How Avatar: The Way of Water Expands Native Representation

Movies Features Avatar: The Way of Water
How Avatar: The Way of Water Expands Native Representation

Thirteen years after James Cameron’s Avatar unleashed in theaters, The Way of Water is similarly dominating the box office. As it continues to reach new record-breaking heights, the heart of its story brings the historical plight of Indigenous people into more of a mainstream light. Where the first film put the focus more directly on the struggle against colonizers, the sequel presents another side of Native American life that has almost never been showcased on screen before.

Of course, not all Indigenous people feel the same way. Many feel the films capitalize on our pain and stories, while keeping us on the sidelines. As a Native American (of the Ponca Tribe), my long love of Avatar feels…tense. In some ways, however, this brings to light another important aspect often overlooked when it comes to any minority storytelling: We aren’t a monolith.

Native Americans in particular, with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, can’t be narrowed down to a single viewpoint. Most have their own languages, customs and general disposition. We can rarely agree on things even among our own tribes, so it should be no surprise to hear a variety of Native opinions on how Avatar straddles the line between “representation” and “appropriation.” To be clear, it’s crucial we listen to these voices. Truly, I can’t find fault in many of the arguments presented against Avatar…I simply have a different perspective on how the Native elements are being handled.

Telling “Our” Story

When I first saw Avatar in 2009, I immediately fell in love. Beyond its pretty visuals and blockbuster action, I was enamored with the idea of seeing Natives (i.e. myself) treated as the people we were supposed to root for.

It’s obviously rooted within a typical “white savior” narrative (an issue worth discussing), but how the film presents the Na’vi and their cultures was unlike anything else at the time. It’s important to remember, even a little over a decade ago, representation for just about any minority was still pretty slim when it came to big-budget movies. Thankfully the industry has made great strides in the years since, but in 2009 it was damn near unheard of to have a massive blockbuster spend three hours showing audiences why Native cultures are worth fighting for.

There have been a handful of films where Native peoples were at the center of the story prior to Avatar, obviously. Last of the Mohicans, Little Big Man and even Dances with Wolves (from which Avatar has been scrutinized for being so similar to) immediately come to mind as classics. The problem, however, is even in those films Native Americans are treated as little more than set dressing or plot devices.

These films used our cultures to highlight the differences in the lead characters while our historical pain/plight serves as the catalyst for their ultimate change in perspectives. By and large, the heroes of those stories come to love the Natives in spite of their strangeness; perpetuating the idea of the benevolent white man on the big screen.

Avatar, however, spends much of its run time immersing both its protagonist, Jake Sully, and audiences into the culture of the Omaticaya clan. Jake isn’t merely empathizing with their struggles (although that aspect is there), nor is it just that he falls in love with Neytiri in his journey. Rather, he falls in love with the people, their ways and the land itself. He quite literally becomes a Na’vi.

The time we spend alongside this tribe shows us a rich cultural heritage that goes well beyond the “noble savage” trope. It allows us to see them as a fully functioning society; one that is different from ours, but no less “civilized” for it. By the end, Jake finds himself fighting for the Na’vi because he sees them for who they are as a people/society…not because he feels sorry for them.

As a Native who grew up loving film so much I went to college for it, this aspect of Avatar blew me away. Yes, there are absolutely problematic elements regarding representation, even appropriation. But it also marks one of the first times—on the big screen—I felt like I was witnessing a story that was doing more than capitalizing on Native pain simply for entertainment value.

I was excited to see the story continue, but there was a big part of me anxious to see how the Native/Indigenous aspects would be handled with all the time that had passed. Surprisingly, The Way of Water managed to deliver another facet of Native culture that’s rarely touched upon in media, let alone in a blockbuster.

One-Dimensional History

The history of Native Americans in cinema is…not great. The entire Western genre was built around the idea of Indians being the villains of the story, or at the least a dangerous nuisance. It’s a stereotype the industry was slow to buck, and even modern films still struggle in their framing of Native Americans. While they may no longer be the “bad guys,” they’ve mostly evolved into savages to be avoided (e.g. 2020’s News of the World).

Beyond that, however, Natives have been treated as “one note” in another way: They’re all the same. At this moment, there are currently 574 tribes in the United States. Obviously that doesn’t include the countless others who were eradicated off the face of the planet, but it’s still quite a bit. While many tribes share plenty of similarities, the differences can be stark.

There were war-like tribes across the plains, nomadic tribes able to uproot at a moment’s notice, and those that built long-established cities. Industrious tribes moved forward in both skill and technology (this includes those tribes who ensured early European settlers didn’t starve in those first few seasons). You could pick any two tribes from opposite ends of the continent and find they have little in common.

Yet, in the media, all Indians were the same. A great homogenization happened on screens, where every Native became breechcloth-wearing, tomahawk-wielding savages with a single feather in a band around our heads. This was the Native Hollywood had concocted for their stories, ultimately becoming the stereotype that would end up as sports mascots.

For many decades, films featuring Natives never mentioned a specific tribe, mostly because it didn’t matter. “Indian Territory” was about the only name uttered by the settlers in these movies/shows; a catchall phrase used to indicate that’s where the trouble would come from. Even cartoons of the day were susceptible to this—just look at Looney Tunes’ Injun Joe.

When tribes were named, it rarely mattered beyond giving characters something more specific to use in dialogue. In John Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne’s character hunts down the Comanche (which he continually mispronounces) to rescue his niece. It could have easily been any other tribe—there was nothing distinctive to the Comanche we can see on the screen.

In more recent decades, things have gotten better and the portrayal of different tribes on screen have actually included cultural aspects unique to them. Skins put the focus on the Lakota Sioux; Smoke Signals (the first film made entirely by Native Americans) is centered on the Schitsu’umsh, or Coeur d’Alene people; and more recent stuff like Reservation Dogs shows an accurate portrayal of the modern-day Muscogee Nation.

Here’s the thing: While we’re getting better individual representation of tribes, these stories are still very much embedded into a singular lens. Audiences are still being shown one set of people at a time. It’s a great thing, and allows Indigenous storytellers the chance to shape their own stories. We need to keep seeing that, but in some ways, it works as another kind of homogenization. Not necessarily for us Natives, but certainly to those looking in from the outside.

Expanding With The Way of Water

In this way, I was thrilled with how Avatar: The Way of Water put another tribe, the water-dwelling Metkayina, at the forefront. With the world of Pandora firmly established in the previous film, it would have been all too easy for the sequel to maintain that status quo and tell a new story with the Natives audiences are already familiar with. Instead, it goes a different direction and opens up the world in a whole new way.

Through the perspective of Jake, Neytiri and their children, we immediately see the difference between the two tribes. While they are all Na’vi, sharing many physical characteristics, their customs and day-to-day lives couldn’t be more different.

As we witness their first few days among the Metkayina, there’s a bit of culture shock. We see how the Metkayina make use of sign language in order to communicate underwater (similar to how some Native American tribes used “hand talk”), how they mark themselves with tattoos and how their colloquialisms are unique.

One of my favorite moments is when Jake was trying to ride the tsurak (skimwing). Tonowari tries to warn Jake to take things easy, that they normally encourage starting off with the ilu as the kids have. Jake waves off the notion. After all, he’s learned to ride/control the land animals like the direhorse, the flying banshees and even the great toruk! Surely, with the concept being essentially the same as they make a bond via their neural queues, the legendary Toruk Makto could easily tame this new creature.

Truthfully, I was expecting him to handle the tsurak just fine for those exact reasons—and because he’s the main “hero.” When he fails his first attempt, I was both surprised and impressed that the story was willing to take our hero back to basics. It’s an important moment in the movie, highlighting how much more diverse and layered the Na’vi are.

The film’s second act, with the Sully family learning the ways of the Metkayina, is reminiscent of the moments in the original film where Jake was having to un-learn his human ways in order to embrace the ways of the Omaticaya. The crucial difference this time, however, is seeing other Na’vi struggle to adapt.

From a Native American lens, I was floored. Seeing the two different Na’vi tribes side-by-side manages to be both familiar and contrasting at the same time. It’s a sensation I’ve experienced a few times as I’ve visited other Indian reservations, sitting in to watch their powwows. It was just familiar enough for me to feel comfortable and welcome, yet so distinct from my own tribe’s customs that I wouldn’t begin to think we were the same.

A Shift in Perspective

Indigenous people across the world share a number of intriguing similarities when it comes to how they view the world overall and how they strive to live in harmony with it. Specifically in North America, you will find that many tribes feature mythologies which share similar themes, while still featuring key differences. At least 12 different tribes (including my own) have stories about the Deer Woman. The Deer Woman is a spirit, or cryptid, who takes on the visage of a beautiful woman and just so happens to have the feet of a deer…but that’s about all tribes tend to agree on.

Depending on who you’re hearing the story from, Deer Woman can serve as a harbinger of doom, a murderous demon or even a benevolent entity promoting fertility and love. When you get down to the nitty-gritty in some of these stories, it’s possible to see how even the disparate elements about her still touch upon similar overarching themes. Because of this, it’s easy for outsiders to lump them all together.

Those small divergences, however, are crucial to the individual tribes and how we as Native Americans engage with our community/elders. It’s these differences that influence our rituals and everyday customs.

The Way of Water does an excellent job of underscoring this aspect. I was particularly impressed with how it introduces new facets when it comes to Na’vi “religion.” For all intents and purposes, Eywa serves as the deity for the Na’vi and is, in many ways, representative of the planet itself; a conscious entity that connects all things. Most of our main knowledge of Eywa comes from the first film, but The Way of Water shows how different clans/tribes engage with the planetary lifeforce. Instead of the Tree of Souls, the Metkayina commune with Eywa via the Spirit Tree within the Cove of the Ancestors. When we’re introduced to it, through Kiri and the other children, the similarities between the Trees are immediately apparent, but how the tribes engage with them are markedly different.

Moreso, the Metkayina’s faith regarding Eywa goes even deeper than what we’ve seen with other Na’vi. Their relationship with the whale-like tulkun (spirit brothers/sisters) is reminiscent of how the Omaticaya engage with land animals, though on a more direct level. We also hear much about the proverbial “Way of Water” and how it “connects all things.” It’s familiar verbiage, but we’re shown how different perspectives on this unifying force influence the lives of Na’vi tribes.

Where the Omaticaya use stories of Eywa to live in harmony with the dangerous creatures on land and within the forests, the Metkayina have taken Eywa’s teachings and applied them to the oceans. We’re presented with something overtly familiar, but the differences have influenced the growth of two unique cultures.

Those subtle differences are what make our tribes special. Those minor deviations in mythology inform our heritage and are what we try to carry on into the future so that we don’t become homogenized. Seeing this deftly presented was not something I expected to ever be showcased in a movie or show, let alone a big-budget blockbuster.

Still Work to be Done

Too many people tend to get their understanding of other cultures through entertainment. It’s less than ideal, to be sure, but knowing that makes it all the more important for accurate representation to happen. In this regard, The Way of Water’s emphasis that Na’vi—Natives—are not a monolith is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be shown. Highlighting the idea that cultures can be unique and special in their own ways, even with shared ethnic backgrounds, is something I hope to see more and more. Similarly, casting Cliff Curtis, an actor of Maori descent affiliated with the Te Arawa and Ngati Hauiti tribes, as Tonowari is the kind of thing we need more of as well.

Yet, much as I personally adore the Avatar films, one cannot ignore that it’s still very much an Indigenous story being told by a white man. I love James Cameron and his films, but as the industry moves forward in its on-screen representation, it needs to incorporate us behind the scenes as well. Indigenous voices deserve to be part of the storytelling process. Regardless of how much research Cameron has done—and it’s clear from his interviews that he’s done quite a bit—it will always be an outsider speaking for us. While the stories for the next films are already laid out (Avatar 3 is completely filmed), it would be nice to see some Indigenous writers get a chance to play around in the scripts to give the story even more authenticity.

In fact, let’s talk about Spider for a second. I loved how Jake and the Na’vi essentially adopted Spider into their ways. Despite having human encampments (good ones) around, the kid grew up embracing the Native culture. Historically speaking, it wasn’t uncommon for members of other tribes to be adopted/assimilated into another tribe—it was common practice to adopt the women and children from vanquished enemies and raise them as their own. It’s not something we’ve seen explored on the screen before, at least in any positive way. The Way of Water gives us that with Spider, but there’s one element that feels out of place from the Native perspective: Neytiri’s treatment of Spider is pretty terrible. She continues to see him as an outsider/demon, and despite her kids having (very literally) grown up together with him, she has no qualms about inflicting harm upon him and threatening his life. It just doesn’t jive with what we know. It’s something a writer with a Native American background could have adjusted, or at least been in the room to tell Cameron and team that it’s off track.

We’ve seen success with this as recently as Prey. By relying on Native consultants (and producer Jhane Myers), Dan Trachtenberg crafted a thrilling new story that also serves as a new standard for Native representation on screen. The stories we’ve been given in Avatar have emphasized the beauty, even necessity, of Native culture in a way few mainstream blockbusters have. The Way of Water goes even further by showing the diversity within our own peoples and the uniqueness that makes them shine. That still counts for something, and should be recognized even as we continue to push for better representation both on, and off, the screen.

Jordan Maison is a writer and all around nerd. His passion for film got him to study it in college, and he’s spent the past 12 years writing about it all. His words can be found on io9, Nerdist, Observer, Star Wars Insider, and Cinelinx (where he serves as the Editor). He’s also the founder of the ReelOutreach charity and you can follow all his escapades on Twitter.

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