“Avatar” and why white people want to be one of the Natives…

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Rachel Dolezal is not black.

For those of you who may have memory-holed this major controversy from years back, Rachel Dolezal was formerly a president of the NAACP in Spokane Washington and a former college instructor who taught Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. For God knows how many years, Dolezal falsely claimed that she was mixed race and that her father was African American before it was discovered in 2015 that she was indeed born to two white parents.

In the aftermath of this revelation, she was quickly removed from both positions and a national debate began around “transracial” identity. Transracial identity is not entirely a made-up thing to be clear as it can be used to describe non-white children who are adopted and grow-up in white families. Kids of that background obviously take on the identity of their white parents despite their ethnic background and there is a level of truth to such an identity as people can be ethnically one race but culturally another.

That is a far cry from what Dolezal did though which is steeped far more in both deceit and cultural appropriation for an identity that was never ever going to be her own no matter how much she leaned into it.

She more or less committed actual black face.

To quote Sleepy Joe here: “You ain’t black!”

But this is not really a rare phenomenon in the white world. Westerners appropriate ethnic cultures all the time and claim it as their own. There is a long history of it in fact. Jessica Krug was another professor of Africana Studies, this time at George Washington University, who posed as a black woman before being outed in 2020 herself. Martina Big, a German model, went through extensive plastic surgery and medical augmentation to darken her skin to appear more like a black person. On a similar note, Oli London, a British internet personality, went as far as to get plastic surgery too to appear more like the South Korean boy band BTS, identifying as Asian himself in a series of increasingly deranged posts he made online.

But one group in particular gets the most appropriated by white people and it occurs right here in America all the time; being Native American. 

You’ve probably heard this in passing from friends, colleagues, maybe even family members all the time stating something along the lines of “I’m 1/8th Lakota/Apache/Cherokee cause my great, great, great grandmother was indigenous,” rarely examining how that may have occurred. More often than not though these end up either being so distantly related that it doesn’t even merit being mentioned, or a family induced urban legend to give white people ties to a land that was never theirs to begin with.

This fraudulent criteria has been used to justify racist Native American mascots in sports as the then Washington Redskins ran a poorly constructed poll where Native Americans voted whether or not their mascot was racist. The results showed that participants voted largely no but it was later revealed that there was no way for the poll to prove those who were voting were who say they were, meaning anyone could just claim, without proof that they were native. So Christopher Smith who says his family is deep, deep, deep, DEEP down Native American could vote in this ridiculous poll.

I wonder how such a person see’s the name “Redskin”…

Also the owner of the now Washington Commanders is literally the worse person in the NFL.

Everything pre-2020 feels like eons ago now but do y’all remember the election season back in 2019? Particularly what was going on with Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts who was running on a “progressive”/more “Left” wing campaign to oust Trump at the time and became a target of the former president very quickly when news came around to reveal that she identified as part Cherokee. He would berate her constantly in speeches early on in the race calling her “Pocahontas” to his deranged followers who ramped up their racial epitaphs to 11 any chance they got. But one thing Trump did get right here *gets slight stroke from writing those words* is call into question Warren’s self-proclaimed identity. 

In case you have never heard of Elizabeth Warren before here’s a picture of her:

She’s about as white as mayonnaise. Whiter than a winter in Montana. White like printing paper and yet many Democrats took her word for it early, even saw her as somewhat of a champion of native cultures because she supposedly represented their best interests. In the 1990s in fact, when she became a professor at Harvard Law school the university promoted and celebrated her as the first “minority” women to receive tenure. To Warren’s credit she did not like that label at the time BUT in a Boston investigative report it was revealed she had categorized herself as a minority in her applications when it served her career.

Instead of apologizing for this at the time though, Warren would go on to defend these claims at a 2012 press conference stating that her family “knew” they were Cherokee because her grandfather “had high cheekbones like all Indians.”

The controversy did not end though, rather it just got swept under the rug by mainstream press, as Warren refused to meet with Cherokee leaders for many years including at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Of course, when it served her career to be honest instead, she finally apologized to the Cherokee people in order to move on from the uproar she caused because she wanted to continue running her presidential campaign. Let’s see how things worked out for her here…

“Oooohhhh…”

The fact of the matter is white people in this country have a bad habit of claiming native ancestry. People who will never even think to step foot on one of the nation’s many dilapidated and poorly funded reservations will claim native heritage if it serves their interests and potential career paths. White people, whether they claim to be “allies” or not, are acutely aware of how the system works. Their own anglo-saxon backgrounds give them advantage already but give them an air of unearned ethnic sympathy and companies, voters, and shareholders will be all too willing to give them everything they want. Using the history and culture of an oppressed, deeply marginalized group of people to serve your personal interests and vanity is wrong.

Let me repeat that.

Using the history and culture of an oppressed, deeply marginalized group of people to serve your personal interests and vanity is wrong.

So, let’s talk about James Cameron a bit.

James Cameron is, objectively, one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood today. I don’t mean every movie of his is A+ material but in terms of construction and especially special effects there are few directors really pushing the envelope here when it comes to the possibilities of the motion picture medium. “Aliens” and his two “Terminator” films remain among the best sci-fi action films ever made. “True Lies” is a fun and deeply enjoyable Rom-Com action flick. And “Titantic” certainly captured the entire world’s attention when it came out in the late 90s.

Cameron isn’t only focused on directing movies however, he also directed quite a few nature documentaries, particularly about the ocean. You can see his love for this underwater world in films like “The Abyss” and even “Titanic” and he is an outspoken advocate for nature preservation. His films often depict humanity in conflict with nature because of it, no doubt related to his own conclusions about what must be done to save it, and he leaned heavily into this when he came back to directing in 2009 for “Avatar.”

It’s been a while, so let’s remember what “Avatar” was about, shall we? 

Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is a paralyzed war veteran who is conscripted to go on a mission to a faraway moon planet called Pandora where the Earth’s military and corporations look to plunder the surface of its rare important mineral known as…*checks notes*…unobtanium?

But standing in their way are the native Na’vi. A race of blue ape, cat-like people who live in harmony with the planet’s wildlife and lush green, bioluminescent, jungles. Sully is chosen to go on this mission because his twin brother passed away and was conveniently a part of the “Avatar” program where humans transmit their consciousness into a lab grown Na’vi host body in order to impersonate the indigenous culture to pacify the hostiles through more peaceful means and due to their identical DNA he is the only one capable of piloting his brother’s body. 

Sully at first plays the loyal soldier role but of course, eventually grows to love not just Pandora but the Na’vi, so much in fact that he feels he is starting to become one of them. Eventually of course the military grows impatient and blows up the Na’vi’s world tree to plunder its resources. Sully is outed as a traitor to the Na’vi but he refuses to give up, as again he feels he is now one of them, and sets out to not only join the fight against HIS own people but lead the Na’vi as well. 

TL:DR Sully is able to rally the Na’vi by not just conquering their sacred dragon monster and “colonizing” it if you will to make it his own, but literally bringing all Na’vi tribes together to fight the occupying military in a scene that is, to its credit, a very fun, action packed battle scene.

But then not only does Sully lead this battle, he also is able to commune with the Na’vi’s mother nature God itself, Eywa, who sends Pandora’s fearsome creatures against the human colonizers all because they heard his cries for help.

Notably not the Na’vi themselves.

By the film’s end, Sully is not only re-accepted into the Na’vi tribe and back with his native lover Neytiri, but he also becomes their actual chieftain once the Tree of Souls is able to transfer his conscious permanently into his Na’vi host body.

Without context, this film, and its sequel tells a perfectly fine story. People love action packed tales of star-crossed lovers beating back an oppressive enemy and to Cameron’s credit this is one of the few blockbusters that paints a US-themed military as unambiguously evil. But even back when my politics were less radical and even enjoyed the film back in 2008, this part about Sully not only becoming a native but THE native always felt icky to me.

Stories like this have been told before of course. Even those who are ardent fans of this film will admit this is a “white savior” movie akin to “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai.” People generally understand the problematic nature of these films from the perspective that it is bad to tell a distinctively native story from the perspective of a white character because 1) it robs the natives/ethnic group of its agency in a story that is supposed to be about them, 2) depicts the natives as lacking the help and proper guidance to find true victory that they can only get from being led by a white man, and 3) gives white people unearned credit for helping them when history shows they largely only care when it, again, serves their interests.

