Indigenous people call ‘Avatar 2’ racist for Na’vi portrayal



The release of “Avatar: The Way of Water” has put the series’ creators under hot water yet again, as Indigenous people criticize what they call the movie’s glamorization of colonialism and racist depiction of Native people and culture.

When the original “Avatar” came out in 2009, the science-fiction fantasy’s robust 3D effects and stunning visuals drove it to become the highest-grossing film of all time. After 13 years and an estimated $250 million budget, die-hard fans had high expectations for director James Cameron’s second installment, which debuted Friday.

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But Indigenous critics say the problematic pitfalls of the first “Avatar” movie reappear in the sequel, namely in its portrayal of the Na’vi, the movie’s alien species inspired by several Native tribes around the world. The oceanic Na’vi clan that’s central to the second film was heavily influenced by the Māori, the Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

Cheney Poole, 27, from Christchurch, New Zealand — known as Otautahi, Aotearoa, in the Māori language — calls the film’s portrayal “just another example of the same very upfront and apparent romanticization of colonization.”

“It very much romanticizes the idea of what not only Māori are going through but many Indigenous cultures around the world and almost downplays the suffering,” both from the past and present, Poole said.

Cameron, who could not be reached for comment, in 2012 called “Avatar” a “science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period.” He said in a recent interview with Unilad that he was listening to marginalized groups and sought to make improvements with the second film.

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“The people who have been victimized historically are always right. It’s not up to me, speaking from a perspective of White privilege, if you will, to tell them that they’re wrong,” Cameron said.

The plot of the first movie, in which White human outsider Jake Sully infiltrates the Na’vi to save them from a corporation trying to exploit environmental resources from their land of Pandora, raised concern from Indigenous groups. Cameron told Unilad he believes the new movie was able to “sidestep” that “White-savior motif.”

Lailatul Fitriyah, who researches decoloniality as an assistant professor at Claremont School of Theology, said she had no interest in watching the “Avatar” sequel, after she recently watched the first movie for the first time. Fitriyah said she was appalled that Jake became a Na’vi in that film, playing into what she called a colonialist trope that a foreigner can easily “go Native” by looking the part and learning what’s implied to be a primitive culture.

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The second movie was not much better, thought Mana Tyne, a 19-year-old from Queensland, Australia, who is Māori. In it, Jake is now a Na’vi clan leader, and Tyne was offended by how the film reduces ta moko, a type of tattoo that is culturally significant and readable for Māori people, to “abstract, meaningless shapes” that “serve more as an aesthetic” on the characters’ faces and bodies in the movie.

“I would love to see more Māori people and culture represented on screen in cinema, but I want to see Māori people playing them,” Tyne said. “I don’t want to have to sacrifice the significance of our practices that have already lost so much through colonialism.”

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Film critics have given “Avatar: The Way of Water” mixed to positive reviews, and audiences have turned out, albeit less than projected. The film raked in $134 million in North America over the weekend, tying it with “The Batman” for the year’s fourth-highest domestic debut, and earned an additional $300 million abroad.

But the mere visibility of Native characters, Poole said, especially when crafted with tropes, doesn’t help address the trauma real Native people have faced in the same way that an authentic portrayal of Native people would.

“We still have elders in our community that bear scars from being beaten in school for speaking their native language,” Poole said.

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Autumn Asher BlackDeer, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, said the “Avatar” movies also add to the monolithic portrayal of Native people commonly used in media. The Na’vi are mystical and solemn noble savages, she said, with stereotypically angular cheekbones and long hair in braids. They also have a physical characteristic BlackDeer’s tribe, Southern Cheyenne, is known for — pronounced noses.

She said that because the movies draw from multiple Indigenous tribes, it can imply that all Native people are the same. It’s a harmful stereotype that has been furthered by “Pretendians,” non-Native people who might use generic Native clothing or accessories to appear Indigenous, BlackDeer said.

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“I’m so tired of hearing Indigenous stories from a White perspective,” she said. “We don’t need Hollywood big-budget movies. We could tell our own stories.”

Johnnie Jae, who is part of the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw tribes, called it racist and harmful for “Avatar” filmmakers to glorify colonialism and peddle Native tropes for entertainment when Indigenous people worldwide have safeguarded land, water and biodiversity before their White counterparts joined the fight for climate justice.

But Jae, 42, also noted that because Native people and perspectives are diverse, not all will share her aversion for the movies, which have somewhat increased visibility for Indigenous people and issues.

“It’s hard to kind of acknowledge all of these different nuances without vilifying each other or making it or playing against each other,” Jae said. “We have to acknowledge the problematic representation. But in the same vein, we can possibly acknowledge what was done right, because that’s how we make progress in making the media better.”

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