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The Savage Indian

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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, BioShock Infinite

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: practically every culture has identified a less technologically advanced neighbor as "savage", particularly when there existed a conflict of interests. It became especially common in the age of imperialism during which racist conceptions of human evolution and society were used to advance a policy of "enlightened" Europeans "civilizing" the rest of the world. In the United States, expanding settlers repeatedly came into conflict with the native tribes, sometimes voluntarily but sometimes simply through cross-cultural misinterpretation. These conflicts between various native groups against both European/American settlers and also between rival tribes led to the common perception in mainstream American culture that most, if not all, natives were brutal savages. 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. Modern "Revisionist Western" fiction typically 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. It should be noted that in older works (even within anthropology) the term "savage" is used for all cultures that are less technologically sophisticated than the (usually Western) writers. It didn't necessarily mean brutal, though other negative connotations are implied, like inferior intelligence, morality etc. Nowadays the term has long been discredited, and the similar "primitive" seems to be going the same way.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z: Super Android 13!: While he's not actually an Indian, Android 14 has the appearance of a Native American and is a villain. A murderous robot bent on killing Goku, with no regard for innocent humans killed in the crossfire as collateral damage.
  • In Shaman King, in Hao's life 500 years ago, he went so far as to destroy cultures because they didn'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 '90s.

    Comic Books 
  • Averted in many Franco-Belgian Comics (to the point of Magical Native American), where the Indians are almost always manipulated into attacking by whites (almost every Lucky Luke featuring Indians ends on a peace treaty). Their biggest flaw is often being hotheaded and temperamental, not unlike many white people. There are also friendly and nice tribes.
  • The Natives are a Space Western equivalent in Copperhead: they prowl outside town murdering anyone they find after dark. As of the first dozen issues, there has been zero contact with them that didn't result in a fight to the death.
  • While Jonah Hex does generally portray Indians in a sympathetic light, it also doesn't shy away from just how savage they could be if you got on their bad side, in particular, their penchant for torture. In Two Gun Mojo, Jonah cripples an especially nasty villain and leaves him for the approaching Apaches to find, knowing that they'll give him a long slow death.
  • Streets of Glory: Red Crow is an evil murderous bastard, hired on the strength of his reputation by a railroad baron. When he thinks his employer has betrayed him, he scalps his bodyguard, leaving him with an exposed cranium.
  • 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. That said, they still attempt to sacrifice Tintin and Haddock earlier, for their trespassing in sacred areas. Tintin foils this by realizing there's a solar eclipse for that day, which he used to take control over the sun, scaring the Inca into releasing them. Herge later admitted this was a dumb story turn beneath his writing standards, as Incans were sophisticated astronomers and knew all about eclipses. Tintin in America features somewhat unfortunate depictions of a plains tribe as rather primitive and hostile towards outsiders. Still, it is sympathetic in portraying them as simply wanting to protect their land. With good reason—in the end, when oil is discovered there, they are all forced out.

    Fan Works 
  • 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, authorA.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 wizard 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. The normally retiring and elusive - but definitely not shy - Apache people, a tribe reputed to give lessons in being nasty to the Elves, are encountered in the tale Gap Year Adventures by a brave and intrepid traveller. who gets the Apache honorific of "Little Girl, Big Trouble."note 

    Film — Live Action 


Specific works

  • In Addams Family Values, Wednesday gleefully depicts Pocahontas and her tribe in this manner when she hijacks the summer camp Thanksgiving play, with a little Noble Savage thrown in. It's at least partially justified as a reaction against the much more offensively patronizing, twee, sanitized Manifest Destiny of the original script in which the natives (and the children playing them) are constantly insulted. Wednesday's version is an Exploitation-style preemptive-revenge fantasy in which Pocahontas is a Jeanne d'Archétype reacting to visions of the Bad Future the pilgrims represent. Whether that entirely serves as an excuse for the ensuing war whoops and scalpings and roasting people on spits...
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: The Native Americans in "Near Algodones" and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" are presented as unsympathetic, often faceless aggressors, almost like a tidal wave of death and destruction that attacks for no reason or purpose. This is very much what one would expect from the pulp westerns that the film is inspired by. The one exception is a mentioned-only character, the former lover of the trapper, who was a Hunkpapa Lakota. They apparently got on well despite her not speaking English and the trapper not speaking Sioux.
  • Zig-Zagged in Black Robe. Chomina's band of Algonquins are generally portrayed as being noble and generous, and Chomina himself is extremely loyal to Father Laforgue to the point where he places himself and his entire family in jeopardy to see the priest to his ultimate destination. The Innu and Huron groups that Laforgue visits are also portrayed sympathetically, especially the latter whose violence against the French missionaries is stated to be only a desperate reaction to the sicknesses that said missionaries have brought to their village. However, the Mohawk who attack Chomina's band are unambiguously villainous, killing Chomina's wife in their assault, murdering Chomina's daughter in front of him, and subjecting Laforgue and Chomina to various tortures such as a collective beating from the entire village and cutting off Laforgue's finger with a sharpened shell. The Mohawk also intend to ultimately skin the priest and Algonquins alive the next day, though the group escape the village before that can occur.
  • Bone Tomahawk attempts to avoid the Unfortunate Implications of this trope by making the antagonists a group of inbred Contemporary Cavemen that actual Native Americans find savage and monstrous. Tall Trees, the main Native character, is a well-read professor respected even by white settlers.
  • In The Charge at Feather River, the Indians are a hostile force out to destroy the westward progress of the railroad. They do unspeakable things to captive white women, and leave their old and sick to die alone. When the Guardhouse Brigade find an elderly Arapaho abandoned by his tribe because he was slowing them down, Grover comments "No wonder they call them savages!"
  • In Calamity Jane (1953), Jane fights this kind, and brags of the number she has killed.
  • Zigzagged in Canyon Passage. Early on, there is some sympathy from the settlers to the Indians' plight, and some amiable - if guarded - interactions between the settlers and Indians. However, once the Indians are provoked into uprising, they are brutal: killing men, women and children indiscriminately. (And scalping Bragg, who was the one who triggered the war.)
  • Cry Blood, Apache builds on the idea that the Apache were incredibly inventive when it comes to torture.
  • 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.
  • The Apache are not shown in a positive light in The Deserter. They seem to have no motivation other than to attack and massacre white folk. Kaleb admires some of their characteristics—their hardiness, ferocity, and willingness to die silently so as to not betray their position—but otherwise holds the entire race in contempt.
  • The Apaches are portrayed rather more favorably in Fort Apache (1948), in which only the arrogant Thursday views the Apaches as "breech-clouted savages."
  • Averted in Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (1936), meaning that American media were worse than the Nazis.
  • Subverted in the 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.
  • Invoked In-Universe in Jungle Cruise. One of the fake thrills in Frank's tourist trap cruise is an attack by Amazon natives—who are actually Frank's friends and find the whole thing just as ridiculous as the audience does.
  • Parodied in McLintock!. The town leaders treat the local Comanche tribe like neighbors for the most part. It's mostly outsiders — and inept Humphrey — who mistreat them and drive them to go on the warpath... something that doesn't even bother McLintock and his fellows one whit.
  • News of the World (2020): Zigzagged. Most settlers certainly believe the Native Americans to be this, and truth be told they are revealed to have done some pretty barbaric things, like murdering Johanna's parents and siblings (and subsequently kidnapping Johanna to raise her as a Kiowa). On the other hand, when Kidd and Johanna run into a group of Kiowa after losing their wagon and horses, the Kiowa give them a new horse despite clearly having little belongings left. And Kidd admits that, while the Natives can be brutal, it is mostly in retaliation for the settlers driving them from their land.
  • In The Searchers (1956) Comanches attack the family of Ethan Edwards' (John Wayne's) brother, killing everyone but a daughter who is kidnapped, leading to a rescue mission that lasts for years.
  • Zigzagged in Shotgun (1955). Delgadito's Apaches are ruthless killers who excel at inflicting cruel deaths on their enemies (they leave Bentley to be killed by a rattlesnake and shoot Reb through the chest with an arrow, leaving him nailed to tree, because it will be more painful and take him longer to die). However, they are also established as renegades, and so not typical of their tribe, and are shown to have their own code of honour and to respect courage, regardless of who is demonstrating it.
  • Played with in Silent Tongue. Although the ending implies that Eamon is about to suffer a very nasty fate at the hands of the Kiowa, he probably deserves everything he is going to get for what he did to one of their number. Notably, they allow Reeves—who has done nothing to harm them—to leave unhindered.
  • The Apaches in Stagecoach (1939).
  • Star Wars material set on Tatooine casts the Sand People/Tusken Raiders as a Fantasy Counterpart Culture form of this, in keeping with the planet's Space Western motif: small nomadic tribes native to Tatooine's desert who raid the settlements of offworlders, mercilessly killing anyone they meet and sometimes carting captives off to their camps to enslave or torture them further, such as Anakin Skywalker's mother Shmi. Both Star Wars Legends material and Disney-era Star Wars Expanded Universe material take a more nuanced approach, portraying the Sand People as harsh folk with brutal, alien ways, but who also have a lot of legitimate grievances with the offworlders and are willing to interact with them more amicably if approached with respect.
  • The protagonist of Utu is a combination of this trope, and the Noble Demon with a sense of honour and fair play. His brother and arch enemy is part noble savage, and part Sergeant Rock.

