What is a "savage"?

According to author Robert A. Williams Jr., it is a word has been applied in several ways during the 3,000 year history of Western civilization.

Often, it has been used as a means to justify aggression against a tribal culture, or as a reason to deny that culture equal rights. It's one of the many aspects of language explored in his newest work, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization.

Williams is the E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and American Indian Studies, and serves as the faculty co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law in Tucson.

He is also an enrolled member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina.

In his writing career, he has authored The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest, which received the Gustavus Meyers Human Rights Center Award as one of the outstanding books published in 1990 on the subject of prejudice in the United States, along with Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800 (1997), and Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights and the Legal History of Racism in America (2005).

Williams stresses that although his research starts with the writings of Homer and his contemporaries during the apex of the ancient Greek civilization, it also takes a close look at the ongoing use of the "savage" label in the 21st century.

"The concluding chapter of the book ties this history to some of the most pressing human rights problems confronting indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, Latin America and other parts of the world," Williams says. "For instance, I address in that chapter the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence perpetuated against Native women in this country, against the backdrop of Congress and the Supreme Court's refusal to recognize the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts to punish these offenders for their on-reservation crimes."

Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Listen to an edited version of this interview as it aired during the NPR 89.1 afternoon news: