Indigenous Activists Criticize ‘Avatar’ Sequel

They say the film romanticizes colonization and reduces Indigenous cultures to vague stereotypes

Avatar: The Way of Water
Critics say the portrayal of the Na'avi alien species in Avatar appropriates and homoginizes Indigenous cultures. 20th Century Studios

With the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, director James Cameron’s mystical world of Pandora is back, 13 years after the first Avatar film premiered. Back, too, are critics worried that the movie romanticizes colonization and paints Indigenous communities around the world with a broad brush.

Avatar and its sequel follow the story of the Na’vi, a species of tall, blue aliens whose way of life is disrupted by the arrival of the “sky people,” or humans from planet Earth. In 2012, Cameron described the original film as a “science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period.”

In the first movie, a human named Jake Sully arrives on Pandora and helps saves the Na’vi from the invaders from Earth. At the time, Indigenous activists decried this aspect of Avatar as a white savior story.

Speaking with Unilad’s Daisy Phillipson, Cameron says he incorporated feedback from Indigenous people into Avatar’s sequel and tried to move away from the white savior trope. “The people who have been victimized historically are always right,” he says. “It's not up to me, speaking from a perspective of white privilege, if you will, to tell them that they're wrong.”

Still, the film’s release last week generated a new wave of critics. One of those is Cheney Poole, who is Maori (an Indigenous Polynesian group in New Zealand). She tells the Washington Post’s Samantha Chery that Avatar: The Way of Water is “just another example of the same very upfront and apparent romanticization of colonization.” 

In creating Avatar, Cameron and his team “try to draw from everything” and “create our own Indigenous cultures,” the director tells Unilad. But that’s part of the problem, according to Autumn Asher BlackDeer, a scholar of decolonization at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. The films, she tells the Washington Post, put forward a monolithic portrayal of Indigenous people.

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

The original Avatar, which was released in 2009, is the highest-grossing movie of all time. But Avatar: The Way of Water’s earnings fell short of predictions over its premiere weekend, generating about $400 million in global profits. 

Yuè Begay, a Navajo artist and activist, is among a number of Indigenous people using social media to call for a boycott of the film. In an open letter addressed to Cameron, Begay criticizes the director for casting white actors as “aliens based on actual Indigenous people.”

“Hire us! Hire our experts in your writing rooms, as your consultants, as your talent, as your leaders,” Begay’s letter states. “Stop trying to lead. You are NOT our leader. You are an outsider. A guest to our lands and culture. Act like it.”