‘Indigenous people know what’s best for our communities. We can tell our own stories’
“Join Natives and other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible and racist film,” 29-year-old Yuè Begay wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some [white] man’s [saviour] complex. No more Blueface! Lakota people are powerful!” She didn’t expect to go viral when she sent the tweet calling for a boycott of Avatar: The Way of Water, but at present, Begay’s post has been retweeted over 12,500 times and covered by the LA Times and Newsweek.
The long-delayed sequel to Avatar – so delayed that Edie Falco thought it had already come out and flopped – finally dropped on December 6 in the UK and December 18 in the US. It’s already grossed nearly $400 million internationally, but Indigenous and Native American activists are rallying behind Begay and now calling for a total boycott of the film.
If you need reminding: the original Avatar film is set in the mid-22nd century, and follows a human Marine, Jake Sully, who is sent by humans to spy on the Na’vi people. By this point, humans have depleted all of Earth’s natural resources, and now they want to colonise the Na’vi’s home planet of Pandora and harvest its valuable minerals. Violence ensues, but the Na’vi are ultimately able to defeat the humans – largely thanks to Jake, who decides to back the Na’vi after falling in love with Neytiri, a female Na’vi. And if you haven’t seen the sequel (spoilers ahead): The Way of Water takes place over a decade after the events of the first film. Again, it depicts the humans in conflict with the Na’vi, with the Na’vi emerging victorious – and again, Jake is the film’s hero.
The parallels are pretty obvious (the humans represent colonisers, the Na’vi Indigenous people, etc) – and Cameron has previously made clear that Avatar is “a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period.” Obviously, it would be pretty reductive to say “this film is bad because colonialism!”, but Indigenous people aren’t calling for a boycott of the film just because it depicts colonialism. The issue is more that the film perpetuates outdated narratives about colonialism – notably, Jake, the film’s protagonist, epitomises the ‘white saviour’ stereotype.
Dr Autumn Asher BlackDeer, 28, is from the Southern Cheyenne Nation. “The Avatar films are increasingly harmful, as they pretend to be anti-colonial but simultaneously uphold the same colonial narratives,” she tells Dazed. “The underlying storyline still positions Indigenous communities (like the Na’vi) as these primitive and uncivilised communities. Thus, it justifies colonialism in order to ‘bring progress’ to help the poor Natives.”
“[Avatar] presents colonisation as a noble and heroic deed – like how Jake is another white saviour who ‘becomes Native’ to save the day… it’s a colonial fantasy,” Dr BlackDeer adds. “Both movies show that non-Natives can infiltrate our communities, speak over us, and try to make us play victim so we’ll see white people as our only hope. That’s colonial bullshit.”
It’s also troubling that Cameron himself seems to have a flimsy understanding of colonialism, too. Since the sequel’s release, a 2010 controversial interview with Cameron has been doing the rounds: in it, he describes meeting Indigenous people living in the Amazon prior to writing Avatar. “I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensation,” he said.
He continued: “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn't help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder."
“My Lakota relatives were one of the most powerful people the United States came across. They did fight. They won,” Begay, who is a Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride Los Angeles, wrote in her open letter. “Their ancestors would be proud of their descendents for thriving, living, and just existing with their culture intact. But you do not show that in your films. Instead, you choose to show or glorify colonialism.”
She also argues that it’s disingenuous for Cameron to frame himself as ‘empowering’ Indigenous people, when the Na’vi characters in the film are predominantly played by white actors. “James Cameron is guilty of [favouring] non-Indigenous folks to play Na’vi, an alien race based on many Indigenous cultures he [appropriated] from,” she writes. “This is a form of racist caricature known as ‘Blueface’ [...] where a creator appropriates many non-white cultures, blends them together indiscriminately or blatantly, and has white people play or voice them using fiction as a medium to necessitate and validate their worldbuilding.”
“Indigenous people know what’s best for our communities, we can tell our own stories,” Dr BlackDeer adds. “We don't need some ole racist Jim telling his version of colonialism.”