"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blue Monkey Indians!

Avatar... where do I even start.  In many ways, seeing this movie was a prime motivation for starting this blog.  I walked into this film with a more or less open mind.  I had read about the general plot and themes.  I read about the glorious special effects and the $300 million budget.  I even read about how they constructed a whole new alien language for this film!  (and don't get me started on how those resources could have been better used to save one of the hundreds of disappearing real languages!)  So after all that, I donned my 3D glasses, sat down, and awed in the glory of James Cameron's 162 minute master opus.    Or not.

It didn't take long before I started noticing things.  The way the plot was developing, the specific dialogue, the overall themes.  Something didn't seem right.  It seemed just all too familiar.  I finally realized what was happening.  I had seen this movie before!!!

I present to you Exhibit A:

CFV 426 - Avatar/Pocahontas Mashup FINAL VERSION from Randy Szuch on Vimeo.

That's right- Avatar is Pocahontas.  It's not even a metaphor- the plots are literally the same thing.  Young soldier lands in strange new world.  Goes off to make peace with the “natives.”  Falls in love with the impeccably beautiful native princess.  The indigenous population lives in absolute 100% perfect harmony with the natural world around them (unlike those greedy, polluting, capitalist invaders!).  All hell breaks loose and the poor native people tragically suffer.

In many ways, Avatar simply re-imagines the classic stereotype of the noble, primitive Indian- the sons and daughters of the forest living in complete harmony with the natural world around them.  This stereotype has been around for centuries but took on a new meaning in mid-twentieth century America.  With the new age counterculture of the 1960s embracing Indian primitivism as a form of rebellion against modern society combining with the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s, you get America's new love affair with the tree-hugging Indian.  Essentially, two popular movements combined  and in the process co-opted the American Indian as its symbol.  Hence the classic TV commercial of the crying Indian and the malicious littering.  Exhibit B:

Popular notions about American Indians tell us that of course they “have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country”!  The reason this type of “Indian” is so pernicious is that it once again traps native people in the cage of primitivism.  It doesn't allow for any complexity of thought, feeling, or action towards the environment.  The historic relationship between native people and the land is just as complicated as the one between settlers and the land.  The relationship between modern native communities and the land is also just as complicated at times.  But then again, when Hollywood drops such a wide-spread cultural phenomenon in your lap, why not take advantage.

Presenting Exhibit C:

Just a few months ago, this appeared in the Oscar edition of Variety magazine. Whatever your stand on the issue of tar sands development in Canada, you can't help but notice the trend that continues today.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Stephen....I am truly impressed! Keep up the good work...you are very interesting and thought provoking. aa