Welcome to the Frontier

Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances with Wolves and James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar share more than plot, character, and setting.  Both tell stories of colonial invasion, military conquest, and environmental exploitation.  Both feature Euro-American protagonists transformed physically and culturally by contact with indigenous peoples; both “heroes” try to “save” native peoples and “nature” from annihilation.

The content collected here is a combination of thoughts connecting and analyzing the themes of our core films. We critique ideas of nature, race, gender, and technology, and situate both films in historical, cultural, and ideological context.  We also examine critical responses as reflections of cultural debates at the turn of the 21th century with the social implications of characters and how issues were portrayed by Hollywood.

Our Films:

Dances with Wolves (1990)

An Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Dances with Wolves tells the story of John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) traveling West at the end of the Civil War to experience the frontier. He comes into contact with Sioux Indians and gradually earns their trust and becomes a member of their tribe. He falls in love with a white woman in the tribe named Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) and befriends the spiritual and military leaders in the tribe. Dunbar assists the tribe with hunting buffalo and battling with the rival Pawnee tribe. When American soldiers reach the West, Dunbar denounces his past identity in favor of his Sioux identity. Dunbar must help the Sioux people survive as the Americans encroach upon their territory.

Costner received widespread praise for his portrayal of the Sioux people in the film. Their language is authentic, and he created characters that are deeper than the previous Hollywood stereotypes. To this day, Dances with Wolves serves as a symbol for correct depiction of Native Americans in cinema. See Themes and Film Reviews for a more nuanced discussion of the film.

Avatar (2010)

Avatar tells the story of a paralyzed former marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who travels to Pandora to occupy a genetically-engineered body of a Na’vi man. The Na’vi are indigenous to Pandora, and the corporation for which Jake works wishes to extract a resource called unobtainium from the distant planet. Jake occupies a dual role (military and scientific) for the corporation, but after coming into contact with the Na’vi, he becomes a member of their tribe and abandons his previous obligations. He falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and, in ensuing battles against the corporation, Jake leads the Na’vi in combat and eventually leaves his human body for good.

While this film contains incredible special effects and visuals, its politics received mixed reviews. James Cameron intended to craft a message about preserving the environment and respecting indigenous populations, but many commentators were quick to point out problematic elements in the plot. See Themes and Film Reviews for a more nuanced discussion of the film.

Our Work:

Themes: This page discusses many of the parallel themes and problems in the films. Each student’s main arguments are grouped based on their addressed issues.

Media: Throughout the class, we watched and listened to many related films, shorter clips, and podcasts. This page briefly summarizes the media and its connections to the themes of our class.

Film Reviews: There has been extensive discussion by film critics and media outlets on the films and this page summarizes some prominent arguments.

Alternate Avatar: This page is a space for those wanting to rewrite the issues seen in Avatar. 

Polling the People: This page looks at how people on Middlebury Campus perceive our films and their portrayal of native peoples.

Deep Dives: These pages represent multiple research projects to better understand the context for frontier films and class discussions. These include deep dives into Native American history, the local New England Abenakis, and “White Savior” films.

This website was created by Middlebury College students in Professor Kathryn Morse’s class, “Dances with Avatar” during the winter of 2018. Contact kmorse@middlebury.edu for more information.

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