‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ and the question of Indigenous representation
In 2009, two decades after the release of his global sensation “Titanic,” James Cameron captured the world’s attention again with “Avatar.” With its advances in motion-capture technology and pioneering use of 3D, the film earned $2.92 billion at the box office and received multiple Oscar nominations and awards.
In 2022, Cameron released the sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which has so far made over $2 billion globally at the box office and this week nabbed several Oscar nominations, including best picture, production design and sound. But the film is not without some controversy.
The backlash to the film centers on the way it portrays colonizers clashing with Native cultures. How exactly that plotline is handled by Cameron, and who exactly tells those stories, has been the subject of significant critique on social media and elsewhere. Some Natives ask the question, “Why is a white man telling our story?” But are non-Natives even aware this movie has any similarities to Indigenous cultures at all?
The First ‘Avatar’
The first "Avatar" movie begins in 2154, when Earth is dying and humans must find their resources elsewhere. Scientists discover a moon called Pandora that is rich in unobtainium, a superconductive energy source. The Resources Development Administration (R.D.A.), a massive mining operative and military force, goes to Pandora to mine and bring unobtanium back to Earth for profit.
Are non-Natives even aware this movie has any similarities to Indigenous cultures at all?
The moon is also home to a species called the Na’vi. They are 10 feet tall, blue and are deeply connected to their land. Eywa is the Great Mother of their ecosystem. The Na’vi believe in living in sync with Eywa by physically bonding themselves with their nerves to all life on Pandora. Thus, the R.D.A.’s mining activities are destructive both to the land and spirituality of the Na’vi.
Enter Jake Sully. An ex-Marine, he joins the R.D.A.’s Avatar program: a scientific achievement that allows for the consciousness of a human to be placed in a Na’vi body. Jake and others are enlisted to infiltrate Na’vi society to help locate large amounts of untapped unobtainium.
Though he starts out as the enemy of the Na’vi, Sully learns about Eywa through the Na’vi woman Neytiri (also a future love interest). He switches sides in the fight, and eventually helps the Na’vi win in their war against the humans. The R.D.A. goes back to Earth, and Jake becomes a fully assimilated Na’vi.
Return to Pandora
In “The Way of Water,” the R.D.A. returns to Pandora more than a decade after the events of the first film. Its aim is to restart their mining operations and colonize the moon with new cities as an escape from the still-dying Earth. Jake, back at war with the R.D.A., decides it is no longer safe for his partner Neytiri and their four kids to stay in their current home. He and his family flee to a different region on Pandora to hide out with the Metkayina clan, Na’vi who live along the reefs.
As a Lakota woman, I found the connection between the past of my ancestors and what was being played in front of me devastating.
This was the second film I saw in a theater since the lockdown of 2020. I was excited to once again enjoy a good flick with a large bucket of popcorn. As the movie played, I munched happily until one scene hit me like a punch in the gut. As a Lakota woman, I found the connection between the past of my ancestors and what was being played in front of me devastating.
As with the first movie, the R.D.A. are destroying the Pandoran ecosystem in search of another blood-diamond-esque natural resource. In this case, it is a golden liquid called amrita that stops human aging. The only way to collect amrita is from the innards of tulkuns—aliens analogous to whales—which are sacred to the Metkayina. This was shown in a wrenching scene with the violent harpooning and harvesting of the tulkun, followed by the R.D.A. hunters wasting the rest of its body and leaving its calf to die an orphan.
The first “Avatar” movie shared some similarities with my people’s history, but I was not expecting this.
Our Lakota history
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, we were educated about our history and how we were forced off of our territory and onto a portion of land a quarter of the size we used to inhabit. We went from a territory that covered parts of current-day North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska to living on a piece of land approximately the size of Connecticut.
Lakota were forced to become dependent on the very government that placed us on the reservation.
The Lakota people based their lives on the buffalo, moving their camps in accordance with the migration of the herds. When a hunt took place, it arose out of necessity, not for profit or sport. Each piece of the sacred animal was used for food, clothes, tools, medicine and other necessities.
When the Lakota were bound to the reservation, our way of life was taken away from us. We were forced to become dependent on the very people that placed us there. Instead of relying on the natural resources of the land, we now relied on resources provided by the United States government. We were not allowed to leave the reservation to hunt buffalo, but were only given ingredients foreign to us such as lard, flour and sugar. We went from buffalo meat to fry bread.
When colonizers began moving into Lakota lands, they killed the buffalo, harvested only their fur and left entire carcasses to rot on the plains. It was not just about turning a profit. It was a way to exterminate the Lakota people entirely. “Kill every buffalo you can,” declared a U.S. army colonel. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” With these continuous and heartless acts, my people were dying.
