Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

Indigenous Themes in Avatar


The complete set of Avatar links from Newspaper Rock. This includes the following links from Avatar's premiere in Dec. 2009:

Minorities = children in Avatar
Noble savages in Avatar
Monotheism vs. pantheism in Avatar
White guilt in Avatar
Eytukan toy from Avatar
Army vs. Indians in Avatar
Evoking Natives in Avatar

Rob's review of Avatar
As long-time readers will recall, I posted a lot of items on Avatar's racial and cultural themes when the movie came out. What I didn't do was review Avatar myself. Here are some points that struck me—that most reviewers missed.

Corporate mission

The biggest pile of unobtainium in 200 kilometers is supposedly under the Na'vi's tree. So? Go to the second biggest pile instead. Removing a giant tree and its roots is a huge task. It would be much better to dig in an unforested and unpopulated area.

Unobtainium apparently has strong anti-magnetic properties, which means it floats when freed from the ground. Here's a brilliant idea: mine the floating islands, which are apparently uninhabited, rather than the inhabited tree area. Towing away loose islands should be much easier than digging a hole in the ground.

The Na'vi and their trees, and perhaps other animals and plants, are connected in a worldwide network that allows uploading and downloading of data. That doesn't strike anyone as a valuable resource with commercial applications? Biological computing and bio/electric interfaces are a growing field now; in 150 years they may dominate the computing field.

There's no Terran or interplanetary government to regulate the bad behavior of corporations? No equivalent of the Geneva Conventions governing the colonization and exploitation of alien worlds? No financial penalty, or even a public relations penalty, for committing genocide? The movie could explain these things, but doesn't. That's superficial.

The Avatar website explains this, but the website isn't the movie. Unless the info is in the movie, the movie fails on this point.

The RDA corporation makes a big deal of benefiting its shareholders. That tells us this isn't some do-or-die mission to save the "dying" Earth. Have these shareholders ever cracked a history book? Dispossessing natives almost always means decades of warfare, government intervention on the behalf of the underdog, and eventually some sort of reparations. The corporation may still come out ahead, but where's the cost-benefit justification?

Again, the movie could address this but doesn't. Superficial.

RDA has taught the Na'vi English and tried to educate them. What good is English to them except for bowing down to the colonizers. And educate the Na'vi how, when they're perfectly suited to their environment and masters of all they see? Basically the corporation is offering nothing, but it expects the Na'vi to abandon their sacred tree. That's stupid.

At some point RDA says the time for negotiations is over. What negotiations? We haven't seen any negotiations. What is RDA offering: Leave your tree or die? What's the Na'vi's counteroffer: No? Compared to the painstaking, real-world process of negotiating an Indian treaty, Avatar's "negotiations" are superficial. They're a gimmick to delay the "blow 'em up" phase of the movie—the part that clearly excites Cameron.


The corporation's mercenary force appears to be all-American, which is itself a problem. If this is some sort of united Earth force, why aren't a quarter of the people Chinese? Many experts predict the Chinese will dominate the coming century.

If this is supposed to be an all-American force, why are the vast majority of the mercenaries—something like 95% of them—white? Minorities are overrepresented in the US military. They make up 35% of the general population but more than 35% of the military, I think. That isn't evident in Avatar.

In contrast to the mostly white mercenaries, the key Na'vi are played by minority actors. The only notable minority among the mercenaries, Michelle Rodriguez, goes rogue and joins the scientists. This "white = bad/nonwhite = good" setup is silly and superficial.

James Cameron's motion-capture technique supposedly made the Na'vi look like the actors playing them. This is true in the case of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). Their avatars have the same narrow nose and tight lips as their human forms. Even when they're among the Na'vi, they look like (white) people impersonating aliens.

But the Na'vi all have similar features: big eyes, broad noses, and thick lips. The last two features are commonly associated with the Negroid race—i.e., Africans.

The main Na'vi—Neytiri, Eytukan, Mo'at, and Tsu'Tey—all have these African features. So do all the Na'vi extras. Since there are no obvious old folks or infants, the Na'vi come across as a crowd of young Africans Americans—not unlike a gang.

Again, the only ones who don't are Grace and Jake. They get to retain their Caucasian features while everyone else is Africanized. Again, this racial discrimination is obvious and superficial.

Cameron might say they needed the avatars to look human so audiences could recognize them. His excuse is that the avatars use the humans' DNA so they look like their human counterparts. But this is just a pretext to keep the white aliens looking white.

What's the alternative? That's what clothing and hair styles and decorations are for. if Jake's avatar had had distinctive markings, we would've recognized him whether his features were Caucasian or Negroid. Jake's avatar didn't have to look Caucasian; that was Cameron's choice.

As people have noted, the Na'vi are obvious takeoffs on American Indians. We might excuse the loincloths, ornaments, even the warpaint...but war whoops? An alien race with entirely different vocal chords just happens to make the exact same sound as Indians when going to war? Ridiculous.

Another subtle marker of the Na'vi's Indian-ness is an object hanging in the corporate offices. It could be a Na'vi necklace, but at a glance it looks like a dreamcatcher.


Pandora gives us several recognizable kinds of animals: thanator (big lizard or panther), titanothere (an actual prehistoric Earth beast), viperwolves (wolves), direhorses (horses) banshees (little dragon or pterodactyl), and leonopteryx (big dragon or pterodactyl). Plus a bunch of small flying, crawling, floating, and glowing things. Really? On an alien world with giant trees and a poisonous atmosphere, you can't do any better than these common, obvious types of animals?

These animals do have unusual features: four eyes, six limbs, gill-like openings on their flanks, four wings, etc. But with makeup and hairstyling, the Na'vi could pass for human—if they weren't ten feet tall. Two eyes, four limbs, five fingers or toes on each appendage, even belly buttons.

It's ridiculous to think the Na'vi evolved from the four-eyed, six-limbed creatures around them. Evolution doesn't work that way. This grab-bag of creatures is like something out of a non-scientific Edgar Rice Burroughs novel: four-limbed red humans, six-limbed green Martians, beasts with six or eight legs, giant apes and spiders, etc.

It's a fantasy world, not a science-fiction world—a feeling reinforced by the "magical" glowing things. You're not meant to take Pandora seriously as an alien world with an alien biology. Because of this, the Na'vi come across as cartoonish elf people, a child's version of aliens, not a real biological species.

With all the money Cameron spent on Avatar, he couldn't have invested a few thousand dollars in world-building? He couldn't have hired a science-fiction expert to create an alien environment with complex and consistent plants and animals? Superficial.

With their big cat eyes, triangular cat ears, cat-like movements and hisses, the Na'vi are basically cat people. A big-eyed kitten may be the most adorable animal in the world, and a cat woman is perhaps the most common animal-based sex object. Cameron designed the Na'vi, especially Neytiri, so they'd be unthreatening, acceptable, and likable to Jake and audiences alike. He's sanitized his aliens so much that they come across as big, blue humans.

In a $300-million movie with a built-in audience, couldn't Cameron have taken a single chance? Maybe given the Na'vi four fingers and toes per appendage instead of five? Thirty years ago, people had no problem accepting such "strange" aliens as Chewbacca and Yoda. That Cameron dumbed down his movie for today's audiences says a lot about him and us.

Similarly, as I noted, the Na'vi have learned English. So much so that they use Na'vi only in special cases. Again, Cameron has sanitized the aliens—making them as relatable and human as possible. In other movies, the natives talk in their own language with subtitles, but we can't have that here. This is a kiddie movie for all ages, not a grown-up movie for adults.



The Na'vi are human enough that when Jake makes his move on Neytiri, they kiss hungrily. Really? This alien race has no other way of expressing affection besides kissing? Rubbing their noses together, perhaps? Not to mention intertwining their interactive tails?

And Jake the non-Na'vi knows that if he locks lips with Neytiri, she won't kill him for violating a cultural taboo? Because a kiss is a kiss across the known universe? Ridiculous. The faux science fiction changes from a storybook fantasy to an equally superficial storybook romance for a few minutes.

What follows is an implicit sex scene, with Jake and Neytiri groping and fondling each other. Really? Because human and Na'vi anatomy (e.g., erogenous zones) work exactly the same? And Jake has learned all about Na'vi sex practices in his three months of slumming as a native? And when they're done, they lay sleeping in the grass, oblivious to the supposedly dangerous world around them? Ridiculous.

The Vulcan mating ritual in Amok Time, a 45-year-old TV show, wasn't deep by any means. But Amok Time is as sophisticated as a Margaret Meade dissertation compared to Avatar. To put it another way, Avatar is as superficial as a Valentine's Day card compared to Amok Time. "I see you...let's make love...won't U be mine?"

