The racist and historically problematic myth of the “savage” lives on within contemporary North American discourse. A prominent example of this is found in the rising popularity of adventure races, such as Savage Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, in which sporting companies reproduce traditional notions of masculinity and comradery through environmental and obstacle conquest. In at least one of the events, a historically racist term like “savage” is frequently employed to sell customers an opportunity to push themselves to their physical, mental, and emotional limits by running a purposefully rural, physically-taxing course filled with predesigned obstacles and stressful natural environments (running through mud and near dangerous elements like fire and barbed wire, for example). It is symptomatic of the enduring ubiquity of racial ideals within American society that, through a company like Savage Race, customers pay for a chance to be physically active, have fun and “get savage.”
Scholars, such as cultural anthropologist Lee Baker, have examined the history of “savage” as a racial classification created by Western, imperial powers to characterize indigenous and non-Western peoples. By labelling them as savages, Euroamerican powers defined indigenous groups through ethnocentric, exaggerated, idealized “traits” in order to naturalize their intellectual and cultural inferiority within the dominant Western racial hierarchy. In some cases, more benevolent Western observers called indigenous peoples “noble savages,” expanding the racial stereotype to imply the spiritual and ecological superiority of the primitive. This racist myth has existed in the United States since the country’s founding and has long been used to justify American programs to Christianize, civilize, conquer and murder indigenous societies.
In other words, “savage” has deep roots as an invented term employed to serve the interests of those in positions of power. As scholars who study the historical effects of Western colonialism tell us, European imperialism and conquest resulted in the forced classification of peoples according to the constructed social categories of race and gender. People may use the term to mean different, contextually specific things in their everyday vernacular, but the use of “savage” by an American commercial sporting business within mainstream public discourse inevitably recalls and supports this historical narrative of imperial conquest, racial classification, and human oppression.
Judging by the language and imagery of the Savage Race website, the company has a clear idea of what they think “savage” means: a masculine individual who encounters and overcomes treacherous “wilderness” and natural elements. As a modern sporting practice designed to rationalize and structure the supposed “savage” elements of “pre-modern” life into a commercial, regulated form, Savage Race by its very nature reinforces the myth of the savage as someone primitive, primordial, and instinctual. The planned course obstacles are described in terms of their physical intensity, danger and conquest, and are designed to “push your limits farther than you ever have before.” Just as savage peoples seemingly did physically challenging, “wild” and “primitive” things in their everyday lives, the logic follows, now people can enjoy a similar, physically taxing experience, but in a safe, regulated environment provided by a modern American business. The company’s logo is an overtly masculine figure running with a primitive hatchet, reinforcing a vision of a savage’s physical struggles with natural wilderness. By completing a Savage Race event, participants get to do something they don’t normally do for a day: be a “savage,” get muddy, encounter fire and other natural elements, overcome difficult obstacles and scenarios, and push themselves to their physical and mental limits.
It is unclear from their website whether the company founders understand the term’s deep historical and racial roots. Viewing their video promotions, they seem to think “being savage” is a culturally benign, evocative phrase: a catch-all for conjuring imagery of “adventure” and physical toughness against “natural” and primal elements. However, people do not express their words and concepts in a historical and cultural vacuum, and we cannot easily sever a concept like “savage” from its racially-charged, imperialist history. Like the demeaning caricatures of American Indians reinforced by some professional sports mascots, the name Savage Race reproduces a racist myth deeply rooted in the history of American racial imperialism and the colonial classification of indigenous peoples.
Savage Race is just one of the latest in a legacy of institutions co-opting indigenous cultural practices for the purposes of “playing Indian”—what historian Philip Deloria calls the appropriation of Indian ideas, culture and practices in the shaping of American national identity. The Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, the mascots of professional sports teams, and now Savage Race provide a few poignant examples of white Americans “playing Indian,” by idealizing, caricaturing and dehumanizing Indian peoples and their customs for the fashioning of white American identity. Now, with Savage Race, Americans can pay a race registration fee and “pretend” for a day that they too are back in a treacherous wilderness where they must overcome trying obstacles and harsh natural elements.
Clearly, within the complicated cultural politics of national identity, people and organizations continue to construct versions of Americanness in opposition to an invented “Other,” a racially classified, primitive, conquered counterpart to American civilization. As such, the issue cannot be remedied simply by changing a company’s name or a sports team’s mascot, for they are only symptomatic of the deeper, embedded issues within the structures of American thought. Such issues are reminders that we have yet to learn from the history of indigenous colonization, and that we still have a long way to go in deconstructing the accompanying racial stereotypes within American society and sporting culture.
Samuel M Clevenger is a PhD candidate in Kinesiology, focusing on Physical Cultural Studies, at the University of Maryland, College Park. His doctoral research focuses on the cultural and environmental biopolitics of international garden city movement planning. He recently explored the significance of decolonial thinking for deconstructing modern and Western constructs in sport history, published in the journal Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice.