The core of this class was analyzing the thematic connections between our two films, Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Students individually dove into topics and their main arguments are grouped below. The main themes addressed were the “white savior,” stereotypes, environmentalism, gender, the military, and visual sovereignty.
The “White Savior”:
The presence of a “white savior” is common in movies that include portrayals of indigenous peoples. The “white savior” is someone who swoops in to save the day and is often the protagonist in films. The arguments below discuss the racial implications of this trope.
While some argue that these films are the opposite of progressive, setting back our concepts of the Native Americans by belittling their capabilities, others find these “white savior” films wholesome, possibly because notions of race have become so normalized (Hughey, 8). As Huhndorf addresses, this idea of “going native” in films is so fascinating to the viewer, perhaps because of the innate need for Euro-Americans to feel better about their origins, but it also ignites controversial themes (3). While the use of the “white savior” acts as a bridge to unite two cultures, it also raises questions as to why there needs to be a Euro-American figure who can protect the natives if these films are attempting to create a more positive view of Native Americans. Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).
As white viewers ingest the tragedies in the two films, guilt arises to remind them of Western history of colonization, enslavement, and environmental degradation. While this guilt could inspire audience members to act and change current environmental damage and social inequalities, the genre of the two films inherently hinders any action. In the book The White Savior Film, author Matthew W. Hughey names both films as white savior movies that star white men who embark on a spiritually led journey to save indigenous people from white destruction (Hughey 24). In the films Dances with Wolves and Avatar, white viewers connect with the white savior protagonist instead of developing an empathetic connection with the indigenous people, which consequentially results in no environmental or social action.
At first glance, Dances with Wolves (1990) directed by Kevin Costner and Avatar (2009) directed by James Cameron are two films that have progressive messages on race; however, looks can be deceiving. Through tales of colonialism and resistance of indigenous peoples, an apologetically white hero emerges, who swoops in–quite literally, in the case of Avatar–to save the dying civilizations from the clutches of the evil empire. Both films utilize the white savior trope, a common cinematic motif to subliminally continue the themes of white privilege and superiority, reflecting how whites and non-whites are considered in the modern world.
In an attempt to make a progressive film, both Cameron and Costner managed only to avoid one of the two most nefarious aspects of White Saviors. While Avatar does end with Jake forgoing his ability to retroactively exit, his sympathies with the Na’vi community constitute a false generosity given that he establishes himself as the leader of the group. Conversely, John Dunbar suppresses his ego and joins the tribe with a more genuine sense of generosity, but ends the film still able to revert to whiteness.
As both movies attempt to shed light on the problem of mistreatment of an indigenous population, they unintentionally invoke stereotypes and ideas of dehumanization, while reflecting a current problem in American culture. Dances with Wolves is a critically acclaimed film, but still is a “white savior” film where indigenous people are unable to save themselves. Avatar is more criticized for the inherent racism in the film, as it is also a “white savior” film. The natives are portrayed as animals that are mystically attached to nature on a distant moon and have the same stereotypical clothes as Native Americans.
Although superficially harmonious and uplifting, the “white savior” narrative in both Avatar and Dances with Wolves strengthens the hierarchically constructed superiority of “whiteness” over nonwhites, nature, and femininity, as a whole. Although less outwardly antagonistic than the vilified “white” community’s role in each movie (the militaristic, resource-exploiting ones who challenge the Na’Vi or the territorial, violent ones who oppose the Lakota), the “white savior” character still instills forms of power and control over his targeted non-white society. In this less overt, paternalistic way, Hughey describes such imposition of “whiteness” as a process that occurs through a “velvet glove of white supremacy” rather than an unambiguous “iron fist” (Hughey, 9). In so doing, the “savior” strips the non-whites, along with their natural world, of agency and injects their dependency of himself into the community (Kramer and Heinze, 160). Consequently, by mechanism of controlling non-whiteness and its affiliated nature and femininity, the “white savior” narrative invokes a sense of guilt-redemption for any past examples of incriminating historical supremacy of “whites” over non-white groups.
The arguments below address how indigenous peoples are represented in film and how the films might represent and perpetuate racial stereotypes in society.