History repeating itself
Watching “The Way of Water,” I felt like I was seeing the history of the Lakota repeat itself. I was mourning a place in time that cannot be changed, and a way of life that was stolen in a blink of an eye. There was nothing I could do but sit in the dark theater and cry.
“Kill every buffalo you can,” declared a U.S. army colonel. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
During a battle scene in the movie, Neytiri’s sons participated and fought alongside their father and helped defend against the intruders. They used not only their own weapons of bows and arrows, but guns confiscated from the R.D.A. It was another striking similarity to my ancestors.
The colonizers who inched their way across the western United States had a sizable advantage over Native Americans. Warriors who used bows, arrows, clubs and axes, were being met with guns, canons and other kinds of artillery. Until Natives themselves started to confiscate guns and ammunition from their enemies, every battle was a one-sided battle. Anytime a mother would send her son to fulfill his role as a warrior, there was a good chance he would not be coming home.
Knowing the Na’vi were at a grave disadvantage during the battle scenes, I sank into my seat. Anxiety and grief flooded through me. As a new mother, this scenario had become all the more real as I contemplated the possibility that Neytiri’s sons, a gift to Pandora and from Eywa, would never arrive home safely, would never be reunited with their families.
James Cameron said in 2010 while making the first Avatar film, that he felt he was looking back 130 years at the Lakota people being displaced and killed.
Calls for boycott
These similarities between “The Way of Water” and my own Lakota history have stirred up criticism of the film; one Diné woman, Asdzáá Tłʼéé honaaʼéí, issued on Twitter a call for a boycott of the film.
Brett Chapman, a Native American civil rights attorney, called the first film “a white savior story at its core.” Crystal Echo Hawk from IllumiNative, a Native American social justice organization, stated, “It is a level of arrogance once again that a white filmmaker can just somehow tell a story that is based on Indigenous peoples better than Indigenous peoples ever could.”
It is unfortunate that “The Way of Water” uses a Native American storyline with little Indigenous representation in the cast or on the writing team. To the film’s credit, Maori actors were cast to portray the Metkayina people, including Cliff Curtis as Tonowari, the leader of the clan. But the filmmakers could have also cast Polynesians, Natives with a seafaring history and culture, in the roles of the Metkayina.
James Cameron said in 2010 while making the first Avatar film, that he felt he was looking back 130 years at the Lakota people being displaced and killed. Yet he cast no Lakota people in the film.
I would love to see Lakota actors cast in roles that have nothing to do with the fact that they are Native.
Still, I do not think the discrepancy between James Cameron’s film and our desires for Native representation needs to lead to a cultural showdown. Instead, it can be a starting point for dialogue and education. It can continue a conversation that has been ongoing in the creative world. If we are going to portray Native people and our stories, why not use them as the actor, directors and writers? Who can tell the story better than Indigenous people themselves?
Currently, shows such as “Yellowstone” and “Reservation Dogs,” are using Native actors to actually play the roles of Natives. The film “Prey”—an alien sci-fi story that was also released last year—featured Native actors playing Native characters. This is a starting point, but more needs to be done.
I would love to see Lakota actors cast in roles that have nothing to do with the fact that they are Native. The usual places we show up onscreen are in shows that center on ecological protection, tribal politics, cultural oppression or reservation life. I want to see Native actors portraying lawyers, detectives, surgeons in ways that do not center on the fact that they are Native. Let us see a brooding defense attorney or a wry sitcom mother who just happens to be played by a Native actor.
We also need Native Americans telling their own histories. In 2003, ABC aired the mini- series “DreamKeeper,” a collection of Native stories that was played by an entirely Native cast. Pride swept over me watching the show as I saw someone with my skin tone and history on television. It gave me hope. Hope that maybe someday someone from my reservation, my community or even I, could be on the big screen. This could be the spark to the fire that brings more Native Americans into the spotlight; a new generation of Native actors to honor the ones (Graham Greene, Michael Grey Eyes, Tantoo Cardinal, Irene Bedard and others) who have paved a path for us.
We were the first nations to inhabit this land. It is our responsibility to educate those who came later about the beginnings of this country and the people who built it. We need to connect with those who, because of their own education system or upbringing, do not understand Native American cultures. Platforms like film and television can be a tool to help show people of this country that Native Americans have their own stories.
When Native Nations are represented as more than just a desolate and oppressed people—not just in the entertainment world, but in society as a whole—we are showing our ancestors that their stories and legacy are not forgotten.