There are many films and videos that echo the themes found in Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Below is a list of media with summaries of their connections to the films.
This film, directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, follows the romantic narrative involving a Native American woman, Pocahontas, and a Euro-American man, John Smith. While Smith (along with his other Euro-American friends) arrives to Pocahontas’ world with intent to exploit the supposedly gold-rich lands, he—like many other Euro-American characters in a Native American film—quickly becomes enchanted by her people’s way of life. Throughout conflicting interests between Pocahontas’ people and Smith’s, the relationship shared between the two central characters faces challenges that must test stereotypical expectations within both of their cultures.
Pocahontas, although designed for adolescent audiences, portrays many of the persistent and complex themes found in other films depicting Native American characters. As in Dances with Wolves, the myth of the “noble savage,” along with messages regarding the juxtaposition between industrialization (technological advancement) and more “primitive” ways of life are presented. Similarly, many themes relying upon spiritual connections with nature are shared between Pocahontas and Avatar—ones that frequently involve participation of a female intermediary for an imposing Euro-American figure (like Pocahontas’ John Smith or Avatar’s Jake Sully). Although Smith’s role in the film airs on the side of “white savior,” the motif becomes questionable when investigating the issue of who, whether Pocahontas or Smith himself, carries out the actual “saving.”
See “Themes” page for more information on the “white savior” narrative and its manifestation in other texts.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this film follows the journey of warrior Ashitaka, who becomes involved in a gripping battle between humankind/mechanization and the forest/nature. This conflict is spearheaded by two major characters: Lady Eboshi of the mechanized “Iron Town” and Princess Mononoke of the forest (having been reared by its powerful wolf deity). Although the environment and its “Spirit of the Forest” bear much of the clash’s brunt, the formidable spiritual power of nature fights back against the technological imposition and resurfaces towards the end of the film.
Although Princess Mononoke employs a breadth of the themes shared in the other films explored for this class (i.e., gender binaries and intermediation, notions of disability, depictions of native individuals versus their Euro-American counterparts, etc.), the most powerful message that emerges involves the antagonistic relationship between Euro-American mechanization and nature-based environmentalism. In this narrative–rather than existing as an objective being, as common in other films of this type–nature materializes as an autonomous force. Thus, Princess Mononoke leaves its viewers with a more explicit comprehension of the “nature versus mechanization” theme that is rooted in nearly every film involving representation of native beings explored in this class.
To investigate how similar notions were presented in Dances with Wolves and Avatar, visit the “Environmentalism” topic under the “Themes” page.
Smoke Signals (1998)
This film was directed and produced by Chris Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, and written by Sherman Alexie, a member of the Spokane–Coeur d’Alene tribe. Smoke Signals is a modern portrayal of Native Americans by Native Americans. The film centers around the journey of two Coeur d’Alene, Victor and Thomas, as they leave their reservation to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s father. They are an unlikely duo who clash due to their conflicting bitter and optimistic views on life. The film plays with Euro-American stereotypes of natives as seen in previous Hollywood films, while also addressing issues of racism, traditionalism, poverty and alcoholism.
Smoke Signals is a rare example of visual sovereignty where indigenous peoples have control over their own portrayal, unlike the more common Euro-American interpretation of native peoples in film. Eyre and Alexie were able to bring their culture to life without the inaccuracies, racial implications, and perpetuation of the “noble savage” seen in many films. This film also connects to environmentalist issues. During the mid-twentieth century, the United States began to tame the wild Columbia River with hydroelectric dams. As a result, salmon were unable to swim upriver, which permanently altered the salmon fishing lifestyle of the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene. Humankind’s need to control and conquer nature at the expense of the environment and indigenous population is something seen in both Avatar and Dances with Wolves.
Even the Rain (2010)
This film takes place in the mountains of Bolivia during the Cochabamba Water War of 2000. It follows Sebastián and Costa’s attempt to film a movie about Christopher Columbus and Spanish conquest using impoverished, indigenous Quechuan extras who are simultaneously entrenched in a revolution against the privatization of water. Daniel, a local, is both an indigenous rebel leader in the film (and film within the film). which draws a direct parallel between the two plots. Even the Rain comments on how filmmakers portray and use indigenous peoples, while remaining totally disconnected to the reality of history and of the present. It also attempts to show the real Cochabamba Water War from the perspective of indigenous locals and the government’s exploitation of national resources at the expense of marginalized populations. Exploitation of the environment for profit without regard for natives is a theme also seen in Avatar. Even the Rain also showcases a brief white savior moment when Costa helps save Daniel’s daughter, but the movie lack a true single hero. Instead, the victory comes from the collective efforts of the locals. This is different from the white saviors, John Dunbar and Jake Sully, in the principal films.
The original Spanish title of this film, directed by Icíar Bollaín, is También la Lluvia. For more information on the Cochabamba Water War, check out “Leasing the Rain” by William Finnegan, The New Yorker, April 8, 2002; or read it here: Cochabamba Water War: Finnegan.
Atanarjurat: The Fast Runner (2001)
The Fast Runner is the ultimate example of Native American visual sovereignty. The nearly three-hour epic film chronicles an Inuit legend, in which a man named Atanarjuat engages in a fierce rivalry with a man named Oki. Atanarjuat defeats Oki in a punching duel to earn Atuat’s hand in marriage, and he later marries Oki’s sister Puja as well. When Atanarjuat’s brother Amaqjuaq and Pujua have sex, Atanarjuat strikes Puja, which prompts her to tell her brother. Oki comes for revenge and kills Amaqjuaq, but Atanarjuat escapes by running naked for miles through the snow and ice. Eventually, Atanarjuat makes his return to the rest of the tribe, and he denounces Puja before she and her brother are banished forever.
The Fast Runner contains incredible detail regarding the practices of the Inuit people, who clean meat, hunt along vast expanses of tundra, build igloos, and live in a highly isolated and small community. The film feels more like a documentary about real-life Inuit people, in part because of the diligent attention to detail and also because of the authentic casting decisions. The audience can feel the cold crunch of the snow as it ponders human relationships in such a difficult environment.
Unlike Dances with Wolves and Avatar, there is not even a remote possibility of a white savior narrative in The Fast Runner. Director Zacharias Kunuk created this film for the members of the Inuit tribe to honor their great legend. While astute viewers can glean an environmental message from the film, its real intent was to accurately portray the Inuit tale of the fast runner. With an emphasis on love, jealousy, rivalry, family, and survival, The Fast Runner shows us that native populations must deal with the emotions and obligations of being a human, and perhaps the film depicts a heightened sense of humanity in such an intense setting.
Reel Injun (2009)
Directed by Neil Diamond, a Cree filmmaker, this film explores the complex depictions of Native Americans in several films. Diamond interviews cast members, film producers, filmmakers, and more to examine both their experiences with, as well as their opinions of, the various narratives produced. This investigation includes Graham Greene from Dances with Wolves, Adam Beach from Smoke Signals, and Natar Ungalaaq from Atanarjuat, mentioned with note of their own takes on the use of stereotypes and/or visual sovereignty in their corresponding films. In connection with these presented ideas, Diamond incorporates his own memories and insights regarding his own exposure to Native American depictions in both media and “real life.”
While addressing the many instances of native stereotyping in Hollywood, Diamond describes how these expectations have become hegemonic to both Euro-Americans and Native Americans themselves. In a recollection of his childhood interactions, Diamond comments, “Raised on cowboys and Indians, we cheered for the cowboys, never realizing we were the Indians.” This goes to show how narrow ideas of Native Americans and “the Injun” have ingrained themselves throughout society, even among those who are the bearers of this constructed identity: the Native Americans.
A Message from Pandora
This short documentary film was produced by James Cameron in 2010 and shows his efforts in the Brazilian Amazon trying to stop the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. While viewers sympathize with the Kayapo people who would be impacted and displaced by the dam, the apparent protagonist is James Cameron in his own white savior role. This film follows the same environmental narrative as his film Avatar, but reveals another portrayal of natives as noble savages. Whether this is intended in either Message from Pandora or Avatar, the Euro-American man is welcomed as a new warrior to the “less civilized” tribes. Cameron’s visual sovereignty turned this film into one about himself, instead of the actual indigenous efforts. Regardless of production and portrayal, Message from Pandora and Avatar still bring modern colonialism and exploitation to light.
More on this production can be found on the official Message from Pandora site. The Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River began construction in 2011 and is expected to be finished by 2019. Now, the Message from Pandora links to new efforts on the Tapajós River, although it is unclear how involved Cameron is presently. For more on the progress of the new campaign, click here. For more on indigenous efforts in the Amazon, visit AMAZON WATCH.
FUTURESTATES: The 6th World
In this YouTube short film directed by Nanobah Becker, a Navajo astronaut named Tazbah Redhouse is a pilot on a spaceship sent to colonize Mars. Becker brings genetically engineered corn to feed the future population of Mars, but when that corn fails during travel, she decides to resort to the traditional corn of her people. Becker invokes Navajo spirits in her prayers that the traditional corn will be effective on Mars. The film ends with a shot of the corn growing on Mars.