The Na'vi's only real "alien" trait is linking with animals or plants in tsahaylu. But this linkage has no real value in distinguishing the Na'vi. A person who tamed a bucking banshee could control it whether he linked to it or not. A tree with telepathic emanations could communicate with people whether they linked to it or not. The linkage is a gimmick to create the illusion that the Na'vi are more than big cat people.

Again, superficial. Like something out of a child's cartoon. Not particularly interesting to science-fiction fans. Even in 45-year-old sci-fi like the original Star Trek, the Horta, Scalosians, and Organians were far more conceptually challenging than the Na'vi. The Cardassians, Klingons, even the Vulcans seem more nonhuman than these humans in cat's clothing.

Personal and cultural traits

As I expected, none of the Na'vi have distinct personalities. They scorn Jake for being an outsider and a newcomer until he proves himself. Then they start respecting him. Again, superficial.

Jake isn't much different. He's basically a blank slate. He becomes an avatar not because of any belief, but because RDA is paying him and he doesn't have anything better to do.

Once he gets his avatar's legs, he's like a kid in a candy store. His initial glee tells you all you need to know about his personality. If that isn't enough, he explores the jungle—and Neytiri—with wide-eyed wonder.

Sure, he helps the evil Quaritch obtain information, but that's because Quaritch asks him nicely, Marine to Marine. It's clear from the beginning that Jake enjoys the Na'vi lifestyle and takes to it readily. He has no skepticism or doubt about becoming a Na'vi, and therefore no inner conflict or path for character growth. He thinks the Na'vi are cool at the beginning and he thinks that at the end.

As people have noted, Jake masters a lot of skills in three months. He learns to use bow and knife, to ride a direhorse and banshee, and to speak the Na'vi language. He also masters the more subtle tasks of running and jumping through trees without falling and killing himself. Recall that this is a human who hasn't used his legs in years and who is unaccustomed to inhabiting an avatar. Ridiculous.

Perhaps the fact that the Na'vi have little or no culture makes Jake's transition easier. The Na'vi have a chief, a shaman, a princess, and a head warrior. They pray to the Great Mother, Eywa. There's a manhood rite and a hint of a marriage rite and burial rite. And that's about it. Generic Tribe 101...superficial.

Incidentally, Ross Douthat's complaint that Avatar is pantheistic remains stupid. The Na'vi very clearly respect, even revere, the flora and fauna, but they worship only one god. Douthat stupidly thinks loving nature means having multiple gods.

When the Na'vi get together for a healing ceremony, they all raise their hands and sway in unison. Seems to me this is how primitive people worship in every jungle movie I've seen. Stereotypical.

Judging by how quickly and scornfully Neytiri extinguishes Jake's torch, the Na'vi are so primitive that they apparently don't use fire. Really? No fire to keep warm, cook food, bake clay into pottery, etc.? Isn't fire part of nature? Has a human society ever avoided fire because it wanted to retain a "pure" connection with nature? Ridiculous.

Jake the savior

Although Jake is a novice flyer, he becomes the only person in generations to ride a toruk (a leonopteryx or giant dragon). He becomes the toruk makto, which might as well translate as messiah or chosen one. With the Na'vi's leader conveniently out of the way, he becomes the tribe's great white hope.

People stare and touch him with wider-than-usual eyes as if he's literally the Savior. I'm thinking this is Cameron's paean to himself, the "king of the world." "I spent $300 million to bring this pseudo-indigenous tale of imperialism to the masses. Aren't I the greatest thing since sliced (white) bread?"

Incidentally, what happened to the banshee that Jake supposedly bonded with for life? Jaked jilted his mount when he got a better ride. That's no way to respect Mother Nature.

I was hoping Jake or someone might be intelligent enough to plot a successful guerrilla warfare campaign against the mercenaries. But no, the Na'vi charge recklessly like savage Indians attacking a wagon train. They don't seem to care how many die because, well, savages don't value life the same as you and me.

Here's how the fight could've gone. In the air, the aircrafts' electronics aren't working because of the magnetic flux. They're flying by visuals only. So drop buckets of sludge onto their windows and blind them. Drop boulders or branches—or better yet, flaming bundles of tar—into their rotors to gum them up. Lead them through narrow passages where they crash because they can't maneuver as deftly.