  • Injun Joe, the Ax-Crazy villain of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, fits this trope and represents Mark Twain's early prejudice against indigenous Americans.
  • Zig-Zagged in Blood Meridian: some natives encountered by The Kid and the various gangs he joins are this to a T, most notably the Comanche warband that completely obliterates (and in many instances mutilates and violates) Captain White's filibuster expedition and the Delaware trackers who ride with the gang and commit atrocities such as smashing infants to pieces on rocks. However, other native groups such as the Gilenos and the Tiguas that the Glanton Gang massacre are mostly peaceful. Still other native peoples are portrayed on a scale of savage to noble, such as Karakawas who are rumored to be cannibals but aren't actually shown doing anything untoward, and the Yuma band that ultimately end Glanton's group, who are shown as being respectful if wary of the gang at first but absolutely willing to resort to brutal violence for aims both political (controlling the ferry) and revenge-based (following their heavy losses in the ferry battle). Ultimately the Glanton gang is shown to be just as bad if not worse than any of the natives they encounter, as halfway through the story they begin slaughtering Mexican villages and scalping civilians while they're still alive so they can pass the remains off as natives' and get paid.
  • Curiously deconstructed and mirrored in El Conquistador. The Aztec, although depicted as a Proud Warrior Race accustomed to human sacrifice, are actually shown to be a complex society, as their sacrifices are questioned by some of the elite classes, but even they aren't particularly painful or long and always are preceded by a life of excesses and privileges (they also believed these were necessary to save the universe). The Spanish Inquisition's tortures and killings, conversely, seem to the Aztecs overly brutal and barbaric, and the religious wars and crusades are seen as hypocritical, dumb or overly evil. So the Savage Indians are mirrored in the Europeans, and some of the Middle East.
  • The Apaches in the Man with No Name spinoff novel A Dollar to Die For are a painfully stereotypical example. They kidnap Sgt. Tuco Ramirez, mistaking him for a high-ranking officer (and it didn't help when Tuco promoted himself to General after killing Lt. Sanchez), and inflict this strange torture device on the Man with No Name by having him be bitten by killer ants. There may be some Truth in Television here, since the Apache did indeed torture prisoners.
  • In The Faerie Queene, Meleger's arrows are said to look like the deadly and cruel arrows used by American Indians, negatively associating that race with this 1590 poem's vile villain.
  • Magua from The Last of the Mohicans.
  • In The Manitou and its sequels, the protagonist 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 magic to thwart those who are seeking to prevent his return.
  • Played for laughs in the Robert Ludlum novel The Road to Omaha. Half-insane General Mackenzie Hawkins has led a lawsuit to the Supreme Court to return lands to the Wopotami tribe...which is basically the entire state of Nebraska, including the Strategic Air Command. Hawkins comes in as "Chief Thunder Head" in full cliche Native American garb. When the legal course fails, Hawkins goes to Plan B: He scares the hell out of the Justices by making it sound like the entire Native American culture is going to rise up in full war, citing the "blood-thirsty" Apache, Seminole and Cherokee nations ready to attack. Lawyer Jennifer Sunset (a member of the Wopotami) is horrified and tells Hawkins none of those tribes are at all savages and would never do any of this. Hawkins reply: "What do these dumb palefaces know?" The fact it causes the Court to side with the Wopotamis just makes Jennifer angrier.
  • A non-US example is the cannibal natives in Robinson Crusoe, which takes place off the coast of South America. Although often Race Lifted in the novel's many adaptations, the cannibals are identified as Carib Indians in the original text. This makes sense, since the Caribs had a notorious (though highly exaggerated) reputation as ferocious man-eating savages for hundreds of years — in fact, the very word "cannibal" comes from these guys (as does the name of the Caribbean Sea).
  • Tall Tale America has these turn up whenever guys like Mike Fink or Davy Crockett get tired of shooting animals.
  • Also Jared Diamond deconstructed the trope in The Third Chimpanzee and pointed out the classical image of the wars against Native Americans usually amounts to bare-chested, feathered strongmen on horses charging the US Army or the migrant cowboys. But this is limited to a few conflicts in the 1870s which involved a few thousand people all put together. For nearly 400 years, the hidden conflict between the races involved sneak attacks, back stabs, well poisonings, kidnapping of women and children and other nasty things which happen when two agricultural societies try to undermine each other in a quest for land and resources. It remained hidden as long as it happened on the fringes of the civilized world and among people who couldn't write.
  • Very common throughout Karl May's Winnetou novels. A large number of the Native American peoples and tribes who come into conflict with the heroes are pretty sneaky, cruel and brutal. They are put into stark contrast with other Native Americans who display bravery, honesty and righteousness.

