On noble savages and the humanity of the ‘other’

Sullivan nods approvingly at this passage from Conor on Avatar’s Na’vi:

The problem with the noble savage cliche is that it is demonstrably untrue. The people who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans warred, died for lack of medicine, sometimes killed animal herds so unsustainably that they faced starvation — so despite the manifold wrongs done by the Europeans to indigenous peoples, it is inaccurate and simplistic to screen stories where savage Europeans war with noble natives living in utter harmony with nature.

James Cameron isn’t portraying native people of our world. His alien protagonists aren’t intended as stand-ins for the Navajos or the Aztecs or the Cherokee. In his different world, the native people really are in communion with nature. Were his purpose to comment on European history, this would be a terrible choice, but in fact Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way. That is why I approve of the decision to portray the kinds of natives that were shown.

Conor is off the mark here.  Cameron’s Na’vi were the noblest of noble savages – hands down the least complicated, least dynamic, most shallow savages written into a major film in – I don’t know – decades?  Years?  A really long time.  And Cameron was commenting on European/American history.  Science fiction is always about history.

The movie theatre I saw this in was packed, and about half the audience were Navajos.  My home town is mostly white, but the second largest racial demographic is Native American – mostly Navajo and some Hopi.  In college, pretty much all my lit classes were on multi-cultural themes, but the vast bulk of time was spent on Native American literature in particular.  I have spent more hours than I care to count thinking about these issues – about Native American rights, land rights, the various myths and religious themes which surround Native American culture, and the ways in which popular culture (and Hollywood) has portrayed native peoples in America.  I have a number of friends (past  and present) who are Navajo (or Diné, as they prefer to be called).  We even have a public elementary school here which teaches one third of all its material in the Navajo language (and one third in Spanish).

So, whether the Na’vi are simple “stand-ins for the Navajos” or whether Cameron was trying to write his very own native-from-scratch is immaterial.  Surely Conor has heard the term “extended metaphor” before.  Cameron’s alien moon, Pandora, may not be the American frontier, and the Na’vi may not be the Diné, but the parallels are obvious and purposeful.  And the real problem is not that such parallels exist but that Cameron’s handling of his Pandoran tribal people is so one-dimensional.

Why not rip off The Last of the Mohicans and have some bad Na’vi thrown into the mix?  That would at the very least be more interesting, and certainly more honest.  A film wherein the natives are not only exploited but turned against one another – whose weaknesses are exploited as well – would be more complex and realistic.  Or Cameron could have taken some pages from the The Mission – a film which took seriously the questions of colonization, religious colonization and the indigenous response, and the merits of passive resistance.

This is the problem with treating the Na’vi as noble savages.  They are unbelievable.  They are too easy too sympathize with – childlike, fragile – and this exposes them to the white-man-as-savior theme all too easily.  In The Mission the white man could not save the Guaraní from the Portuguese; the Church could not save them from the secular powers; God could not save them from death.  The white “saviors” as Jesuit priests ultimately failed, both in their attempt to erect a mission and in their attempts – both diplomatic and eventually militarily – to stop the slavers and their political allies from eventually tearing the mission down.  We are left with haunting questions about our own humanity at the end of that film – but also at the beginning as we watch the Jesuit priest, nailed to a cross, sent out over the falls into the endless spray.

I’m not sure how such a dark and honest portrayal of the colonized would have carried over into a $350 million dollar blockbuster, but it would have made for a much more compelling story.

Nor am I sure why Sullivan thinks that this is an example of Conor being a “contrarian conservative.”  I’m underwhelmed by the idea that conservatives hated this movie while liberals loved it.  I know several liberals who had almost identical thoughts as myself after watching the film – and perhaps that’s because we know so many Navajos and have been so steeped in that culture that we quite literally flinch at any portrayal of Native Americans (metaphorical or not) as noble savages.

It’s an immature way to understand a culture, for one thing.  It erases all culpability – all humanity, so to speak – from the Na’vi themselves, and thus undermines and cheapens their struggle.  If we are to understand our own humanity at all – as Conor suggests this movie allows us to – than we have to first understand the humanity of the “other.”  Cameron, instead, asks us only to mythologize and glorify the other,  and so we are left with another empty parable.  This is more pernicious than you might think.  Erasing the fundamental humanity of the “other” is what allows us to enslave and destroy them in the first place.

P.S. – Sullivan, don’t go hippie on us.  We have lots of those around here, too, and that is not a road you want to go down….

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64 thoughts on “On noble savages and the humanity of the ‘other’

  1. ” Erasing the fundamental humanity of the “other” is what allows us to enslave and destroy them in the first place.”

    So wait…the Na’vi are human? I thought they were 12 foot tall blue aliens living on a planet deadly to humans without a mask or an Avatar body…

    Yes, I’m being snarky, but I have never seen so much pointless wankery over the “meaning” of a movie. (Not pointing fingers….it’s everywhere.) The movie is a horoscope. It’s a mirror. It can be interpreted any number of ways based on one’s principles or prejudices, including the one in this post.

    But ultimately, the “point” of Avatar is to entertain people and separate them from their money. I don’t think James Cameron is sending any other message than “Sit back, eat popcorn, dream.” I mean, it’s only a movie, right?

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    • Yeah but people always say that, don’t they? Whenever a movie or a book or whatever generates buzz, sparks conversation, etc. then somebody starts complaining that it’s just a movie/book/whatever. The point is that it sparks conversation. The conversation is what is important, not the movie necessarily….

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    • Why do people fall upon this response to serious consideration of art? In my mind, to say it is “just a movie” is to say the Statue of Liberty is just a statue. Avatar is a 350 million representation our ideological moment, of what the culture thinks and believes. Criticize it, defend it, but don’t reduce it to meaningless entertainment.

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    • “So wait…the Na’vi are human? I thought they were 12 foot tall blue aliens living on a planet deadly to humans without a mask or an Avatar body…”

      That’s what I thought while reading this post. I think the problem in Erik’s post (and I’ve seen others do the same) is his attempt to “humanize” the Na’vi. They’re not humans, and they act in very unhumanlike ways. Humans, no matter how “in tune” with nature, are not neurally connected with each other and their environment in the way that the Na’vi are. That’s the difference between the Na’vi and the American Indians-and it’s a big difference. Let the aliens be aliens.

      As for the Na’vi being childlike and fragile, not being impervious to gunfire isn’t a convincing case. In fact, everything we saw about the Na’vi (the way they reacted to the news of invaders, the rite of passage, etc) seemed to indicate an aggressive, warlike culture. The fact that they were neurally connected to that which they were killing (hence the sorrow over unnecessary death) doesn’t make them fragile. It’s just different.

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  2. The fundamental beauty and fragility of the Na’vi is *INTRINSIC* to their nature. They are a mirror that we must gaze into, steely eyed, and see what we *MIGHT* be. We could be in tune with nature. We could be in tune with each other. We could be in tune with our own selves!!! With self-discipline, self-awareness, and other-awareness, we could transcend our own lowly selves and move toward higher Na’viness.

    This is why you get one with a Happy Meal. They light up.

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  3. Insofar that Avatar has sparked conversation, you’re absolutely right. But in that conversation “it’s only a movie” should never be far from our minds.

    I’ve seen commentary stating that Avatar is about race. It’s about capitalism. It’s about militarism. It’s an apologia for pantheism. It’s a tree-hugger’s wet dream. A buddy of mine even said it’s an argument for why “eminent domain” is immoral.

    In short, it can be interpreted any number of ways, and that’s why –frankly– I think it’s brilliant. It’s also why I think picking just one is folly. If you think it’s an apology for pantheism – say- you’re missing all the other themes.

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  4. “In college, pretty much all my lit classes were on multi-cultural themes, but the vast bulk of time was spent on Native American literature in particular. … We even have a public elementary school here which teaches one third of all its material in the Navajo language (and one third in Spanish).”

    Not to jack the thread here, but for someone who thinks adding ten minutes about this histroy of science to a biology class is going to doom America to economic decline… you seem to have an incredibly open opinion of how we ought to be spending time in other classes. Seriously… “pretty much all” of your time studying literature in college was spent on multi-culti? And once half of one biology class spent on a politically explosive topic will lead to a nation of scientific illiterates?

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    • Yeah but it was multi-cultural literature in a literature class. If I’d been in a science class I’d have wanted it to be about science, not some too-afraid-to-call-itself-religion religious material. If I want religion I’ll go to mass.

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      • But it’s open to the same critique. Literature is not “almost all” about multiculturalism. It is not the only prism thorugh which to view it. Same as the native American’s teaching a third of ALL classes in the native language. By your logic, shouldn’t language instruction be restricted to language class? If teaching a little history of biology in biology class is a terrible misstep, why is it OK to teach a little Hopi in biology class?

        I had a buddy who went to a traditional Irish school in Ireland, where they taught mostly in Gaelic. An important element of this instruction, even in science class, was cultural instruction. For instance, there was no word in Gaelic for many of the technical scientific terms, until someone invented them. But this made it very hard for him to transition to a biology class taught in modern English. So they talked about all that stuff. In lots of different classes, including the actual science class. Because you can’t and shouldn’t put learning in such tiny little silos. (He ended up going to Yale and doing well enough in a very technical field that he retired in his 30s to write poetry. So it doesn’t seem that the distraction made him incapable of competing in the world economy.)

        Which is part and parcel with tons of modern pedagogical ideas, like “writing across the curriculum,” which brings an element of writing instruction into even the most die-hard technical classes. Because to truly understand science, you need to be able to express it. Similarly, to truly understand it, you need to understand the history of the field. Oddly, I never see anyone filing federal lawsuits or writing letters to the editor about writing across the curriculum. Which leads me to believe that all the uproar over teaching evolution really isn’t based on “but we need to devote the whole class period to actual science” concerns.

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        • Nope. No parallel at all. I chose to take multi-cultural lit classes in college because I liked the people teaching them. I wasn’t a lit-student (creative writing was my thing) so it wasn’t that central to what I was doing anyways. In any case, I had the option to take any number of different literature classes and took some of them, just focused on the multi-cultural ones. If I had been in the sciences I could have chosen from all sorts of different science classes – but not ID because it isn’t science. The school here that teaches 1/3 of its material in Navajo is also a choice for parents who can choose to send their children to all-English schools as well. Either way, they don’t teach the Navajo creation myths in their biology classes.

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    • The history of science isn’t what it will be. It will instead be lying to children about the state of the evidence, and shameful tactics such as trying to tie evolution to Hitler. We know this as we have seen it happen.

      The entire creationist critique is nothing but baseless attempts to slag a theory they don’t like. If a parent wants their kid to learn the religious perspective of their church they should take them to the church, not overtake their kids science class.

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  5. So much of what I’ve read about AVATAR strikes me as pointless wankery in political terms, and just mediocre in terms of film criticism. I mean, it’s worthwhile to talk about perceptions of “savages” and colonialism — have at it, whatever. Red Staters and Taki-types hate that the guy betrays his race. Of course they do. Activist Lefties might chime in with the Its Just Pocahantas crowd. Yawn, but yes.

    To me, it’s a perfect little movie. Yes, little. It’s an expensive-ass little machine for showing off some intense techie art, and it all built up to a few memorable moments. These included: Sigourney’s explanation of the interconnectedness of the ecosystem (a heightened version of our own reality), the macho fuckemness of the corporates and militaries (ditto), the pangs of regret in the pencil-neck (one can hope), and the ecumenical and philosophical beauty and depth in the simple key phrase, “I see you.”