Across the brief history of Western movies, the uniqueness of American Indian cultures has been buried under certain stereotypes. The situation improved only after Dances with Wolves in the 1990s when the film included dialogues in native languages. Other factual mistakes, however, remained, and the situation did not improve even when Avatar elevated the image of indigenous people to a spiritual level. Though the presentation of native languages gradually became more professional, even to the point of distinctive design, public stereotypes of indigenous people have not improved and have only changed from total ignorance to superficial, stereotypical expectation.
Whether Costner’s Dances with Wolves or Cameron’s Avatar depicted Native American culture in an authentic way is a question of its own. But both directors and their films create a unique and similar image of the typical native with their shared themes of nature, colonialism,dissimulation of whiteness, and culture. Rather than perceiving the “ecological Indian” as a “savage”, both directors suggested that audiences should look beyond the physical. They emphasized that unlike civilized humanity, natives shared a spiritual connection with the environment that perpetuated a world of peace and balance. It is true that both directors created a stereotypical representation of their native peoples, but perhaps that isn’t necessarily because they wanted to. Rather than focusing on what they looked like, both directors possibly focused more on the beliefs behind native peoples. In this case, they gathered the idea that natives, whether that varies from the Lakota Sioux to the Na’vi, believe in something bigger than humanity, a spiritual essence in nature that can guide us into a world of connection and understanding. Perhaps they created these movies for the sole purpose of influencing society and considering that it is time to look into our peoples past and practice what they believed in. Or perhaps they composed these films in order for us to pose the question, “How native am I?”
Though Avatar and Dances with Wolves share ideas of anti-imperialism and environmentalism, the differing portrayals of indigenous peoples alter the overall message of the film. James Cameron in Avatar develops an exaggerated “ecological Indian” indigenous population and he introduces a conflict between them and imperialist white people to push his ideas of environmentalism and anti-imperialism. On the other hand, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves attempts to create an accurate depiction of the Sioux people in order to show that they are not the “bloodthirsty savages” the film industry perpetuates.
The stereotypes of each group have changed throughout their portrayal in Hollywood. The roles of each has now been reversed. The Natives are the pure, Earth-loving, superior beings that work with their environment. The colonists, contrarily, are portrayed as evil, greedy, gluttonous, and wasteful. Each stereotype is evident in their interactions with nature in their quests to obtain the essentials of survival. The natives take only the food that they need and live lightly. The ‘white man’ is understood to take more than he needs and force nature to change in his quest to create excessive forms of shelter. Both of these stereotypes are so ingrained in modern thought that many would be shocked to learn that not all aspects of these stereotypes are true.
Lisa Aldred, in “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances,” advances that by stigmatising Western culture, the storylines essentially idealise Native spirituality to make it commercially viable; paradoxically a characteristic of the Occident (Aldred). Both films freely project its subjects into time and space so that these may seriously consider its message in the époque it is told. Hence, a subtle exchange in social constructs is bestowed on the audience: the realisation and destruction of past evils for the glorification of humanistic ideals. If the viewer is able to accept the ruin of their nation’s past and present foundations, then, at the very least, their sense of individualism is conserved in the careful maintenance of the primary character’s Western values and feelings.
By evoking both sympathy and empathy, these movies advocate for a better understanding of native people’s history and customs. More broadly, they suggest that everyone should consider the consequences of extractive and inequitable institutions. While they advocate important messages about native peoples, the movies also perpetuate problematic assumptions about native populations. Though Dances with Wolves is an achievement in accurate portrayal of native peoples and customs, it ignores the existence of their cultures in the modern world, while Avatar perpetuates the concept of a helpless indigenous population in need of a white savior.
James Cameron has stated that the main purpose of Avatar was to send an environmental message. The arguments below show how this aim was represented in both films through connections and symbolism.
Kevin Costner and James Cameron both share similar views on the environment and nature. Avatar and Dances With Wolves portrays the theme of lack of respect for the environment and human greed, which is shown in various scenes in each film. In Dances With Wolves, the disrespect for the environment is seen in the killing of the bison, Cisco the horse and Two Socks the wolf, all of which did nothing to prompt that sort of slaughter. In Avatar, it is the destruction of Hometree, the “tree of voices”, and the horrifying unobtainium mining footage which shows the destruction of nature in order to satisfy humankind’s needs. While the films were produced twenty years apart, both were alluding to extinction, environmental degradation and loss of diversity, which are problems of the modern world that are caused by humankind’s destructive actions towards the environment.
