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James Cameron’s Avatar team tried to celebrate ‘all indigenous cultures on Earth’ to avoid appropriation

While 2009’s Avatar provoked accusations of insensitivity, the sequel team tried to start a different conversation

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) shakes hands with Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) as a pregnant Ronal (Kate Winslet) stands beside them, greeting the newcomer to the Na’vi tribe’s home by the reefs in Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When James Cameron’s original Avatar debuted in 2009, the storyline prompted a wide-ranging backlash against what many saw as white-savior tropes and the repurposing of real Native culture and imagery to reinforce old, tired noble-savage stereotypes. Cameron’s critical comments about the Lakota Sioux people’s legacy only exacerbated the issues. But with 2022’s Avatar: The Way of Water, writer-director James Cameron was thinking about those criticisms from the beginning of the script’s conception.

Cameron told The Wrap in December that there’s a “fine line” between celebrating culture and appropriating it, and that the Way of Water team tried to come down on the right side of that line. “We had a lot of discussions about cultural appropriation. How much is too much? At what point are you no longer honoring and celebrating a culture, but actually extracting and exploiting?” he said in that interview.

Way of Water has seen less of a broad backlash than Avatar, but the same criticisms have emerged around the ways the Na’vi tribes are portrayed. Yuè Begay, a Navajo artist, went viral shortly after the release of the film, urging indigenous groups to boycott the film. “Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some (white flag emoji) man’s savior complex,” she wrote in a tweet from December 18. (Begay has since locked her Twitter account.)

Part of the pushback comes from the movie’s use of real-world Māori-style facial tattoos and haka, or ceremonial dance, to distinguish The Way of Water’s new Na’vi tribe, the sea-dwelling Metkayina, from their forest counterparts. Cameron implied in that Wrap interview that the use of the haka came directly from Cliff Curtis, the New Zealand-born, Māori actor who plays Metkayina chief Tonowari. The creative crew points to his influence as well.

“Having someone like Cliff Curtis help guide us, and offer his ideas and blessings, was very important,” production designer Dylan Cole tells Polygon. “But The Way of Water is a celebration of all cultures, not just pulling from any single one.” Cole, who led the design team for the “natural side” of the film — the Na’vi and their world’s plants, animals, and landscapes — describes the film as “a celebration of all indigenous cultures on Earth.”

Kate Winslet as Ronal in Avatar: The Way of Water, wearing a headdress and body adornment made of shells and other sealife, while holding her finned hand to her chest Image: 20th Century Studios

Production designer Ben Procter — Cole’s “hard surfaces” counterpart, who focused on the design of Earth technology, vehicles, and structures — says the creative team used the same design techniques to create the Na’vi culture that they used to create Pandoran creatures, by drawing from a variety of influences.

“In every case, it’s a celebration of the biggest possible picture of the thing you can think of,” Procter says. “We’re celebrating all of Earth. You pull from land plants to develop underwater plants, and vice versa. You’re always trying to create a rich mix that celebrates familiar elements from Earth. So the same way Dylan would look at a whole bunch of different fish to design a fish, or I’d look at a whole bunch of cool industrial structures from all over the world and from different periods of time to come up with a design — it’s that same thing. It’s like, this is our chance to make it as great as we can and have a visual metaphor [viewers will recognize]. So what can we pull in and celebrate?”

The Way of Water costume designer Deborah Scott told Polygon that she used similar principles to merge cultural influences for the costumes. “I did a lot of research to start out with, and it was all around the world,” she tells Polygon. “The Arctic, off China — all these indigenous people that live on or near the water. And you learn a couple of things: They make things from their environment, they’re handmade, and they’re quite decorative. So we ended up centering more in sort of the wider Polynesian area. So it’s not just Māori, because we were shooting in New Zealand.”

Scott says aesthetic parallels in the area may make some of the designs seem like they were taken directly from one culture or another, even if they’re an amalgam of different ideas. “We were trying not to culturally appropriate anybody,” she says. “But you find similarities, even between Hawaii and New Zealand, how far apart they are, with the indigenous people and the cultures of these places. So you can pretty much rest assured that certain things are going to be universal.”

“We didn’t specifically nail into anything,” Scott says. “We tried to create our own world out of all the references.”

Response to the film has already made it clear that determining whether the Avatar movies are appropriative presents a challenge, given that critics — including indigenous ones — have a variety of opinions on whether the film succeeds or fails in its attempt to celebrate “all” native cultures. Still, those on the outside may have a tougher time making a call, which Cameron himself acknowledged in an interview with Unilad.

“It’s a tricky, tricky thing, and there may be people that object,” he said. “I hope they don’t. I hope they see the intention, which is to celebrate the wisdom keepers. I see the indigenous people that still remain in our world today as the people who are more connected to nature than we are in our industrialised urbanised civilization, and we need to learn from them.”

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