It has never sat well with me that if Tom Cruise was truly one of them he would’ve committed hari-kiri too in this scene…

But Avatar is particularly problematic because in this case the white hero literally puts on their skin to become one of them. Unlike Tom Cruise donning a plate of Samurai armor and holding a katana to fight in the Meiji Restoration, his character by the film’s end is still unambiguously a white guy who just happens to have a great deal of sympathy for the samurai and “traditional” Japan. Sam Worthington’s Sully by the film’s end becomes a native and it is simply agreed upon that he is now one of them because he not only saved them from destruction but in the scientific logic of the film he is physically transferred into the body of a native to become biologically one of them too.

It’s never stated directly why he had to not just fight for the Na’vi but become one of them, but Cameron probably would summarize that it is because Sully see’s more worth in being a Na’vi than a white guy. But it’s a little deeper than simple admiration for a native culture.

It serves him better because if Sully had chosen instead to go back to being human what would he be instead? A paralyzed ex-marine, probably about to be tried for treason, and notably NOT the chief of an entire race of people and lover to one of the natives.

He has literally more power if he is a Na’vi.

A lot of my conclusions in this piece draw from this great video Jack Saint did a while back. I encourage you all to give it a watch.

James Cameron is not Native American. That much should be obvious to everyone reading this but allow me to psychoanalyze him and his two movies in this world for a minute and say he definitely wishes he was. You see, these films aren’t really about protecting nature and, much less, native cultures, though I’m sure to a certain extent at least Cameron definitely cares about those (the former much more than the latter). 

They are about a power fantasy. In this case Cameron’s power fantasy about saving the natives he supposedly has deep respect for.

He wants to make their story about him.

Cameron understands, correctly to be fair, that the Earth is dying. Every year the climate sets new heat records as Global Warming becomes increasingly more permanent, and many beautiful species and habitats continue to die out as well. It’s very sad and at times it feels like there really is no way to stop it unless we actually fight back violently to stop it (I know where I stand). 

I get emotional like this myself whenever I visit Hawaii because of the way it is treated by mainlanders.

The islands are a place that is very near and dear to my heart as it is where my parents met and often visited there many times throughout my life. Hawaii is one of the last truly naturally beautiful places on the planet, in terms of time on Earth it is also quite young compared to the continent, but tourists routinely treat it like a toilet and a giant air bnb for their personal use.

It’s really sad to see every time I go, and I often now think about the native Hawaiian’s who had their land stolen from them by the US government in a coup that ousted Queen LiLuokalani back in the late 1800s. In order to save her people from extreme bloodshed she reluctantly turned over her kingdom to the US who quickly turned it into a trading hub and military port for the pacific and eventually a travel destination for hotel companies who would later turn the once pristine Waikiki beaches into a maze of concrete to serve travelers.

Waikiki then and now…

So, I can understand where Cameron may be coming from when writing the script of Avatar. I mean, if you have an ounce of empathy in your heart, it should be obvious to you that an incredible war crime was committed upon both the land and its people by the US across its nearly 300 plus year existence now. 

But whatever you feel about native culture, regardless of your well-meaning intentions, you can never be one of them and you can never truly understand what was taken from them unless you are one of them. I may have a great deal of sympathy for Hawaiian culture and its people but I will never ever sit here and tell you I speak for all of them. I will never pretend I know what it’s like to be 12 percent of my land’s total population but representative of 51 percent of its homeless population. It is not my place to be their speaker.

The best I can ever be is an advocate and one important conclusion I came to in recent years is that as much as I love Hawaii it can never be my home no matter how well I would intend to treat it if I moved there.

You see, growing up, I loved Hawaii so much I had dreams of eventually living on the islands. It’s to this day the place I consistently feel the most comfortable and happy in. It would be a tremendous boost for my mental health and self-esteem if I moved there but my morals will always keep me from doing so because every time a mainlander like myself moves to these places another native is displaced and put on the street.

