Posted on December 26, 2022

Avatar 2 Is a Sappy Valentine to the Myth of the “Ecological Indian”

Tyler Austin Harper, Slate, December 20, 2022

When James Cameron’s Avatar hit theaters in December 2009, it felt—and looked—like a revelation. A bona fide American blockbuster that considered with clear eyes the settling of the continent, Avatar’s white, Western director asked his mostly white, Western audience to confront the past cost of their present comfort: Indigenous genocide and dispossession. Cameron’s thinly veiled allegory worked precisely because it was thinly veiled, a ball-peen hammer—in the form of semi-nude blue aliens—aimed squarely at imperialism and extractive capitalism. It was about as radical as a big-budget Hollywood film could afford to be. And it was absolutely stunning to boot.

Unfortunately, Avatar: The Way of Water is a pale imitation of its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong: It is fun as hell, is somehow never boring even at 192 minutes, and looks like a million bucks (or perhaps I should say $350 million). But where The Way of Water falls short is not in its aesthetics or entertainment value—if anything, it surpasses the original in those departments—but in its message. Simply put, James Cameron is fresh out of ideas, or at least he’s out of ideas that feel fresh. The first film’s critique of planetary-scale capitalism, quite provocative for a mainstream movie in 2009, seems rather familiar in 2022. Likewise, the rat race for valuable off-Earth metals that the inaugural movie depicted has been outdone by reality in a decade when Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk talk openly about their very real aspirations to strip mine the solar system.

Most regrettably, Cameron’s metaphorical musings on Indigenous history—which earned both praise and accusations of “white saviorism” upon the first film’s release—have been merely warmed over the second time around. In The Way of Water, Cameron doubles down on the Indigenous caricatures. But unlike his prior film, which balanced its more problematic stereotypes with an anti-colonial message that at least had some teeth, this new film is thoroughly Disneyfied. It is a long, saccharine love letter to the myth of the “ecological Indian.

Popularized by the anthropologist Shepard Krech in the late ’90s, the ecological Indian is a term scholars and activists use to describe the idealization of Indigenous life in Western media. Usually, images of the ecological Indian portray historical Native Americans—historical because Natives are almost always consigned to history—as having had a singular, nearly mystical connection to the natural world. According to this cherished cultural myth, Native Americans were the “original environmentalists,” people who mostly sat around ripping the peace pipe and fraternizing with wolves and sundry woodland creatures until the colonizers got here and screwed everything up. A subclassification of the “noble savage” stereotype, this widespread myth reduces the complex and heterogeneous array of Native cultures on the North American continent to one flattened, crunchy green core.


On the surface, this stereotype doesn’t sound so terrible. There are worse things to be known for than being peaceable and treating the earth with respect. The problem, at least as Krech saw it, was that the myth isn’t terribly accurate: North American Indigenous communities held (and hold) a diversity of ecological attitudes, not all of which we would label straightforwardly environmentalist. Moreover, as the American historian and environmentalist William Cronon noted in his influential book Changes in the Land, pre-colonial Native communities did in fact transform the ecosystems they inhabited (though certainly to a lesser extent than European settlers did). More importantly, representations of Indigenous life that traffic in the “original environmentalist” fable often serve to reify an image of Native Americans that is implicitly racist and explicitly condescending.

As the Dakota historian Philip J. Deloria argued in his touchstone work Playing Indian, Western romanticization of Native life has tended to go hand in hand with its desire to possess and exterminate it. The ecological Indian is at once a cypher for American self-loathing—a foil that lets us declaim our dominant culture’s environmental predations—and a justification for white, Western hegemony. The Natives may be morally superior to their oppressors by dint of their ecological prudence, but that very prudence is taken as paradoxical proof of their racial inferiority.


Ultimately, The Way of Water is little more than a three-hour land acknowledgment in technicolor. And like a land acknowledgment, its progress is merely performative. There is nothing it would ask us to do, and we are never made uncomfortable. It simply seeks recognition of truths that everyone knows and almost nobody disputes: Racism is evil, colonialism is bad, whales are cool. It spends hundreds of millions of dollars congratulating itself—and forgets to say anything new.