Many viewers criticized Avatar and Dances with Wolves for their fantasized views on Native Americans. However, most of these criticisms lost focus on the main point of the stories, the destruction of lands for marketing purposes. These movies led viewers to feel guilty and long for an Earth in its “original” form. The idea of colonialism harming Native Americans is illustrated in both movies through the destruction of nature. Both movies convey a deep connection between natives and nature to illustrate the great impact the destructions of their environment had on them. ….James Cameron and Kevin Costner have inspired people to focus on the destruction of nature and its negative impact on Native Americans.
The below arguments discuss the role of the leading women in the films and how their development aids in driving the plot.
While Neytiri is actively involved in the solution of the conflict by fighting, teaching, and expressing her opinion, Stands With A Fist exists rather passively in the narrative, without significantly shaping it herself. It can therefore be concluded that Neytiri is a significant character that defies the stereotypical role women usually play in film, while Stands With A Fist provides for the female love interest, who through her position as Dances With Wolves’ wife and Kicking Bird’s adoptive daughter still serves as an intercultural intermediary.
Stands With A Fist, Neytiri, and Grace are all represented as closer to nature than their hero and are a natural way for men to gain power over the natural world. This idea solidifies a gender hierarchy that is reinforced by the film’s heroes. In both, men control nature and save the day, ultimately using the women as stepping stones in the larger stream of cinematic motives and objectives. There are also cultural stereotypes of aggressive alpha males and communicative, peaceful females. These stereotypes are perpetuated in the films and aid the idea that women work well cinematically as intermediaries. Some interpretations may suggest that these women are feminist representations of the usefulness of women to society, but on the contrary, it also limits them to just being useful and not capable of being the hero.
Throughout centuries, Native Americans have been depicted as uncivilized savages. Furthermore, these films generally include a Native Princess figure whom can be describe as the film’s Pocahontas. The Native Princess figure has been used as a center piece for romance and conflict. The depiction of the Native Princess has not changed much over time and has become a norm for Native American women that confines them in Hollywood films. This norm is referred to as the Pocahontas Perplex and it frames the role of Native women in films. While examining Dances with Wolves and Avatar, both Stands with Fists and Neytiri are molded by the generic Indian Princess model discussed in Green’s “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Woman in American Culture.”
This argument looks at the portrayal of the American military on the cinematic frontiers and what that implies about America’s ideals.
Both films portrayal of indigenous peoples, their simplification or misrepresentation of intertribal relations, and the films use of a white savior character perpetuates problematic racist ideology that remains in American culture. That said, both films convey a negative depiction of the American military as a colonialist force, criticizing the historical role that the military complex has played in the destruction of the environment, and its treatment of indigenous and non-western peoples around the world….. As a result, while their message challenges America’s societal views in some respects, it reassures others through the racist depictions of indigenous peoples, the simplicity or disregard for accurately depicting intertribal relations, and the use of a white savior. In doing so, these films uphold problematic American ideals.
Visual sovereignty reveals who has control over how movies are produced and portrayed. These arguments discuss the results of Euro-American visual sovereignty in the films and how that translated into casting and representation of native peoples.
In Dances with Wolves and Avatar, Kevin Costner and James Cameron dedicated time and effort to accurately portraying the indigenous groups, the Native Americans living on the plains and the Na’vi people of Pandora, respectively, in term of their language, clothing, and other aspects of daily life. James Cameron and Kevin Costner’s directorial choices in Avatar and Dances with Wolves to cast non-white actors and actresses to play the native people of Pandora and Native American on the frontier of America highlights important social politics regarding the hierarchy of races. The use of people of Native American, African Americans, and people of Hispanic descent in playing the roles of the Sioux and Na’vi people reflects the need for representation of minorities in Hollywood and provides a more accurate depiction of Native people.
For more on individual topics, contact Prof. Kathryn Morse at firstname.lastname@example.org
Aldred, Lisa. “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality,” American Indian Quarterly 34:3 (Summer 2000), 329-352.
Green, Rayna. “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of the Indian Woman in American Culture.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol.6, No. 4, 1975, pp. 698-714.
Hughey, Matthew W.. The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).
Kramer, Lucia and Rudiger Heinze. “Repetitions and Shades of Difference in Avatar and Dances with Wolves.” Remakes and Remaking: Concepts – Media – Practices, 2015, pp. 155–165.