    I think the antagonistic Navi young warrior leader shows that they’re not all cupcakes and kisses. I’m not sure why he’s ignored in the post. He’s angry, possessive, xenophobic, proud…

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    • Actually, he’s only antagonistic enough to push the humans around a little bit. He’s certainly no real leader – that requires the white guy. And he’s what, one guy out of how many? That’s supposed to be enough to add depth?

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      • I’m not sure what Scott’s comment means, besides seemig like he can’t stand seeing genocidal white capitalists made easy fun of, or perhaps reminded that they have existed, unless great care is taken to show that it’s just a part of human nature.

        And I agree that it’s a shame that Avatar couldn’t show the bad side of Na’vi culture. That would have been a better, probably longer, less Hollywood, probably unfinanced and umade, or at least un3D one.

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  6. The Na’vi are “childlike and fragile”? That’s not the movie I saw. That aside, the nature and extent of the pontificating over this movie are starting to to reach parodic levels.

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    • Couldn’t agree more. Not childlike and fragile. “Aawww, they get upset at the death of an animal! They value nature, they don’t wanna see their hone destroyed, they’re to too innocent, they need to grow up.”

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  7. What all y’all need to do is google “kick-ass movie”.

    Then google “kick-ass movie red band” (but not if you are at work).

    Now *THAT* is a movie upon which all of us can agree.

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  8. Food for the conversation: If the Na’vi are stand-ins for the Dine, does that mean they’re NOT stand-ins for the Roman conquest of the Britons? Or the later Viking invasions? What about the Persians (or Indians) versus Alexander’s Greeks? The Romans in ancient Israel?

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    • Well if Cameron had made his Na’vi druids then sure – but the point is that it is an allegory to our modern sense of the noble savage. We have many fine romance writers who will wax poetic about the Celts and such already.

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      • I don’t know, man. There were some druidic characters in the movie, too….

        I also don’t think Native Americans (or noble savages, for that matter) had a monopoly on bows and arrows, loinclothes, horse riding skills, and warpaint.

        Also, consider the thrust of what I’m saying is that your interpretation is not wrong…but it’s not the only right one either.

        Am I wrong in assuming that your point is the movie is “an allegory to our modern sense of the noble savage” and nothing else?

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        • Oh the Na’vi could be druids or whatever – they are symbolic of our impression of what people who live closer to nature must be like in their purest form. They are a shining example. That they seemed more like native Americans than Picts or Celts is really beside the point.

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  9. Have you not seen Cameron’s other flicks? Why are you surprised by wooden characterizations and corny dialogue? Too seek profundity in this populist fare exceeds its capacity to render it. The best review that I’ve seen likens Avatar to Ferngully. So put on the 3D glasses and enjoy the show.

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  10. In my opinion, the question here isn’t whether it’s just a movie, but rather, what type of movie it is. This was a sci-fi parable, not a work of historical fiction. As such, the use of the noble savage archetype, embodied in 12-foot blue aliens, doesn’t have the same implications and dangers that it does when embodied in a romanticized vision of Native Americans.

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  11. Good points here. However, seeing as the Na’avi (though fictional) were far more culturally African (not Native American), I find it difficult to grasp any European/Native American significance to begin with.

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    • I’m not sure it matters one way or another if the indigenous people in question are African, Aboriginal, or Native American. Colonialism had its way with all these people, and Cameron’s allegory could apply to each.

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  12. E.D., I don’t think you said how the packed audience responded to the movie. Did they like it? Was there grumbling from the Navaho set? Or any discernible difference in the response between Navaho and non-Navaho audience members? … I generally am sympathetic to extended metaphor, lit-crit readings, and I can understand if someone has a visceral negative response based on their reading of the film. But I am with Mike on your complaint about “one-dimensional” characters. Did you see the Titanic? Cameron doesn’t deal with real individuals, he deals with stereotypes and archetypes. To demand something like “The Mission” from Cameron simply reveals a complete disconnect regarding films and human nature. It’s like asking Godard to turn himself into Disney.

