Jesse James Collins is leading the charge to reclaim a word that has a nasty, racist history.
The word “savage” caused decades of pain for millions of indigenous people around the world. Today, one self-proclaimed “savage” is among the Cherokee U.S. Army soldiers who are working to reclaim the ‘S’ word and make it their own.
The “Savage” Soldier
Jesse James Collins, 30, is a member of the Cherokee Nation and a former U.S. Army sergeant. Collins adopted “Savage” as his nickname to honor the unit in which he and his fellow soldiers served. “Savage” was also their radio call sign.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.A., near the Cherokee Nation, Collins grew up a domestic third culture kid, living among German, English and Cherokee influences. As a child, Collins straddled his mother’s German culture and his father’s Cherokee culture, ever aware of how society viewed him — as Caucasian.
Growing Up Cherokee
According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes: the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. From an early age, Collins hungered to learn more about his identity, and after his Cherokee father died, he turned to tribal elders of various indigenous nations to become more involved with his Native American heritage.
In high school, he joined the Indian Heritage Club, where he and other indigenous teenagers learned Native American culture through an oral tradition rather than formal schooling. Each month, a tribal elder taught the students about different aspects of their culture and traditional life. They learned about Native foods, music, customs and about living wild, or off the land.
As an adult, Collins joined the U.S. Army because he wanted a way out of Oklahoma and into the larger world. In 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served during wartime with a group of like-minded soldiers. Danil Sudakov was one of them.
The “Savages” of Recon
Sudakov, 30, is also a third culture kid. He was born in the city of Izhevsk, in Russia just west of the Ural Mountains, and at age 13, he came to the U.S. with his mother. He decided to join the army because it was a longtime dream. “Everybody else in my family served with the Russian armed forces,” Sudakov says. “Joining the army in either country was something that I [needed to do] to prove to myself that I was strong enough and brave enough.”
Sudakov and Collins served in the 45th Infantry Division, which was originally formed by the members of several Native American nations. They bonded over the use of the “savage” call sign. “I loved it because I feel like that’s who we were sometimes,” Sudakov recalls. “We were just a bunch of Type-A personalities who could endure pain, lack of sleep, and everything else that comes along with combat.”
For these soldiers, “savage” also inspired tattoos and iconography that furthered their own use and meaning behind the word. “We were willing to accomplish the mission at any cost,” he says. “You could feel that strength within our team.”
It was in Afghanistan in 2011 when this multiethnic group of soldiers came together as a unit and popularized a word that at one time was used by racist societies to shame others. The unit turned that previously hurtful word into a way of expressing military pride and camaraderie. “You never see a ‘savage’ back down from a fight” in the old movies, Sudakov says.
Collins and Sudakov served together during Operation Enduring Freedom in the so-called “global war on terrorism.” In that time, Collins was in three separate Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts. He now wears a ring in the shape of a cross on his left hand — it’s made from one of the IEDs that failed to take his life.
“When you’re at war and you realize this might be the last time you talk to your buddy, everything you say has this raw purpose and honesty,” Sudakov recalls. The unit remains in contact. “We may not all be friends, but we are all brothers.”
Collins’ 27-year-old younger sister Jameson Knapp says the time when her brother was at war was really hard. “We pretty much just turned off the TV until he came home,” says Knapp, who was a teenager at the time. “When we saw something in the news about the war with a group of people making an attack someplace, we just wondered if Jesse was a part of that. Sometimes he couldn’t call home for a month, and we didn’t know anything about how he was doing.”
Knapp says her brother came home a changed man; so changed, in fact, that the family had to get to know him all over again. “His sympathy for people now and what he will do for them is extraordinary,” she says. “He will pick up the phone at any time of day or night to talk to a veteran in need.”
Serving Fellow Veterans
“Living far outside the borders of the tribe, but for all social concerns being a white-presenting Cherokee, affords me a unique opportunity,” Collins says. “I have the ability to showcase my appreciation and devotion to the Cherokee Nation.”
Collins has become passionate about helping veterans with mental health and other services, and he channels his compassion and his own need for healing into his philanthropic work. He started Veteran Command, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that aims to be a one-stop, online resource serving former service members and their families. It’s logo, the poppy, a traditional symbol for veterans.