This is a triumphant effort in visual sovereignty, as the film is both directed by and stars people of Navajo descent. This film is also unique because it suggests that Navajo practices are universal and just, while many similar texts would favor white culture. It contains an interesting and satisfying mix of Native American practices and classic science fiction problems, and this mix is effective. Unlike Avatar and Dances with Wolves, the imperialists in this film are Indians. Thus, there is no need for any questions of authenticity. In addition to its Native American politics, the film also suggests that GMO food, or scientific knowledge in general, is the best solution. Native American knowledge should not be overlooked; in this case, an entire population could not survive without it.
The Colbert Report: Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie is the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and during his interview with Colbert, he provides humorous insight on Indians’ place in America. Alexie and Colbert discuss Christopher Columbus, stereotypes, and the politics of the time. Notably, Alexie explains that the vast majority of Native Americans favored Barack Obama in the 2008 election despite John McCain serving on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
While they make light of many of the historical issues involving whites and Native Americans, Alexie gives some real insight into important issues. He makes it clear that many stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about Native Americans are silly, including the idea that they use all parts of a buffalo. Like Reel Injun and Smoke Signals, Sherman Alexie is at the focal point of Indians in pop culture. His presence and success call for more Native Americans to receive the spotlight, and help everyone to better understand that they are people with senses of humor, political ideologies, tremendous ability in the arts, and their own opinions about their past and present.
This short documentary details the efforts of Americans to conquer the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Created just after World War II in 1949, the film depicts the northwest as a new frontier to be conquered by American men in need of work. There are obvious parallels to the war rhetoric of the time; with grit and determination, American workers can conquer any obstacle, even one as powerful as the mighty Columbia River. The film has a clear nationalist and economic focus, and so does not investigate the ways in which building a dam could impact local populations in need of the fish swimming in the river. The filmmakers invoke a sense of manifest destiny when they suggest that the workers had an obligation to their country when building the dam. Its message is simple: Americans can and should conquer any powerful foe, including foreign soldiers, economic depression, and nature.
Climate Conversations: Indigenous Perspectives on Just Transitions
In this segment of Climate Conversations, Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte outlines how the legacy of white imperialism continues to affect indigenous populations in America. He calls upon the scientific community to listen to and include the opinions of Native American scholars and citizens. While this class has primarily dealt with including indigenous voices in pop culture, their views are equally important to the scientific and environmental communities. Their opinions are especially important when climate justice is at stake, given their close proximity to the ideas of native populations. Climate justice issues can be intersectional as well. The podcast discusses sexual assault in native communities as an example of intersectionality, as work camps necessitated by extracting resources are filled with men performing high stakes work. Factoring in a greater diversity of thought could prevent such problems and create a more inclusive environmental science community as a whole.
The full audio for this SoundCloud podcast can be found here.
Expansion of Pandora & Sequels
James Cameron has continued to build the world of Avatar after the film’s release. From the creation of a whole Disney World theme park to a proposed four sequels, there is much debate on whether the Pandora universe should continue.
Pandora – The World of Avatar
Nestled in Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the new park based on James Cameron’s movie. With a bioluminescent river ride and the opportunity to link with your own avatar to ride a banshee, the new park allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the Pandoran world. The park is set generations after the original film and shows a peaceful relationship between the Na’vi and humans. The park also allows Cameron to continue promoting his future films and bring the magical environment to his fans. There is hope that this park will bring people closer to Cameron’s environmentalist message from the film. In the above video, Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde explains that the purpose of visitors is “to learn and become better stewards for our planet,” and see that the Na’vi care for their world, and not just about it. While there seems to be an environmentalist message, the park may be more about promotion for the sequels–a money grabber complete with new Na’vi cuisine and beverages.
More information on the park can be found here.
James Cameron has announced that there will be four Avatar sequels with proposed release dates in 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025. He has completed all of the scripts, but the long delay can be explained by the difficulty in producing these films. Cameron has commented that the first sequel will include many underwater scenes, which require more advanced technology to create. While it now seems more likely that these movies will become a reality with confirmed cast members, many debate whether these movies should be made to begin with. Some say there is not enough available plot, and argue that the first movie was too long ago for a new one to gain a successful following. Will a new Avatar film be just another environmentalist fantasy film filled with (unintentional?) native tropes? There are those who are excited about the possibility of a much larger Pandora universe. There are also claims that part of the proceeds from the sequels will go towards environmental organizations. More about these sequels can be found in these articles here and here.
The podcast “Lovett or Leave It” also comments on the continuation of the Avatar world twice, both against and in support of the sequels. The arguments can be heard at the end of “Open Secrets and Lies” from 10/14/2017, and “He Can’t Say Anything To Your Face” from 10/21/17. You can listen to these podcasts here.
Papyrus – Saturday Night Live
The Avatars – The 1491s