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    • Oh I think the reaction was similar to anywhere else. Because Navajo’s are basically just like normal people and always have been. My main point is that the idea of the noble savage is condescending, a result of mythologizing a people who you have very little contact with.

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      • Yeah, but it’s more apropos with a movie like Dances With Wolves, which purports to tell a fictional tale about actual historical societies. Science fiction is sort of by nature idealizing, “what if” in nature. It can be allegorical. So the arguments become a little more theoretical. Though yeah, it might be annoying that the savior is a white dude, I grant you that. But Cameron is a white dude. It’s his point of view. When the Navaho Cameron comes around, she’ll make a different film.

        Hey, I was annoyed that the Uruk Hai in Two Towers had dreadlocks. How unfortunate was that? And then in The Return of the King, they colorized some of the locks to look blonder.

        Hmmm.

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  13. As an avid reader of science fiction since 1953, I’d like to point out that an alien people who frequently link with each other in direct neural communication just might be a little more in tune with each that we are. I had little problem “suspending my disbelief” long enough to enjoy the movie, although I am sure it would be better as a book.

    Although that long reading history did have me thinking, as I left the theater, “Well, the Na’vi are goners when the humans return.”

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  14. I must admit, I like Avatar. Not the plot so much– it was pretty basic–but visually it was stunning. I was entertained.

    But I also didn’t get any allustions to the Navajo. Hailing from Ohio, and growing up in the area that was in the middle of the Indian wars, we were all made aware of the great war chief Techumseh in the years after the Treaty of Greenville and before the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and his efforts to unite the tribes between Tennessee and Detroit. If he’s had some more modern technology, he might have pulled it off, too, and history would have had a different outcome. He was as good a political and military tactician as was ever produced by any culture. But he just couldn’t overcome the tribal nature of his people and get them to unite in common purpose in large enough numbers to overcome the American’s organization and technology.

    But the Avatar story seemed to me to be about a version of U.S. history where an alien version of Techumseh actually won.

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  15. As another student of Native American history, I came out with the Noble Savages reading as well. I mean James Cameron is a student of history, and of anthropology, so it’s ridiculous to presume that he could somehow insert this kind of obvious subtext (is that a contradiction in terms? Hm.) without realizing it. I mean even forgetting the adapted Pocahontas script and the obvious dialog queues, bear in mind that James Cameron is first and foremost a visual director. Titanic, Terminator 2, Aliens, now Avatar – everyone of his films was built first on their looks, and then fleshed out (I’m being generous here) with the rest. So looking at the Na’vi, there can be no question that he intended these characters to invoke visual parallels in the mind of the audience with whatever native peoples have been mythologized in their local culture. They dress in the garb of African natives, they have the wide noses and facial structures of Australian aborigines, they have the hair of Native Americans/First Nations, and their primary weaponry is the bow and arrow (I mean, what are the chances? This is a different planet, for crying out loud). Cameron is not an idiot. Whether he was actually invested in his Harmony-with-Nature message is immaterial, the point is that his film was able to make the audience care about the Na’vi because he was able to play on the heavily-ingrained Noble Savage myth. Degrade the story and writing as you will, but unless people care about the Na’vi, the action sequences and plot surprises are completely meaningless, and the film doesn’t make its cost back.

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  16. I walked out of the theater thinking so this is what “Dances with Wolves (in Space)” with more than a little Gaia thrown in the mix looks like.

    The “flatness” of the characters has to be expected when all the energy is put into layers of pixels rather than layers of writing… which is why the movie didn’t excite me, but the technology did. I’m hopeful that much of the really good SF / Fantasy writing of the last century can now be realized on screen.

