Avatar: The Way of Water is the long-awaited 13-year return to Pandora, but it's not all smooth sailing now that it's here. Finally, the new movie Avatar: The Way of Water is out. But it looks like some Native Americans have decided to boycott of Avatar 2, a sequel by James Cameron.
Even though the movie opened to $434.5 million around the world, there have been a lot of backlashes. A lot of indigenous people are calling for a boycott because they say it is cultural appropriation, an example of the white savior complex, and full of offensive things Cameron said in an interview with The Guardian in 2010.
Both Avatar movies have been criticized for mixing parts of different Indigenous cultures and for using a lot of white actorsand other non-Indigenous actors to play Na'vi.
Native American activist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride LA Yuè Begay is one of the people who has publicly called for a Way of Water boycott. They wrote on Twitter, soon after the movie came out,
DO NOT watch Avatar: The Way of Water. Boycott this horrible and racist movie like Native Americans and other indigenous groups around the world.- Yuè Begay
Cameron has also been criticized for comments he made in 2010 that seemed to say that Native American tribes could have "fought harder" against colonialism and genocide. Cameron told The Guardian at the time,
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.- James Cameron
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 [taking their own lives] 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
Some people have also said on social media that they aren't going to see the movie, which is still on track to make $1 billion at the box office in the new year.
In the first movie, which came out in 2009, the main character, Jake Sully, is sent on an imperialist mission to the moon Pandora. There, he has a new body that looks like the blue people who live there, who are called Na'vi.
As Sully grows close to the Na'vi and falls in love with princess Neytiri, he has to choose between the two worlds. In the second book, Sully is now the leader of the Omaticaya clan. He and his family are once again in conflict with humans who want to take over their land.
Crystal Echo-Hawk, president and CEO of IllumiNative, said that making Sully the main character was a missed chance because it played into the tired stereotype of the "White savior." Sully's race isn't mentioned, but his status as an outsider is similar to that of White settlers. She told CNN,
(Cameron) might be telling that story of colonization, but he’s telling it through the lens of a White male.- Crystal Echo-Hawk
Echo-Hawk said Cameron might have been able to tell a more true-to-life story that would have hit home with audiences better if he had included more Indigenous people in all stages of production.
It’s a level of arrogance once again that a White filmmaker can just somehow tell a story that’s based on Indigenous peoples better than Indigenous peoples ever could- Crystal Echo-Hawk
She said that her organization, IllumiNative, which works to improve how the media shows Indigenous people, is in talks with Disney about how the third "Avatar" movie, which is set to come out in 2024, can avoid making the same mistakes.
The second movie, "The Way of Water," does go a little bit deeper than the first. In a nod to the Mori, it talks about the Metkayina people of the reef as a way to show how different Indigenous peoples are all over the world.
Cliff Curtis, who is part Mori, plays the chief of the Metkayina tribe, Tonowari. But White actors still voice a lot of the other characters. Adam Piron is a filmmaker and the head of the Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute.
He said he hasn't seen the latest "Avatar" movie yet, but he plans to. But he sees Cameron's sci-fi epic as part of a long history of White filmmakers putting their own ideas of what it means to be Native American on the screen instead of involving Native Americans themselves.
All that’s left anymore with those films is the non-Indigenous desire to be Indigenous or to have some sort of connection to Indigenous people.- Adam Piron
People have also said that the movies are guilty of cultural appropriation because of how they mix different parts of Indigenous cultures into the story of the fictional Na'vi. Even though "The Way of Water" was inspired by Mori, Echo-Hawk said the movie would have been better with a closer relationship between the two groups.
It’s based on what James Cameron’s notion is of what he thinks Indigenous history is, what he thinks Indigenous culture is. Everyone thinks that we’re a monolith. What it does is flatten who Indigenous peoples are, what Indigenous cultures, language, practices are.- Crystal Echo-Hawk
Cameron responded to the criticism of "Avatar" earlier this month by telling the British media site Unilad, “the important thing is to listen and to be sensitive to issues that people have.”
It’s not up to me, speaking from a perspective of White privilege, if you will, to tell them that they’re wrong. It has validity. It’s pointless for me to say, ‘Well, that was never my intention.- James Cameron
Rhonda Lucy, who started the Toronto Indigenous Filmmakers Collective and the media production company Sun Raven Arts, don't plan to see "The Way of Water."
“live that reality. My community lives this reality. Why would I want to pay the small amount of money I make to hand over to a massive money making machine to pay them to show me heartache and pain that’s just glazed over?- Rhonda Lucy
But she understands and agrees with the criticism, and she hopes that Indigenous artists will see this as a sign to work on their own ambitious projects.
We have a whole bunch of nerds in our community who love writing and creative writing and doing so much sci-fi. I want to see our people leave all of this stuff in the dust, and say, ‘We made our own.’- Rhonda Lucy
Even though the movies' main ideas can be interpreted in different ways, some indigenous activists think that Sully is a white savior and that the movies romanticize colorization.
Autumn is a scholar of decolonization at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work. Asher Blackdeer has a different problem with the movie. He thinks that it doesn't show enough Indigenous people. Indigenous activists are also using social media to ask people to boycott the movie and point out that it steals from their culture.