The controversy sparked a debate, once limited to translators and scholars, about what the French word “sauvage” actually means. Does it mean “wild,” as it is often translated, or “savage,” as the campaign seems to promote?
Defenders of Dior argue that the word refers to a wild nature, and that critics don’t understand the differences between French and English when they treat “sauvage” and “savage” as cognates. But critics charge that the Sauvage campaign is little more than warmed-over colonialist rhetoric and a reminder of France’s not-so-recent past as a racist empire.
The critics are right. While French colonialism in North America has garnered less attention than its Spanish and English counterparts, especially in the United States, its legacy persists. And French colonialists used the word “sauvage” in the very ways suggested by Dior’s ad campaign to justify their takeover of large swaths of North America. By calling indigenous peoples and American environments sauvage, explorers, colonists and missionaries claimed that they were untamed and uncivilized — and framed French intervention in Native lives as an act of cultivation and domestication.
In fact, the ad campaign replicates the history of early French missionaries, explorers and settlers who claimed indigenous lands in North America. Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City in 1608 and led the colony for much of the next several decades, used “sauvage” to describe the place and to sell his colonial project to French audiences. He used the word to characterize the local plants and environments, musing that “if they were cultivated they would be as good as ours.”
French explorers and missionaries also used the word to describe the people they encountered in New France, suggesting a people who were, according to a 1606 dictionary, “feral,” “of the woods” or “errant.” That is to say, the translation of “sauvage” as wild is not incorrect, but it misses the sense of inadequacy or degeneracy that French attitudes and policies proclaimed.
In this way, cultivation became both a suggested course of European settlement and a justification for it: Europeans would take wild places and peoples in hand and, through the introduction of European farming, faith and family, subject them to the yoke of a paternalistic colonial order. French colonists planned to tame moose to carry freight and round up beaver in manageable pens to increase productivity. Settlers like Champlain carefully tended to American grapes and other fruit with real optimism that they could make them taste French.
Across the continent, missionaries and colonial administrators sought to settle indigenous communities into ordered agricultural communities, introduce Christianity and make Native families more like their French counterparts. Both people and place would be cultivated until the differences between them and their French counterparts disappeared.
When Champlain proclaimed to indigenous people, “Our young men will marry your daughters, and we will become one people,” he seemed to suggest that Native people would become French through a form of cultivation by white Europeans. The sentiment has since been lauded (and rightly critiqued) by historians and commentators trying to distinguish French American colonialism from its Spanish and English counterparts. Indeed, French colonists invoked the term “sauvage” to proclaim that they were improvers, in contrast to other colonizers who were interested only in gold.
But that was and remains a fantasy grounded in the erasure of Native peoples and cultures. The centuries of genocidal violence, slavery and intentional efforts to disrupt and replace indigenous societies and cultures that followed Champlain’s speech expose the racist logic of colonialism, which could not be hidden by pleasantly packaged French plans.
Had Dior simply used the word “sauvage,” it might not have prompted so much controversy. But its description of the fragrance further reinforced colonial tropes. For example, the ad describes the sandalwood from which the scent draws much of its character as a “difficult plant to cultivate” that grows in a “harsh, natural environment, [where] each tree battles to spread its branches and thrive.” The product also promises a “wild beauty that comes to life on the skin.”
And when copywriters explained that Sauvage’s creator has made “[t]he fragrance of a new frontier: an interpretation with a rich heady trail that celebrates the magic of wide-open spaces,” they leaned into the colonial legacy of the term.
In a statement, Dior defended the campaign, touting its work with Americans for Indian Opportunity, a Native American advocacy organization (which subsequently disavowed its involvement on the campaign.) “The Parfums Christian Dior project is a part of AIO’s Advance Indigeneity Campaign to change the misperceptions about Native Americans, to share accurate American history, to build awareness about Native Americans as contemporary peoples and to promote Indigenous worldviews,” Dior said. Rather than changing misperceptions, however, the campaign may have reinforced them.
When Champlain and his peers picked the word “sauvage,” they deployed it to justify dispossession of indigenous lands and the marginalization of indigenous peoples in the first centuries of European settlement in North America. When Dior promised “[a]n authentic journey deep into the Native American soul,” the gap between the company’s aims and those of the French missionaries and colonists who established colonies in what are now the United States and Canada disappeared entirely.
Although Dior has pulled the campaign and in a statement apologized for “any offense caused” by it, we can still use this moment to reflect on the erasures that led to a massive company investing in a hugely expensive campaign reinforcing long-standing colonial tropes.
North America has many colonial legacies, and recognizing the violence and racism of Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Russian, German and, of course, English and French encounters is the essential work of understanding our history. But simply translating non-English words into familiar Anglo histories of contact with Native American peoples flattens the unique histories of contact and colonization. Exploring this history should lead us to broaden our view, to center unique stories of indigenous resistance and creativity and to insist upon human rights, dignity and self-determination for Native communities today.