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  17. As someone coming from a country where the ‘noble savage’ notion has done real damage in encouraging disastrous indigenous policies, anything–even if “only a movie”–which reinforces it in popular culture is not a good thing.

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  18. I could pen a long drawn out comment but really, good post/work, e.d.

    As for James Cameron’s limitations as a storyteller, doesn’t that only add to the conversation? If film-making is a storytelling “art,” but nobody respects Cameron’s ability to – you know – tell a story, why does he keep making films? More to the point just how complicit are we all in the corruption of this medium of art?

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    • he tells stories about people blowing stuff up real good mostly. telling an action packed story and a coherent meaningfull deep story are different things.

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      • Are you saying True Lies wasn’t deep? Them’s fight’n words.

        That’s a fair point, but the criticisms made earlier that I’m responding to demonstrate a clear lack of respect for his storytelling ability, not an insinuation that he can’t tell any kind of story. Some people are criticizing/asking, “well it’s James Cameron, what did you expect?”

        To which, I take the premise and ask, if one shouldn’t expect good storytelling (whether it’s action or drama) why is he a filmmaker and why do we keep seeing his movies?

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        • True Lies was deep in a shallow sort of way. It spoke to Man’s need for certainty and the difficulty of ever truly knowing another person. And stuff blowed up real good.

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  19. If most of the Navajo in the theater with you weren’t offended by the movie’s supposed ‘noble savage’ stereotyping, then neither should oversensitive white people who tend to over-analyze everything, such as simplistic sci-fi action movies.

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    • That’s ridiculous reasoning. You’re saying that a group of Navajo in the theater are comparable to all Navajo people.

      There’s oversensitive people of ALL races and ethnicities that probably think Avatar is a dumb and offensive movie for a NUMBER of reasons.

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  20. I am kind of in agreement with Jaybird and Gabriel on this one. I think many movies are as much about what we can be as what we are. It is about representing ideals, not reality. Sure the Na’vi were noble savages and it would have been more gritty and realistic to show them with all the human foils and foibles we all have but I don’t think the point is to be realistic as much as it is to map out a better way and say this is what people should aspire to. At least that is how it usually is with morality plays, you have to have the clear cut good and bad in order to make apparent what the moral lesson is. If everything is ‘realistic’ sure it might be easier to relate to and seem ‘better’ for a lack of a more apt description but when every side is flawed then it just becomes pro football with everyone rooting for their favorite team because each side is as flawed as the other. The ideal and the moral lesson becomes lost.

    ( Of course there are a few stories out there that can manage drawing a clear moral principle from totally flawed factions but these take masterful storytellers and that kind of talent is hard to find)

    It seems to me that saying that showing any story characters that mirror less developed native peoples of our own past must not be ‘noble savages’ because it is insulting to those people is in itself insulting to those people. It’s a kind of political correctness, where we as outsiders are trying to define what it is acceptable to portray native people as being. Saying they can’t be a noble savage is putting just as much a box around them as saying they are. I don’t know, we can’t help but use stereotypes to a certain degree but I think nobility or lack of it is a smaller issue here. I would think that far more insulting would be the overt imagery borrowed from native peoples.

    The clothes (what little they wore) for instance, why couldn’t you live in harmony with nature and be fully clothed? Or the weapons? Bows and spears? It is not unreasonable to believe that environmental harmony and some level of technological innovation are incompatible. I think these kind of clear parallels in the Na’vi to our own historical people would be far more cringe worthy then any concept of nobility.

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  21. Avatar, despite being a simplistic sci-fi/action film, tells a story similar to what is actually occurring right now, right here on Earth. As we argue pointlessly over Avatar’s trivial sin of using the noble savage archetype, members of indigenous cultures around the world are being oppressed, murdered, and driven from their homes by mining companies and other multinational corporations. Those of us who care about the plight of indigenous people should be using Avatar to raise awareness about this serious issue, rather than engage in pretentious and self-righteous moralizing about how James Cameron should or should not portray a species of imaginary 10′ tall blue aliens.

    This website is an excellent source of information about the threats faced by indigenous people today: http://www.intercontinentalcry.org

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    • So is James Cameron going to donate some of the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s going to reap from this movie to the causes you’re saying he’s attempting to draw attention to? And aren’t you being completely disingenuous by at once saying that indigenous peoples need to be defended while remonstrating those of us attempting to deflate the dangerous myths about them?

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      • I have no idea if James Cameron is going to donate any of his money, but I think he should and I hope he does.

        No, I don’t think I’m being completely disingenuous , I think you are by acting as if the idealized ‘noble savage’ stereotype is an equal or greater threat to indigenous people than the corporations and governments that are flagrantly stealing their lands and destroying their cultures.

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        • I never implied that one was greater than the other – your original point relied on the idea that the two were mutually exclusive. But they’re not – you can go out and stand in front of a bulldozer all you want, but until you can change peoples’ perceptions of indigenous cultures, you’re not going to alleviate the callousness of the general public towards their plight. And as long as those who argue for the protection of native peoples continue to caricature them as the “noble savage”, the longer they are not taken seriously. This is the unfortunate truth about public dialog in the modern era – half-truths are enough to build up your own army, but they’re not enough to convince the other side to lay down their arms.

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  22. http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html

    “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues”

    Is it really healthy to invent these phony histories through allegory? It’s like how Jesus is now understood to likely be a composite character of various Jews who stood up to the Romans; it may have helped the Jews/Christians get rid of the old Roman Empire, but didn’t they just turn around and use virtually the same text and mythologies to enslave the Western world again?

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  23. I suppose you could put this down to some version of unintended consequences in the Big Hollywood universe, but evidently the film is being used in China as a weapon against government-assisted assaults on private property:

    …Chinese local governments in cahoots with developers have become infamous for forcibly seeking to evict residents from their homes with little compensation and often without their consent. The holdouts are known as “nail households,” since their homes are sometimes left stranded in the middle of busy construction sites. More often, however, they are driven away by paid thugs. Private property is one of the most sensitive issues in the country today, and “Avatar” has given the resisters a shot in the arm.

    Even in Hong Kong, the “Avatar” banner has been taken up by antigovernment activists trying to defeat a plan to demolish a village to make way for a new high-speed railway line. One mysterious benefactor reportedly donated movie tickets to the villagers to stoke their enthusiasm for protests. [Source: Wall Street Journal The Avatar Effect]

    You can almost hear the heads esplodin’ over at BigHo.

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  24. It’s a valid criticism, but note that for the most part the Na’Vi don’t have mythology. They have actual scientific proof that they really are interconnected with other creatures.

    On this comment:
    you can go out and stand in front of a bulldozer all you want, but until you can change peoples’ perceptions of indigenous cultures, you’re not going to alleviate the callousness of the general public towards their plight

    Dude, ever hear of a thing called television? Standing in front of buldozers as noble savages is powerful symbolism. Israel is lucky the Palestinians haven’t figured this out.

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    • So when was the last time you saw someone on television standing in front of a bulldozer in America? These fantasies we all have about change-through-agitation are mostly just that now: fantasies. Just because it worked for the civil rights movement doesn’t mean it works for everything else. How much success has the NAACP had in the last 30 years with their protests? And how many of them have backlashed against them instead?

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  25. Digressing from Avatar, the claim that science fiction is always about history seems so profoundly at odds with my readings of science fiction that I’d ask you to defend it. To take one counterexample, I would say that the dominant theme of such books as Starship Trooper and The Diamond Age deal with the question of how does the next generation get trained and educated. There are many other examples. Science Fiction grapples with big questions and big themes; to pigeonhole it as somehow always dealing with history is both a misrepresentation and a disservice.

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