Cultural Appropriation, James Cameron, & Avatar
By: Lily Cate Joseph
In 2009, James Cameron’s movie Avatar (the first in the series) was considered groundbreaking due to its cutting-edge CGI, futuristic feel, and dramatic storyline. Partly due to the film’s success, Cameron was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Avatar went on to win 3 Academy Awards and 2 People’s Choice awards.
However, after the release of the second movie’s trailer, Avatar: The Way of Water, people began asking questions beyond “when can I buy my ticket?”
This was partly due to Cameron’s revelation that he based the original film on multiple (and very different) Indigenous groups that fought white colonialism in the 17 and 1800s. During the Colonial Era, many Indigenous groups had their land stolen by colonists who were eager to settle in the “new world.” In the process, Indigenous people were kidnapped, brutally murdered, and run off their land. During this time, white people were in no way their allies, they were the aggressor.
In sharp contrast, the plot of Avatar is driven by the story of a “white savior” who helps rescue the Na’vi people from resource-hungry invaders when in truth, the Indigenous people of America had to face the fight over their land and resources on their own.
A quote from Cameron from a 2010 interview with The Guardian was recently unearthed during which he heavily insulted/bashed the Lakota tribe that fought in the Great Sioux War from 1851-1890: “In the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if they 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.” James Cameron on the Lakota Tribe.
By saying, “they would have fought a lot harder,” Cameron is insinuating that the Lakota Tribe are at fault for every brutal battle they lost during that war, during which 85 people were killed and 70 women and children kidnapped during the first attack on the Lakota alone. Under no circumstance is Cameron’s statement justified.
He also blames the high suicide rates of Indigenous youth on the failure of the Lakota people to defend themselves, when a quick Google search shows that the leading causes of Indigenous youth suicide are racism, poverty, and intergenerational trauma caused by white colonialism.
In spite of rising criticism, Cameron cast mostly white actors to portray the Indigenous Na’vi people in Avatar: The Way of Water. In effect, he took the tragic history of America’s Indigenous people, caused by colonialism, and completely whitewashed their story with white actors and the “white savior” storyline.
So before you buy your ticket to see Avatar: The Way of Water, I ask you to consider the ways in which our society allows powerful people in the entertainment industry, like James Cameron, to make movies and rise to fame by constantly harming communities that are in rapid decline, and continually causing harm to people to whom we are heavily in debt. WE stole their land, WE kidnapped and murdered their people, and now WE’RE making exorbitant amounts of money off of THEIR painful and traumatic history.