By Alex Abbey
Avatar: The Way of Water has passed another major financial milestone, and it’s not stopping there. To the surprise of everyone (except James Cameron), the long-awaited Avatar sequel has had a very positive reception from critics and audiences. There is, however, one demographic whose opinion may be getting lost in all the buzz. We reached out to some indigenous creators to see how they felt about their cultures being represented in Cameron’s latest sci-fi blockbuster.
Editor’s Note: We understand that there is no singular “indigenous” voice. There are thousands of indigenous cultures around the world, and each one is beautifully unique. The following quotes are just a sample of the wide range of reactions that these communities have had to Avatar: The Way of Water.
Pnuks is a student, youth worker, and member of the Maori community. He was quick to point out that he does not speak for all Maori people. In fact, there are many in the Maori community who have expressed excitement to see their culture portrayed. But when asked to give his honest thoughts about the Maori cultural influences in Avatar: The Way of Water, Pnuks said this:
“When it comes to representation of Maori people or Polynesian people as a whole, I felt a little bit weird. I think James Cameron did a decent job of respecting the cultural elements as a non-indigenous person. But I still think there are a lot of things that need to change around that…
I have seen this many times in many movies, how directors or people in positions of authority draw elements from a specific culture and don’t necessarily highlight the context behind it.”
He explained that certain elements of Maori culture were presented without context. Some of these elements are the face tattoos, and the Pukana (sticking out the tongue in an act of intimidation, traditionally done during a Haka war dance). With an over 3-hour runtime, taking 5 extra minutes to give a little background seems like an easy way to make a better connection with the cultural community that inspired these traits.
He also acknowledged that, though the world depicted is fictional, it still affects people in a very real way.
“I get it that this is a made-up movie with made-up people on a made-up planet. However, there are still elements of real-life things… I felt uncomfortable watching the movie because I’ve heard the stories from my parents of what it was like growing up in a racist New Zealand.”
Miranda Due is a Pawnee/Cherokee content creator and game developer. Her journey with the Avatar franchise began differently than most, the original having been her inspiration to join the entertainment technology profession. She proudly admits to enjoying Avatar: The Way of Water but does express some concerns over James Cameron’s past comments.
“The movie is beautiful and I enjoy learning about the technology that went into it. James Cameron’s quote that has been circulating is awful and hurtful and I would hope that he has since changed his view on indigenous communities and is willing to do the proper work to be better informed… The movie will undoubtedly not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoy the world of Pandora, and being able to sit back and escape for a few hours at the cinema is something I look forward to.”
She offered some very good advice to help future Avatar incarnations. She suggested that the plots and worlds of the Avatar films could be improved by working with more indigenous storytellers.
“We have so many rich stories and lore and philosophies that could greatly improve world-building in fantasy genres, it’s a shame that our voices have been ignored for so long. In the future, I hope to see films by indigenous directors and writers get produced with similar budgets to the Avatar franchise.”
Mozart Gabriel is a musician, filmmaker, and proud member of the Navajo and Taos Pueblo nations. He has deep roots in the Native American community and a profound connection to his indigenous heritage. Mozart’s had some harsh criticism of James Cameron’s creative choices, but when asked to react to the indigenous elements in Avatar: The Way of Water he explained
“The most offensive part about this movie is that it’s basically saying all indigenous people around the world are basically the same blue character. I’m Navajo, and I’m also Taos Pueblo, and we have two totally different beliefs. There’s so many different tribes, so many different traditions. You’d think by now, with everything going on, we don’t need a white savior anymore. But I guess James Cameron can’t let it go.”
Gabriel further explained, in a separate interview, why he feels that the Avatar sequel should have learned from the original’s mistakes:
“We do have a good friend, Wes Studi, who was in the first [Avatar] and we never said anything about it because I think that we have a lot of love and respect for Wes Studi… he’s done a lot for Native American Cinema. So I think the first one definitely got a pass, the second one didn’t really because you know, times have changed and people are realizing that that kind of stuff isn’t okay.”
Despite being about big blue aliens, both the original Avatar, and Avatar: The Way of Water, borrowed heavily from terrestrial indigenous cultures to tell their stories. Unfortunately, in telling this uniquely indigenous story, James Cameron has yet again neglected to include native voices in any meaningful way.
There is no doubt that Cameron has created yet another visually stunning film, and the overall story has improved greatly from the formulaic original. It is entirely possible to enjoy the spectacle of Avatar: The Way of Water, while also acknowledging its cultural insensitivities and urging its creators to do better. One can only hope that James Cameron is willing to evolve the world of Avatar even further, and bring a more diverse and inclusive vision to the multitude of sequels that have become all but inevitable.