Robert A. Williams’ book, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, is the latest publication in a growing body of literature among indigenous authors to expose the historic and psychological reasons why Western-based societies have chosen to colonize and oppress indigenous peoples. Throughout the book, Williams discusses the anxiety-producing imagery of the “savage” from the time of Greek colonizers to its influences today.

While initially curious about how the author would be able to prove the historic extent of this issue leading all the way back to Greek times in Western civilization, I soon found that his assertions were well-proven through some of the most prominent Western historic figures and institutions, such as Socrates, Aristotle, Hesiod, Euripides, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic church, Roger Bacon, the Saxons, Charlemagne, Pope Innocent IV, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bracciolini, Erasmus, Thomas More, Rabelais, Cervantes, Christopher Columbus, Pope Alexander VI (a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia), Vespucci, Henry Cabot, the Virginia Company, Coke, Gentili, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Captain John Smith, Rousseau, Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Locke, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, Frederick Jackson Turner, John Marshall, and William Rehnquist. Anyone who has gone to high school in the United States has come across most, if not all, of these names in history classes, but most have never understood that there is a related cultural and literary thread among them, centered around the idea of characterizing those peoples without Western roots as savages. Williams brilliantly pulls together these generational depictions to explain the snowball effect it has had on indigenous peoples in society and the laws that directly affect them today. In fact, he states that “[m]ost people in the West are not even aware of this obsession and how it distorts the way they look at the world”, but “Indigenous tribal peoples are aware of it” and it causes them great anxiety and distress.

While Williams does not specifically mention the salient example of international repatriation within his book, Savage Anxieties, the human rights violations that have occurred both historically and today in the collection and continued retention of indigenous ancestral remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, are the direct result of the perceptions among Western-influenced communities and museums of indigenous peoples as “savages,” who are perceived as unable to self-determine the future of their peoples, property, and communities. While consent is generally sought from families upon the death of their family members for use by science, international repositories never seek the consent of indigenous communities to retain indigenous family members’ ancestral remains and cultural items. In fact, Western-based arguments cite this retention as important to the betterment of humanity or science, which often supplants indigenous consent. The big question that we, as indigenous peoples, often ask in such situations, however, is WHY these arguments are used in ways that leave us distressed at the possibility of not being able to put our families to rest with the objects they were buried with, anxious about future outcomes, and feeling like unequals in general.

Robert Williams’ book Savage Anxieties explains just why—It is a good read and highly recommended.

– Honor Keeler

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