, with the wizzard Rincewind cast in the Dustin Hoffman role. Another Pessimal fic homages medium Tracy Potts in Good Omens by giving her an Apache spirit guide, who has a fairly direct, Manitou-like resemblance to Graham Masterton's Misquamacus. Mayhem ensues as Mrs Cake and One-Man-Bucket confront the dread spirit of the heap powerful medicine man in a plot owing something to Masterton's horror fiction.

Film
  • The Apaches in Stagecoach (1939).
    • John Ford somewhat made amends for that portrayal, by depicting the Apaches rather more favorably in Fort Apache (1948), in which only the arrogant Thursday views the Apaches as "breech-clouted savages."
    • Subverted in Ford's silent Western The Iron Horse, in which the Cheyenne violently oppose the railroad, but are humanized in several scenes such as a dog mourning a dead warrior.
  • In Calamity Jane (1953), Jane fights this kind, and brags of the number she has killed.
  • In Damn Yankees (1958), the Devil recalls "Indians draggin' an empty covered wagon when scalping the settlers was the latest craze," and the film shows an image of this.
  • Averted in Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (1936), meaning that American media were worse than the Nazis.
  • More recent films using this trope make sure to invent some fictional tribe. For example, the Hovitos from Raiders of the Lost Ark (although they were manipulated by the Big Bad rather than evil on their own), the Ugha from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the Pelegostos from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Note that all of these take place in Latin America. Savage Indians in US territory is much harder to excuse.

Literature
  • Magua from The Last of the Mohicans.
  • Injun Joe, the Ax-Crazy villain of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
  • Tall Tale America has these turn up whenever guys like Mike Fink or Davy Crockett get tired of shooting animals.
  • A non-US example are the cannibal natives in Robinson Crusoe, which takes place off the coast of South America. Though often Race Lifted in the novel's many adaptations, the cannibals are identified as Carib Indians in the original text. This is the tribe the Caribbean was named after. They had a notorious (though highly exaggerated) reputation as ferocious man-eating savages for hundreds of years.
  • In The Manitou and its sequels, the protaganist is the undead spirit of the most powerful Indian medicine man ever to walk North America, Misquamacus. Misquamacus is an Indian who completely loathes and despises the white man - and for that matter, the black and yellow-skinned immigrants who have displaced the Indians from their heritage. His goal is to physically re-enter the world and to bring about the genocide of all the non-native American races who have supplanted the Indians, and he uses some very savage magics to thwart those who are seeking to prevent his return.

Live-Action TV
  • In Deadwood this is played surprisingly straight, due in equal parts to Protagonist Centred Morality and Deliberate Values Dissonance. As the town is stuck right in the middle of Lakota territory, the Sioux and the local gold miners are in constant low-level conflict, so they're widely viewed by the townsfolk as savage heathen raiders. We actually see very few of them; they're credited with a couple of caravan raids, at least one of which may have been a cover story for someone else's guilt, and at one point Seth is attacked unprovoked by a lone horseman.
  • Hell on Wheels deconstructs this trope for the most part. The opening episode and series has a whole features numerous instances of native warriors raiding and killing civilians and unarmed men, and most characters in-universe see them as mindless savages, but it is made clear that they are no more villainous nor corrupt than the drunken laborers they have working on the train, that they are trying to defend their land and abide by a moral code that the settlers simply do not relate to.
  • The Reavers in Firefly are uncomfortably close to Savage Indians IN SPACE!! A more optimistic reading - given that the Reavers are colonists who went mad on the fringes of society, and not some already-present race lurking in the depths of space - is that they're more of a bunch of astro-wendigos.

Professional Wrestling
  • Apache Bull Ramos, the bookers wanted him to be a face because he could wrestle well but had very little charisma. He refused though and became one of the greatest heels ever, when it came to drawing crowd heat. He mainly suffered the Worf Effect to establish the new champion's credibility.

Religion and Mythology

Video Games
  • Played with in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Honest Hearts. The White Legs tribe play this one to the hilt, but as their name suggests, they're actually the descendants of a bunch of gormless white tourists who were visiting Injun Country when the bombs fell and decided to form a "tribe" whose cultural identity was based around ridiculous Indian stereotypes. The actual Native Americans are considerably friendlier.

Real Life
  • The Aztecs are almost always portrayed as bloodthirsty and war-loving, even in modern works. Of course, there are reasons for this bad reputation.
  • This use to be a major draw at Disneyland, back when Westerns were popular. Aside from the Indian Village, Tom Sawyer's Island included an eternally burning shack with arrows in the side of it. As attitudes changed, it was given several different backstories before it became just a shack.
  • The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who ventured into the Venezuelan jungle in the 1960s to study the Yąnomamö tribe, released accounts of a perpetually violent society beset by wars and constant strife. Chagnon believed he found a society in which homicide and warfare were common and most violent men wound up with the most wives and children. Whether or not his views were really founded on actual fact or visualizing the Yąnomamö through his rough childhood created a huge controversy in the anthropological world, as it was taken to justify Christian missionaries' subversion of the native culture and escalated clashes between them and nearby miners.
  • As late as February 2011, Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, argued that Indians were "morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil" by their "superstition, savagery and sexual immorality". How wrong is this statement? Let us count the ways:
    • He also stated that "the Europeans proved superior in battle, taking possession of contested lands through right of conquest. So in all respects, Europeans gained rightful and legal sovereign control of American soil." So might clearly equals legal right in his worldview (shared by many European nations in those days).
    • The Europeans didn't always prove superior in battle, and that the United States acquired much of its land not by force, but by making treaties and business deals whose terms the US never intended to keep. Several Indian tribes had their lands taken over despite never being officially beaten on the battlefield.
      • Enormous numbers of Native Americans throughout the entire New World were also wiped out by Eurasian diseases. That's probably the single biggest factor that led to their conquest.
  • "When we arrived in the New World God pleased to show us the vanity of managing our arms in the European mode. Now we are pleased to learn the skulking way of war." One of the reasons a bunch of untrained farmers were able to beat back the British at Lexington was the years they had spent fighting the Native Americans.
  • Pick a US military helicopter. The Iroquois (better known as the Huey) the Black Hawk. The Apache. The Chinook. There's a reason for those names.
  • Some native Americans were essentially this trope (most prominently, and successfully, the Comanches). So were many other nations at various times in their history (just read the Iliad, "the greatest epic of Western civilization"). The racism is in assuming that this was somehow inherent to native Americans, rather than particular to certain cultures at certain times.
  • Mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, in a passage rarely quoted today: "...the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."

Tabletop Games
  • The Oni, the indigenous people of the planet Tenra in Tenra Bansho Zero, are portrayed as this by the powers that be:
    To the humans, the Oni are a brutal, savage monstrous race of horned humanoids. Hunting them to extinction is a natural reaction towards those who would kill indiscriminately, kidnapping, torturing, and eating people alive.

    However, this is a misconception, as the Oni do none of those things. These tales are nothing but rumors and folklore, spread to make people feel justified in the slaughter of the native people of Tenra.


Noble SavageWestern CharactersWhite Man Gone Native
The RezNative Americans TropesTipis And Totem Poles
Satanic ArchetypeVillainsScary Amoral Religion
Sadness TropesImageSource/ArtThe Scream

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