I’m not being hyperbolic btw. The very act of moving to a place like Hawaii, which is already bloated with people because of tourism, gentrifies the communities and justifies rent increases because the value of the land goes up. Hawaii has, by a mile, the most expensive average rent in the country because despite its multi-billion-dollar travel industry none of that money really goes to its people. Because it’s a chain of islands as well, resources are limited and when there are more travelers than there are beds to sleep in for residents on the island what do you think happens? Who’s needs get prioritized?

Hmmm seems bad…

I’ve ranted a bit long here but what does this have to do with Avatar again, you may ask? Jake Sully doesn’t deserve to live on Pandora and become an actual native no matter how many Na’vi he saved from the colonizers. 

Cameron doesn’t see it this way. He believes that simply some virtuous acts make him or another white person worthy of becoming these less well-off peoples and these movies are a power fantasy about “earning” that clout from the people. Cameron only cares about what being a Na’vi or a native means to him and not what it means to the actual people. That’s really the conclusion Cameron tries to press forward with Avatar, that if you do nice things for nature and native people you have earned the clout to be one of them or one with them. 

That is 1000% false.

While it is not unusual for a Native tribe to honor a non-native for doing nice things for them, even in some cases giving some honorary titles, the fact of the matter is Westerners do not belong here. White people in particular stole this land, and no amount of philanthropy and goodwill will ever change what our ancestors and frankly our present people do to native cultures. 

A reminder to watch John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” special on netflix btw.

In the US alone an estimated 12 million Native Americans were slaughtered by Europeans/Americans or to put things in another context roughly 90 percent of its people between the years of 1492 and 1900 (Some figures are much higher depending on where you look…).

12 fucking million. Roughly 3 million a century. 300,000 a decade.

I want you to ask yourself sincerely what can one person possibly do to atone for all of that to earn not only truly earn the right to live here but also sincerely call themselves a native on top of all of that?

Nothing should be the answer.

You are not a native because you do nice things for a tribe or make two waaaay too long movies supposedly in support of them. You are native only if you are actually native.

I can hear some of you reading this saying I’m taking this too personally and making something out of nothing but ask yourself how you would feel if this movie was actually about literal Native Americans. Like Jake Sully actually becomes an actual Apache or a Cherokee by the end of the film, how would that make you feel?

I know how it would make me feel…

The thing is Cameron is not even a worthy white advocate for native people to begin with either. In fact, he should be among the last people to speak for them. 

In 2010, in an article by The Guardian, James Cameron was opposing the Bel Monte Hydroelectric dam which led to the displacement of many Native tribes of the Amazon. He remarked on this and the driving force behind the script of the first Avatar film, which was to show love and respect to native peoples, and then he made this ill-advised comment:

Yiiiiiikes…

Whether you feel this quote was well-intentioned or not it speaks again to the ignorance white people have of what it’s really like to be native, what actually happened centuries ago. To go back to Hawaii for a minute, Queen Liliuokalani had the choice to fight the coup with force but chose not to because, again, there was truly no choice but to passively accept the takeover of their land. To fight one of the most powerful militaries on the planet meant certain genocide for her people and she ultimately chose to preserve her people even if it meant the loss of their kingdom and way of life.

A reminder btw that “Aloha Oe” is supposed to be a sad song about the death of Kingdom’s sovereignty in the face of a colonial super power and not about being depressed about going home from your Hawaiian vacation…

It’s easy to believe you would just join a rebellion when all you’ve known your entire life is privilege. White, particularly conservative, Americans, fantasize all the time about open warfare with the “guberment” while openly chastising refugees and immigrants who flee their war torn countries (that are often that way due to American internvetionism…) for not staying “to fight back.”

To these people who will never experience a crumb of the kind of violence native people have faced fighting back is just that simple because to be fair to them there is a romantic notion in fighting for your way of life against a more powerful enemy. It’s easy to fantasize about that when you have everything. But that’s just it; it’s a fantasy. It’s not real.

The reality is the Lakota and many other tribes fought like hell, sometimes to the last women and child to go out on their feet instead of in chains but eventually all had to accept the reality that in the face of overwhelming deadly force the only choice left was to survive because the other option was to simply die out.

Natives are due SUBSTANTIAL reparations for what happened to them. NOT a lecture.