On the ground, dig pits or rig triplines and snares for the robots. Again, drop sludge to blind them or boulders to incapacitate them. Pick off the soldiers with poisoned arrows fired from concealment. Heck, drop beehives or the equivalent on them as Bugs Bunny might do. With their exposed skin, they should be easy prey.

Here's how the battle actually went: Jake the great white hope uses his giant dragon to smash several aircraft. Jake the great white hope leaps onto the biggest ships and takes them out singlehandedly. Jake may have destroyed more aircraft than the rest of the Na'vi combined.

On the ground, the soldiers decimate the Na'vi until a deus ex machina arrives. So the Na'vi don't save themselves, a miracle does. A miracle invoked by Jake the great white hope, that is.

Thank Eywa for the great white hope!

Without spoiling the ending, let's just say Jake is the center of Na'vi attention. We don't know if he'll become the next chief, but it's a good bet. And why not, since he's responsible for the Na'vi victory.


Avatar's 3D isn't impressive. Sometimes it adds depth, but sometimes creates a telescoping effect where you can tell it's not true to life. I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if a consistent 2D approach would work better.

The Na'vi are convincing as animated beings. The animals are more like conventional CGI creations. But the Na'vi are impressive only in a technical sense. They don't do anything truly stunning or surprising with their alien forms. To me a Terminator T-1000, King Kong, or web-slinging Spider-Man is more impressive because he's doing something—he is something—we haven't seen before. These creations aren't just motion-captured humans with slightly altered skins and faces.

I guess Avatar dazzled some people. Not me. Star Wars still epitomizes my idea of a quantum leap forward in moviemaking technology. Avatar is merely the near-perfection of a technique we've seen many times before.

What effects are we supposed to be dazzled by? CGI critters attacking heroes? That's been old news for ages. Since Jurassic Park, at least.

Running, jumping, and flying? Presumably the flying, if nothing else, since Cameron devoted so many minutes to it. But from tie-fighters to pterodactyl flights to quidditch matches, we've seen aerial maneuvers before.

I saw Coraline and Horton Hears a Who soon after Avatar. Their CGI may not have been as advanced or as expensive, but I think they used it more creatively. Same with movies such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Meet the Robinsons. Those dazzled me in ways that Avatar didn't.

I think Cameron had enough technology to dazzle people. He used it to tell a conventional fairy tale about noble cat people vs. evil machine men. Use the same technology on Harry Turtledove's Worldwar or Dan Simmons's Hyperion—i.e., a story with a real plot and characters—and you might have a science-fiction masterpiece. As it is, you have a mildly entertaining potboiler that shouldn't impress any sci-fi aficionado.

As it is, I give Avatar a 7.5 of 10 despite its many flaws. That's about average for a high-quality studio movie. Avatar should've been much better than that.

Facebook reactions

Some quick thoughts I posted immediately after seeing the movie:

Snap judgment on Avatar: It's entertaining in an extremely superficial way. People who have compared it to Ferngully aren't kidding. It's a $300-million version of a Saturday matinee for 12-year-olds...a super-CGI potboiler a la The Land That Time Forgot. Outsider finds lost world of prehistoric men and beasts...learns their primitive ways...and joins them against the villainous [fill-in-the-blank] people.

If you're familiar with Westerns, science fiction and fantasy, and comic books, you've seen this story dozens of times. Good little cave people (even if they don't live in caves) vs. big bad monsters. Avatar is just about that black and white. It's visually impressive but about as deep as a children's book.

I wonder: Did Avatar actually change people's minds about Marine-style onslaughts? Or did it merely harden them against liberal criticisms of Marine-style onslaughts?

To me this is a key question. My friend Dave claims people are so stupid they need blunt-force propaganda to get the message through their thick heads. I claim "Avatar's" message is so stupidly obvious that it won't change anyone's mind. It'll only antagonize the people it's supposed to reach.

In other words, you can't point a finger at conservatives, tell them they're evil, and expect them to respond, "Oh, yeah...you're right. I see that now. Thanks for pointing it out to me...I'll change." I'm pretty sure human nature doesn't work that way. If that's the response Cameron hoped to elicit, he's as dumb as the people who pave over paradise.

Related links
The best Indian movies

* More opinions *
  Join our Native/pop culture blog and comment
  Sign up to receive our FREE newsletter via e-mail
  See the latest Native American stereotypes in the media
  Political and social developments ripped from the headlines

. . .

Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2010 by Robert Schmidt.

Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.

Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.