The expression is a European term based on European understandings and culture. The expression savage often means “the other,” someone of a different culture and moral code. Usually the term savage is applied in a derogatory manner, meaning someone without culture, although the meaning of savage more literally is a people of a different culture.
Certainly American Indian cultures were extremely foreign to Europeans. Furthermore, indigenous cultures throughout North America and around the world significantly differ between one another. In indigenous cultures, as in most cultures, there is a tendency to see one’s own tradition as central, based on specific creation teachings. Tribal people often see themselves as the people of the first creation, while other nations or races are created and given certain places to live and certain tasks and ceremonies. Different from the European traditions, all the peoples appear to be related and part of a common future. When Europeans use the expression savage, they conceptualize peoples who are other, uncivilized, heathen non-Christian, and often in need of remaking in the image of European ways. Savages are considered inferior, benighted, lacking in education and appropriate cultural ways.
Original version of Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.”
The expression “noble savage” then appears as a rather forced usage. How can one be noble and savage at the same time. Nobles in European culture were persons of rank and order, who often commanded political and economic resources. Nobility in Europe was generally about family, lineage, political rank, and class. Indigenous nations, however, usually do not have class and economic hierarchies comparable to those of Europe. How can the expression “noble savage” be attached to Indigenous Peoples like American Indians?
When many Europeans observed indigenous nations they often contrasted them with the class orders and centralized absolutist states of Europe. The king, aristocrats, and church formed the leading sectors of many European nations. Many European immigrants fled the political hierarchies and religious wars of Europe to find sanctuary in the Americas. What many early European observers admired about indigenous nations was their lack of rigid political hierarchies and consensual form of political process that sharply contrasted with the centralized absolutist states of Europe. Decentralized indigenous political processes, often based on kinship groups, became models for democratic alternatives that were not available in Europe before the 20th century. Rousseau, Marx, Engels, and the French Philosophes used the indigenous examples of political egalitarianism to critique the non-democratic and class-based hierarchies of European government.
“Noble savage” became an expression that focused on political freedom. In many, if not all, indigenous nations, the people had the right to express their points of view through traditional means of political discussion and decision making. The Iroquois Confederacy was a prime example where political decisions were made within families, clans, nations, before they could be discussed and agreed upon within the entire Confederacy. Indigenous people were seen as noble, not because they controlled wealth and political power, but because each person had the right to political participation within the indigenous nation.
In Europe before the 20th century, most people did not have the right to vote, and most people who voted were members of the aristocracy and were often considered nobles. So Indians were seen as noble savages because they upheld different rules of egalitarian and democratic process than Europeans. Indigenous persons had political rights to express their views and have their views expressed in their village, band, clan, family, or nation, according to their own traditions of political and cultural community.
The cultural values of consensual political processes and individual respect for persons, social groups, and nations created not only individual and group forms of freedom, but also indigenous nations that continue to the present to insist on self-government and the freedom to make their own decisions.