Avatar: Another Film About the Conquest and Colonization of Indigenous Peoples

Hollywood and James Cameron have high expectations for the new film Avatar, with its cutting edge technology and supposed science fiction plot.  However, on closer inspection, this film is a thinly disguised film about conquest and colonization of Indigenous peoples.   No doubt, this film will be as popular as the establishment hopes given the actual plot.

As a professor of American Indian Studies who has taught numerous classes on American Indians in Film, there are many examples of this plot throughout the history of filmmaking.  The typical plot of films about the “White Man’s Indian” [1] is the plight of the conquered peoples, helpless before the approaching colonizer, only to be saved by the sympathetic hero who appropriates Indigenous identity and in effect becomes more indigenous than the people he set out to conquer.  Examples of these films include classics like Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves.  In each of these films, the conqueror (the White character) feels sympathy for the conquered and decides to become one of the conquered and thus only he can save the people.  For a lengthy discussion on this, please review Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s book Celluloid Indians.

Having taught about this premise in filmmaking for years, the film Avatar sounded the alarm bells in this professor.  Even more distressing was the lack of critical discourse about the film upon its release.  Now, the criticism has begun  on Facebook, in the Washington Post and in Blogs; hopefully the film will spark a discussion on race in film.  No doubt Cameron and Hollywood do not want any discussion; they just want your money.  After all, the story of conquest and colonization of Indigenous peoples has always sold well; the American public has been buying it for decades.


[1] See James Berhofer’s seminal work The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present on pp xvi, “…to understand the White image of the Indian is to understand White societies and intellectual premises over time, more than the diversity of Native Americans.”

Published by Traci L. Morris

Dr. Morris, the Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, the AIPI has grown and diversified its service to Indian Country via an MOU formalizing a long-standing partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) and forming the Tribal Economic Leadership Program offering training in Tribal Economic Governance and Tribal Financial Management; access to Entrepreneurship training and tribal business support through Inno-Nations; and Economic Development Consulting; and, the formalization of the Institute via by-laws and an advisory board comprised of both internal ASU leadership and external tribal and non-tribal leadership. In her work at both ASU and prior, Morris has worked with Native American tribes; Tribal businesses; Native American non-profits; Native media makers, artists, and galleries; written a college-accredited curriculum in Native American new media; and has advocated for digital inclusion at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Morris’s research and publications on Native American media and the digital divide is focused on Internet use, digital inclusion, network neutrality, digital and new media curriculums, digital inclusion and development of broadband networks in Indian Country. Her book, Native American Voices: A Reader, continues to be a primary teaching tool in colleges throughout the country. Dr. Morris is Affiliated Faculty at ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, an Affiliate of ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, President of the Board of the Phoenix Indian Center, Board member of the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce, and on the Advisory Council of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. Formerly, Morris served member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Labor's Native American Employment and Training Council and served a two-year appointment (2014-2016 and 2010-2012) on the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Advisory Committee. As an entrepreneur prior to her ASU appointment, Morris founded Homahota Consulting LLC, a national Native American woman-owned professional services firm working in policy analysis, telecommunications, education, and research assisting tribes in their nation-building efforts and working with Native Nations, tribal businesses and those businesses working with tribes. Morris has an M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies, in addition to a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.

One thought on “Avatar: Another Film About the Conquest and Colonization of Indigenous Peoples

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: