What if I told you were smart for a girl, you were hot for an Asian guy, you were well-spoken for a black girl? Are these compliments? They are claused, there is a reluctance there. You feel it; a begrudging praise that patronizes and reveals the prejudices of the speaker. These are not compliments and neither is the idea of a “Noble Savage.”
This idea of a Noble Savage is an immediate contradiction. To be noble is to be virtuous, honorable, a blue-blood, royal even. To be a savage is to be none of these things; savages are wild, brutish, unreasonable, cold-blooded, beasts. In reading Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, I noticed some similarities to another text I had read, Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. In this novel, an actual African prince is enslaved, perfectly embodying the image of the Noble Savage. He is described in European terms; his humanity is proven, justified, in terms that European/white colonists would understand and sympathize with. He speaks the language of his masters and they are awed by him. His beauty is assessed through European standards and thus, there is never a moment when he is considered as equal. He is instead a special case. He is magical, ethereal, unreal. As long the Europeans believed themselves to be the only and ultimate standard in everything, then everything not white is then, not equal. Oroonoko, like Magawisca, gains the friendship of the white colonists and though they admire him, they do not respect or trust him. He, like Magawisca, is given certain freedoms but all the while, he is being watched because–for all their ooh and ahhing–the white colonists still fear him. He is marveled at and people are shocked that a race they have dehumanized could possibly contain actual humans equal or superior to themselves but this marvelling is not to be confused for respect. Admiration is not respect. You can admire and still hold some hate and prejudice for the admired.
In Hope Leslie, we see that Magawisca is respected because of an air she has about her. She is smiled at because of the simple and beautiful way she speaks. There is something so wrong in this admiration. It is like if you were to smile at a dog for sitting when told or a child for learning a new word. You are surprised because they are not equal to you yet they are trying to be so. It is patronizing how Magawisca is considered beautiful according to European standards. She speaks English fluently and altogether she has, if not assimilated, earned the respect and acceptance of the Puritans. This is not because the Puritans respect just anyone but because they respect anyone like them.
To bring this concept up to date, let us consider the movie Zootopia (it’s on Netflix!). In the animated movie, animals are like humans and live in a civilization modeled after any of our diverse major cities. This movie presents the same idea in Hope Leslie of there being an exception to every stereotype. This is seen in the relationship between the characters of Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde. Hopps has been, like Hope Leslie, raised among a people with prejudices against predators–foxes in particular. Hopps similarly lives with a superficial sense that she is not so biased against others or the great big Other–foxes, Native Americans, etc. We view both Hopps and Hope Leslie as progressive and tolerant characters that are remarkably unaffected by the biased rhetoric of their families. Yet they no longer seem so rebellious when their liberal sensibilities are tested.
When Hope Leslie sees her estranged sister in the arms of Oneco, a Native American, her immediate reaction is disgust. She is physically repulsed by this intimacy between her sister and a Native American. She who seemed so liberal has in fact internalized the racism her family has constantly hinted at. When Judy Hopps enters Zootopia, her hand is often ready to grab her bottle of fox mace or take for instance the moment she tells Nick Wilde that he is not like them, the “them” being all the other foxes and predators who she definitely believes are dangerous.
This idea of the Noble Savage is not a compliment, it is an expression that patronizes as it praises. You’re alright, it says, for a Native American. You are beautiful, for a _____, you are smart, for a _____, you are funny, for a ____. These are not compliments, they are expressions of shock that you are not like the stereotype. They reveal that the speaker believes in the stereotype and are no different from the more explicitly racist majority.
This reminds me also of the Model Minority Myth, where Asian-Americans (South, East, etc.) are complimented for being so exemplary. They are complimented for being like white Americans, for abiding by the terms set by white America. This stereotype is used to put down African-Americans for their not being able to–allowed to–succeed like white people do. This myth depersonalizes a whole population and defines them through white terms. It is bad all around.
So I am asked, is Magawisca a good example of the Noble Savage. I answer, Magawisca is Magawisca. The Noble Savage is a perspective, a white perspective, where all of the actions of a minority–a hated minority–are compared to the assumed superior group–the Puritans; Magawisca does not succeed entirely. According to the Puritan Noble Savage rubric, which I made just now, Magawisca succeeds in learning the language of the Puritans, in behaving modestly–a Puritan gendered virtue–, in being “beautiful even to an European eye”(Sedgwick, 25) and this is truly, in their “eye”, high praise. She is dressed in a waistcoat, petticoat and “leggins” which resemble the European style of dress more than anything. She passes with high scores so far. She has befriended and saved the life of Everell Fletcher, that must count for something. It is when we reach religious views that Magawisca fails, but fails peculiarly. She is adamant in her refusal of any of the Christian religions and this irks her Puritan friends but does not drive them away. During a stakeout with Everell, she is seen coming and going from the woods and is distrusted by all but Everell. She is, when imprisoned towards the end of the novel, called a heathen because she believes in her own, non-Christian religion yet is still loved by Everell and Hope Leslie. At this point, she is considered an enemy by most and is no longer regarded so highly by her jailers. Even her “high-born” air is seen as a negative by one member of the court who notes, “See, with what an air [Magawisca] comes among her betters, as if she were a queen of us all”(Sedgwick, 297). Her actions are no longer viewed in a positive light. Fundamentally, she has not changed at all. What has changed is the Puritan’s perception of her. She no longer–perhaps never– fit the Noble Savage archetype because, though she is marveled at and respected by a few Puritans, she is not trusted entirely, she is not accepted entirely, she is not, in the Puritans eyes, like them.
The idea of the Noble Savage depends entirely on the opinions of the dominant people. Like respectability politics where a people–who have been wronged–must behave calmly and play by the rules in order to prove that they are worth the consideration of their oppressors, the Noble Savage archetype reveals the white colonist belief that people must earn respect, must justify their right to be treated fairly and as equals. Do you not see this today? I ask you, are we all no better than the musty Puritans?