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In 1893 a world’s fair known as the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to America. Visitors to the fair were able to learn about American Indian life through a series of displays put up by the Indian Office, which is a part of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of American Ethnology, a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Following the thinking of the time, the exhibits showed the peoples of the world arrayed in a unilineal evolutionary model ranging from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Civilization was, of course, represented by contemporary America.

The evolutionary model used in the exposition had been originally developed by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1877 book Ancient Society. According to Morgan, human history could be divided into three “ethnical” periods—savagery, barbarism, and civilization—and that each human society would have to go through these periods as it evolved. In order to pull American Indians out of savagery they would have to go through the stages of barbarism in order to arrive at civilization.


The word “savage” came into English from the Old French “sauvage” which in turn was derived from the Vulgar Latin “*salvāticus” meaning “of the woods” or “wild.” Since civilization is associated with city life, those living in the woods, and hence “uncivilized,” were considered “savage.”

Europeans and Americans often described Indians as savages and equated them with wild animals. As wild animals, they could be hunted, exterminated, and have bounties placed on them (redskins).

In 1892, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a Lowell Institute Lecture in Boston, Massachusetts, in which he stated:

“We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages.”
Morgan envisioned three sub-periods of savagery:

Lower Savagery: at this level, people lived on fruit and nuts.

Middle Savagery: at this level, people added fish to their diet and domesticated fire.

Upper Savagery: technology at this level focused on the use of the bow and arrow. Many of the American Indian tribes were classified at this level.


The source of the English word “barbarian” is the Greek “barbaros” which meant “foreign, ignorant.” Linguists sometimes explain this by saying that to the Greeks, there was only one real language, Greek. All other languages just sounded like “bar bar bar bar” and hence the origin of “barbarous.”

There are some etymologists who feel that the Greek “barbaros” was also the origin of the Vulgar Latin “*brabus” which became “brave” in English. This is, however, disputed. Other etymologists have suggested that “brave” has a Celtic origin, perhaps from the Irish “breagh” or the Cornish “bray.”

Since the beginning of the European invasion of the Americas, its aboriginal inhabitants have been often described using the term “barbarian” or “barbarous.” For example, in his 1851 book History of the Indians of Connecticut, John W. DeForest writes:

“They were living, a barbarous race, in the midst of a civilized community. Consequently, when they were attacked by the diseases and vices of civilization, they had nothing to oppose them but their ancient ignorance and simplicity.”
As with savagery, Morgan envisioned three sub-levels of barbarism:

Lower Barbarism: to advance to this level, the people would develop or borrow pottery.

Middle Barbarism: for American Indians, Morgan indicated that this sublevel was characterized by the cultivation of maize (corn in American English), irrigation, and adobe and stone architecture. The Pueblos and the O’odham peoples in Arizona were seen as examples of this level of social evolution.

Upper Barbarism: elevation to this level required iron tools.


With regard to etymology, the word “civilization” entered English from French in the eighteenth century. It was originally used as an opposite to barbarity. European culture was seen, of course, as the highest example of civilization.

According to Morgan, civilization required a phonetic alphabet and writing. This meant that Indians, in order to become civilized, would have to learn English as written English represented the highest development of civilization. Many other writers felt that civilization required monotheism, particularly Christian monotheism, and preferably Protestant Christian monotheism.

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Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Sat Jun 21, 2014 at 08:26 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Cranky Grammarians.

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