August 15, 2018


Residents of Kahnawake say Montreal company’s use of the word “savages” in its designs perpetuates negative stereotypes about Indigenous people

In one design, the word "savages" appears under a skull sporting a traditional First Nations headdress.


In one design, the word “savages” appears under a skull sporting a traditional First Nations headdress.

Residents of a Mohawk reserve south of Montreal are angry after a local T-shirt company has featured the word ”savages” alongside Native imagery on its clothing.

People in Kahnawake have accused T-shirt company Headrush of being insensitive and employing racist stereotypes after it printed the word on a few of its Spring 2015 collection designs.

”Savages” appears on a jacket under a skull sporting a traditional First Nations headdress, and under the company’s logo on a T-shirt.

”It seems so silly that people are up in arms about just this one word, but it comes with so much,” said Jessica Deer, the interim president of the Kahnawake Youth Forum, and a reporter at local newspaper, The Eastern Door.

”As Indigenous people we’re constantly stereotyped. And that stereotype of savage is just one . . . that we’re constantly trying to fight.”

Headrush – which has offices in Montreal and Glens Falls, N.Y. – says on its website that it ”was born in 2008 on Native American grounds.”

One of its founders is himself from Kahnawake, a fact that made the company’s use the word that much more upsetting for the community, Deer said.

”It’s hard when non-Natives, whether fashion designers or a sports team, are appropriating images and words that don’t represent us well. When our own people start to internalize that . . . that’s a prime example of the effects of those stereotypes,” she told the Star.

Headrush did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.

But in a company statement the Star obtained from The Eastern Door, Headrush said the word savage ”is meant to describe oneÌ__s intensity and strength when achieving an athletic goal. In the (mixed martial arts) and training world, the term Ì_ÈsavageÌ__ is meant to describe that intensity of training.”

The designs were ”never meant to offend anyone,” the company continued. ”We are a multi-cultural brand whose mission is to empower all people.”

But the term savages has an ”extremely racist” connotation, according to Marie-Pierre Bousquet, who heads the Indigenous studies program at Montreal University.

The word, she said, was commonly used across the country until the 1970s to disparage First Nations peoples.

”It goes back to a very evolutionist, and therefore racist, idea that Indigenous peoples, and First Nations peoples in general, are backwards and primitive people,” Bousquet told the Star.

She said Indigenous peoples may want to re-appropriate the word, but that is an internal matter that concerns their communities directly.

In the context of ongoing dispossession of First Nations and a lack of true reconciliation, however, she said ”it may be better to avoid this type of vocabulary.”

”It doesn’t mean that we need to limit freedom of expression . . . but we have to be conscious that words have weight. They have a past, they have a history,” Bousquet said. ”We shouldn’t demonize words, but we have to be conscious that they are not neutral.”


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