Architect of the Avatar universe, James Cameron, defends usage of Indigenous culture in his Avatar sequel
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water continues to make astronomical waves in the box office and in the media since its December 16th debut. The science fiction epic already has managed to gross $855 million in global ticket sales within its first 10 days in theaters, making it the fifth highest grossing film of 2022. Domestically, the long-awaited Avatar sequel has amassed over $250 million in sales, a colossal feat given America’s unprecedented winter storm during the holiday weekend. Despite Indigenous groups calling upon boycotts for the film’s colonial romanticization, depiction of the white savior complex, and its callous appropriation of their culture, the feature is on track to gross $1 billion dollars in revenue by the end of this year, potentially making it the third film of 2022 – behind Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion – to reach this goal post. In an exclusive interview with The Wrap, Avatar’s creator and director James Cameron discusses the “fine line” between cultural appropriation and appreciation in his Avatar sequel.
As the architect of the highly-detailed, imaginative world of Pandora and its inhabitants, the Na’vi people, James Cameron has admitted to pulling real-life inspirations from the Lakota tribe and their history in addition to other indigenous groups when building the world for Avatar. The Way of The Water picks up more than a decade after the events of the prequel following Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as chief of the Omaticaya clan who must once again fight a war against hostile human forces all while keeping his family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) intact. The sequel offers more exploration into the different Na’vi groups on Pandora introducing the Metkayina, a sea-dwelling community with cultural and physical differences to jungle-dwelling Omaticaya clan. According to Cameron, conversations surrounding appropriation took place, highlighting the real-life cultural influences for the Na’vi clans’ expansion in The Way of Water.
“We had a lot of discussions about cultural appropriation. How much is too much? At what point are you no longer honoring and celebrating a culture, but actually extracting and exploiting? So we tried to walk a fine line there and celebrate Polynesian indigenous culture in general, right across from Hawaii, down through Tahiti, French Polynesia, Māori culture and Samoan culture and so on. We wanted to just put our own swerve on that with our artists in terms of the style of the tattoos and the wardrobe and all that sort of thing.”
Cameron goes on to admit he wanted the Na’vi culture and environment to be inspired by real things as he wanted to come from a place of “celebrating human ingenuity and imagination of nature” within his Avatar franchise. “The creatures, the sort of ecosystem, the reef, the forest, all that stuff is all inspired by the imagination of the great artists of evolution that have created all this amazing stuff that’s on our own planet,” Cameron explained. “That’s what we’re really talking about, right? But we also want to celebrate the human imagination, which has been creating culture for really hundreds of thousands of years.”
Indigenous Groups Continue Their Fight Against James Cameron’s Avatar Franchise
The battle against Avatar: The Way of Water continues for Indigenous groups as the sci-fi blockbuster maintains box office success heading into the end of the year. In his interview with The Wrap, James Cameron mentions how the different cultural backgrounds and language groups within his ensemble cast greatly influenced how the aggregation of the Na’vi culture was portrayed on-screen. Although Cameron maintains a perspective of cultural homage and appreciation for these groups, Indigenous people have continued their boycott and have raised awareness of his shortcomings and racist representations in the Avatar franchise via social media.
Indigenous Twitter users continue to echo sentiments from television writer and Cowlitz Indian Tribal member Joey Clift as the Avatar rollout presses forward. Many are lamenting frustrations and raising awareness of Cameron’s commentary in previous interviews where he insensitively spoke about the Lakota Nation and their genocide survivors. It raises important questions of building enterprises based on the history and culture of minority groups from an outsider’s perspective.