You have to understand. I’m one with you now but because I’m also white it makes just a little bit better than you too…

Becoming “one with the natives” and claiming that ancestry is not about respect to those peoples but rather about white people trying to tether themselves to the land they raped and pillaged instead of doing the right thing and giving it back. (In fairness to “Avatar,” they kiiinda say that…)

To say the Lakota Sioux “should have fought a lot harder” is not only offensive and ignorant but can only ever come from a white man who has never, and will never know, that level of strife and desperation in their life.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a direct metaphor for this ignorant line of thinking. To him the native people simply “didn’t fight hard enough” and they just needed a hero, a savior if you will, to help them “stand up for themselves” and push back their colonizing enemy. It’s that simple!

Jake Sully is not a Na’vi no matter what the science fiction magic of the film says. He did not grow up as one, he is not really one of them. When he remarks about “The sky people,” i.e. the humans, in the sequel I can’t help but cringe at that cause he is still a “sky person” in my eyes. Whatever James Cameron says about native people in these movies, he is not their ultimate advocate just because his movie professes its love for them.

It’s “love” in the same way an abusive parent “loves” their child, infantilizing them and chastising them for not being better in the moment, but it ain’t the love he think he’s espousing.

What’s particularly insidious about this is that for most movie goers, I imagine, they are not all that well-acquainted with Native people and this movie acts as an authority on the subject for them. I like to think I’m pretty well-read but I couldn’t tell you the subtle differences between various Native Tribes in North America and thus I will never attempt to pretend I know better. But these movies are obviously about them and when mass audiences see them, especially young viewers, this might be there first “real” exposure to that culture and when a movie with this much money behind it is playing on multiple screens at many theaters across the country, whether it knows it or not, the movie is paraded around as the ultimate viewpoint of what native people are and what they need.

I’ve said this before in other blog entries but I have never pretended I’m THE voice for everyone who identifies the same ways as me but these major blockbusters and their studios ABSOLUTELY pretend they are when they release big movies like this that will be seen by millions and millions of people.

I get that when you are fantasy/science fiction writer, and you are creating a fictional race you will inevitably draw from real cultures to make them feel more real but there is a delicate tight rope to walk there and if you are making one that is supposed to be inspired from a marginalized community you have EXTRA responsibility to get it right.

“We are space polynesians, who wear space polynesian tribal tattoos, and we make yipping sounds like Space Native Americans!” *screams*

If you have stuck with me this long through probably my longest rant ever, I thank you for it. There’s obviously a lot to unpack here even still but the cliff notes version of this is quite simply do your fucking homework before trying to represent other people or masquerade as them.

The “Avatar” movies weren’t actually made because James Cameron truly cares about nature and native people. They were made because they serve his personal career. While Cameron has donated some of his enormous box office results to environmental charities, none (that I am aware of) have been sent to a single native American reservation. Perhaps it’s because he wants them to “fight harder” or whatever but either way all this white savior has really done is create an extremely expensive vanity project that serves only himself ultimately that to the well-meaning ignorant paint him as “one of the good guys” to his adoring fans.

Like a traveling “activist” who’s excursions out in Africa always feature them at the center of every photo of smiling poor children, these movies are really about him and not the people he thinks he cares about…

It’s not about you…

To bleeding heart liberals, and rather surprisingly some leftists online, it’s enough that his movie correctly states that nature needs to be preserved, the military industrial complex, particularly America’s, is bad, and that I guess native people are these pure beings that need to be protected at all costs.

These movies aren’t without good takes or even profound thoughts on what needs to be done. I’m not saying James Cameron is a uniquely terrible human being, I might even say he has his heart, technically, in the right place but ultimately his narrative choices do say something about him and people who think like him and it’s deeply problematic to put it mildly…

People like James Cameron, Elizabeth Warren, and Rachel fucking Dolezal don’t actually care about minorities or at least care enough about them to think beyond themselves in this matter. What they care particularly about is how putting a wet coat of native/ethnic paint over themselves will make them look and how it may and will serve their interests. 

Maybe it’s a guilty conscious thing, maybe it’s a twisted way for them to pay reparations by putting on their face, but at the end of the day it’ll never change one concrete fact about them.

That they are white and no amount of science fiction wizardry can ever change that…

“I’m doing it! I’m becoming a Native!” Image via The New York Times

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