    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-up for someone else's crimes, and at one point Seth is attacked unprovoked by a lone horseman.
  • In her last appearance in French sitcom Les Filles d'à côté, Magalie receives an unexpected bequest - tribal regalia and a tomahawk which apparently belonged to an ancestor who was an Apache Indian. Much mileage, or possibly kilometrage, is had by trotting out all the Savage Indian stereotypes.
  • 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.
  • Hell on Wheels deconstructs this trope for the most part. The opening episode and series as 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.
  • Played with in Westworld, where the Ghost Nation hosts are depicted as bloodthirsty marauders for one narrative. However, since the hosts' individual personalities can be altered in whatever way the park's employees deem fit, this is arguably more to showcase the park management's racist tendencies. The second season reveals that the Ghost Nation was deliberately redesigned to be more violent and inhuman for Westworld's grand opening in order to create more conflict and to make sure the guests wouldn't feel bad about killing them.

  • Genesis: In "Ballad of Big", the title character is killed in a Native American ambush while trying to drive cattle through their territory. Said Native Americans are only described as "a-whooping and a-hollering and flashing their knives."
  • Queen: "White Man" comments on the stereotype. The narrator, a Native American, notes how "the red man knows war with his hands and his knives," but contrasts this with the European colonists who waged genocide against his people, describing this as true savagery.

    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.
  • The Native Beast Nyla Rose managed to draw on the savage imagery and behavior while remaining baby face, getting chants of "break his neck" while mauling whatever hapless heel happened to be in her way.
  • Ky-ote Joe and his Arrow Club associates can fall into this when working heel, braiding their hair, painting their faces, screaming war cries, while usually targeting indigenous groups they encounter verbally and other wrestlers of Pre Colombian ancestry physically, trying to get them to stop being complacent and join the movement to "Make America Native Again". And when they mean all countries and populated territories in "America", not just USA.

    Religion & Mythology 

    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.

    Video Games 
  • Played with, if perhaps somewhat unintentionally, in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Honest Hearts. The antagonists of the story, the White Legs, play this to the hilt. As an Always Chaotic Evil tribe with no knowledge of production (lacking even basic hunting and cooking skills), they must continually raid to survive, and violently attack any outsiders on sight. However, they are ethnically white, along with the much more peaceful Sorrows and Dead Horses tribes the player is tasked with protecting. Word of God says that all three tribes were originally intended to be racially mixed with no clear real world analogue, but the developers had trouble getting the tattoos and tribal paints to work on darker skin tones. (The White Legs' name comes from their practice of covering their bodies with white chalk as a primitive camouflage for the rocky white surroundings of their native area of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, not from being Caucasian.)
  • Game & Watch: Fire Attack makes no effort to hide that the enemies trying to burn down your fort are supposed to be Native Americans, with the opposing Mr. Game & Watches wearing comically huge feathered headbands and your player character wearing a cowboy hat. This has made the game a notable subject of controversy in the succeeding decades, with Nintendo of America opting to remove the feathers from the Native Americans for the game's re-release in Game & Watch Gallery 4 on the Game Boy Advance, the characters being rebranded as generic bandits to remove any racial connotations. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was another game notably affected by Fire Attack, as the animation for Mr. Game & Watch's forward smash was redesigned to more closely resemble it, following the theme of Mr. Game & Watch now transforming into the characters of the G&W games in each attack. Following public outcry, Nintendo opted to censor the animation identically to Game & Watch Gallery 4, once again removing the feather, and with it any indication of Native American stereotyping.
  • Lethal Enforcers 2, a Light Gun Game in a Western setting, has Red Indian raiders as enemies in the Stage Holdup level, taking potshots on the player characters with their arrows. There's also the Final Boss, a Red Indian sorceror who can summon skeletons on the players.
  • Railroad Rampage, a Beat 'em Up set in the Wild West, has tomahawk-wielding Red Indians as a recurring enemy type.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim puts a fantasy twist on this trope with the Forsworn : natives to the Reach, they are bloodthirsty tribal savages with a distinctly shamanic culture that borrows some elements from native american folklore.
  • Sunset Riders has Chief Scalpem, a late boss and enforcer of Sir Richard Rose who resembles a stereotypical Native American war chief, crown of feathers and all. Native Americans also appear as enemies all over his stage, wielding both knives and bows. The Genesis version leaves most of this untouched but the SNES port removes all the Indian enemies and changes the boss' name to Chief Wigwam.
  • Super Fighter: The Big Bad and Final Boss Red Man is one of the rare cases of this trope being played straight in a post-1960s work without any hint of irony. Granted, while the game he is featured in is a Street Fighter II knockoff developed by the Taiwanese company C&E without any intention of it ever going outside of its home country, but even then it's pretty egregious regardless.

    Western Animation