Avatar 2: Way of the Water and Indigeneity
BY ANUSHA NAIK '26 & DIKSHA MHATRE '26
The long-awaited sequel to James Cameron’s sci-fi hit, Avatar, has finally been released, and after a thirteen-year wait, fans are flocking to movie theaters in anticipation of another riveting experience. The first movie in the Avatar franchise is the highest-grossing film of all time, and its successor Avatar: The Way of The Water, is close behind it in fourth place. The series centers around the Na’vi, a blue, humanoid alien species that inhabit the fictional planet of Pandora, which also holds deposits of the coveted mineral unobtainium. Humans are willing to do anything to access this mineral, even if it means taking the lives of countless Na’vi. The humans and aliens’ war is stuck in a stalemate, with neither side advancing. But with the help of Jake Sully, a human in Na’vi form, the natives of Pandora can fend off the human attacks. Sound familiar? That's because it draws heavy inspiration from the real-life colonization of the Americas.
In 2012, Cameron stated that the film retold the history of the Americas during the early colonial period, and that the parallels between the Na’vi and the indigenous people are meant to be obvious. During the release of both movies, many indigenous issues gained more traction and publicity. For example, in Brazil, the construction of the Bela Monte hydrological dam on the Xingu River was set to displace 25,000 indigenous people in the area and flood parts of the Amazon rainforest. However, the awareness spread by Avatar put an “international spotlight” on this issue, according to Amazon Watch’s executive director. She states that if it wasn’t for the attention from the movie, the media would never have covered or noticed the effects of the construction. While this may seem positive on the surface, the underlying truth reveals how people can recognize injustice when depicted fictionally, yet fail to confront the issues that marginalized people face in reality.
The real struggles that indigenous peoples have faced such as being put into residential schools, experiencing cultural and physical genocide, and being exploited on their land were ignored for many years. Yet, as soon as a movie comes out about fictional aliens, people are quick to start being empathetic. As a society, the things that we take action on are often flashy or thrilling. We choose to focus on problems that are trending and drop them as soon as they aren’t. But the people undergoing some of the worst conditions are often the ones who cannot speak up or those who have been struggling the most. In our society, we have become so accustomed to the mistreatment of indigenous people that their suffering doesn’t have the same impact that it should. We have known about their struggles for centuries; the conditions on reservations and in residential schools were never secrets. But their mistreatment is such a constant occurrence that it is no longer new or exciting enough for our society to regard it. The reality is that due to insufficient action, indigenous people still live in some of the most poverty-ridden areas in the country, and some may still live in areas with contaminated drinking water.
Many indigenous activists have issues with the generalization and lack of true representation of native cultures as well, finding the representation in the movie to be subpar. They state that there aren’t enough people of color or indigenous actors and staff, and that the movie generalizes all indigenous cultures. The Avatar franchise, they argue, doesn't accurately represent the diverse cultures that make up the community. However, that brings into question if the film would have done as well if the directors had taken the care to depict indigenous cultures. Would people have the same reaction to seeing white colonizers treat indigenous people cruelly compared to humans oppressing aliens? As mentioned before, the mistreatment of indigenous people and their suffering doesn’t have the same impact that it should. Had the movie been about the actual colonization of the Americas rather than a sci-fi retelling of it, it would likely have been missing the shock value that made Avatar strike the hearts of audiences worldwide.