'AVATAR' ACTIVISM: James Cameron Joins Indigenous Struggles Worldwide

By Jessica Lee

NEW YORK CITY—Blockbuster Hollywood director James Cameron said that he is committed to helping indigenous peoples around the world who, like the fictitious Na’vi in his film Avatar, are “caught at the tectonic interface between the expansion of our technical civilization into the few remaining preserves of this planet.”

Several months after the release of Avatar, which quickly became the top grossing film of all time, and two days after the release of the DVD on Earth Day, Cameron was invited to speak at two events on April 24 that were associated with the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place in New York City from April 19-30.

James Cameron joins the panel discussion, “Real Life ‘Pandoras’ on Earth: Indigenous Peoples Urgent Struggles For Survival,” held at the Paley Center for Media in Midtown Manhattan April 24, 2010. Also on the panel from left to right: Tonya Gonnella Frichner, co-chair and North American Regional Representative of U. N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; Karmen Ramirez Boscan, representing Wayu communities in Colombia; Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper, Onondaga Nation and board member of the Seventh Generation Fund; and Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch (not shown in photo).

“I’d just like to say it is a tremendous honor for me to be here,” Cameron said in his introduction to a special evening screening of Avatar to some 400 people from the indigenous forum at the New York Directors Guild Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. “I applaud what you [at the forum] are doing. It is so critical given how many indigenous cultures are under threat throughout the world.”

Cameron said that he has been astonished by the response to the film and said that many indigenous communities and environmental organizations have contacted him seeking his help and support.

“It has been very, very interesting for me in the last couple of months to see how many people have come to [my wife] Susie and myself asking if there is something we can do in association with Avatar because so many people around the world working with indigenous issues have seen their reality in the film — even though the film is a fantasy that takes place on a mythical world — people are seeing their reality through the lens of this movie.”

While he said that he had never worked with indigenous people before in his life, he says he is now very committed to helping illuminate these struggles worldwide. “I never really dreamed that a Hollywood film could have that significant of an impact,” Cameron said on panel discussion earlier in the afternoon, “Not only is this is an opportunity, it is a duty. I do have a responsibility now to go beyond the film, because it doesn’t teach, and to become an advocate myself and use what media power I have to raise awareness.”

James Cameron talks to members of the audience after the “Real Life ‘Pandoras’ on Earth: Indigenous Peoples Urgent Struggles For Survival” panel.

Some 100 people attended a panel discussion, “Real Life ‘Pandoras’ on Earth: Indigenous Peoples Urgent Struggles For Survival,” which was sponsored by Amazon Watch, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Cultural Survival and the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development. More than 2,000 people are attending the U.N. conference from around the world. It is estimated there are 370 million indigenous peoples in 90 countries.

“Indigenous territories contain the vast majority of the world’s resources and biodiversity — forests, oil, goal, uranium,” said panel moderator Atossa Soltani, the executive director of Amazon Watch. “Basically this is why they are now the last stand.”

Cameron recently took up this duty by joining Amazon Watch on a tour in Brazil learn more about the standoff to stop the Bela Monte hydrological dam complex, which would dam the Xingu River and displace some 25,000 local indigenous people and flood a large swath of the rainforest, which would release methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere as the trees decay.

“James Cameron has brought an international spotlight to that battle and it has really made a difference,” Soltani said. “The dam auction was happening last week and this would have been utterly unreported by the media.”

Cameron’s trip to Brazil made some in the media wonder if the director was not becoming a real-life “Jake Sully.” Sully is the movie’s lead character, a former Marine from Earth employed by a mining company operating on a distant planet Pandora who ultimately ends up switching sides to help the Na’vi save their land from exploitation.

During the panel, Cameron explained that his childhood experience growing up in rural Canada likely influenced the story. “I lived in a small village that was surrounded by forest and I spent all my free time as a kid in the forest,” he said. “Although I wasn’t hunting and fishing for a living, a certainly felt that interconnection when you talk about feeling ‘one with the land.’ I felt a glimpse of that. It was such a powerful feeling for me.”

Cameron then tapped the panelist to his left on the arm, Oren Lyons, of the Onondaga Nation, and said, “I actually wished I was from your nation, this is absolutely true. We kids all got poison ivy and had to go to the hospital because we tried to build an Iroquois log house, with traditional hatchets and knives.” When he had grown up a few years later, he said that the first Earth Day 40 years ago and the growing environmental awareness “affected me deeply as well.” Although he says that his he and his family now try to live environmentally responsibly in their personal lives, he conceded that “it was not enough.”

Several years ago he said that he realized, “I need to take whatever muscle I have in the film industry and tell a story … so I made Avatar.”

An elder from Ecuador gives James Cameron a handmade textile after the

Mohawk journalist Kenneth Deer asked Cameron after the screening if people are asking him to be their avatar. Cameron responded, “I don’t want that kind of responsibility. I think there is an opportunity here, these doors open once in a while, when there is moment when we have the world’s attention. We need to collectively figure out some ways to have some good come from it.”

While the film was well-received by the largely indigenous audience, Cameron did field some tough questions.

Deer pointed to large Hollywood films, such as Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, Wind Talkers and Avatar, where the hero who saves the indigenous people is always a non-indigenous person. He asked Cameron why he also chose this narrative, and instantly received a large cheer from the audience.

Cameron responded, “That was one of the backlashes against the movie, that the so-called main character was not an indigenous leader himself.” However, he said that the goal in making the film was not to try to “tell indigenous people how bad things are for them,” but rather to “wake up” people who play the roles of economic oppressors or invaders in real-life. “I understand the white messiah argument,” he said, “but in this movie, I am trying to make everybody a white messiah, for everybody to have the sense of responsibility to help with the problem. I think it is such absolutely courageous how you are fighting for your rights … But it is going to take people from the other side meeting you part way and taking responsibility for what has happened in the past and the way we need to live in going forward.”

Cameron continued, “But, if you’ll notice, I tried to go behind the normal Hollywood paradigm and have Jake work within the leadership system of the Na’vi, by not displacing the leader Tsu’Tey who had taken over leadership of the clan when the patriarch, when the father dies, as he stands up with him and ask him to translate for him — so that the message comes from both of them together. I tried to show two cultures meeting halfway to find a solution. And perhaps Hollywood can go further in that regard. Maybe it my own parochial, chauvinistic perspective as a writer. As an artist, it is very important to write from the heart, and Avatar is what came out.”

In a discussion after the film, a native Hawai’ian woman spoke up and told Cameron that she felt that the reason he did not win best director or best film is “because the indigenous won” in Avatar. “Should be aware of that,” she said. “the forces of racism are still there and they are very powerful. I salute you as a warrior yourself on our behalf."

Carlos Mamani Condori, the chairperson of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on the panel after the film, asked Cameron through a translator if he had considered how indigenous communities around the world could unit themselves in the struggle while writing the screenplay.

Cameron explained that the fantasy Na’vi culture was a compilation of characteristics from indigenous communities from around the world that he had learned from doing a lot of research and reading. However, he said that the plot was based on the “the violent struggles that took place in the past in North America” and he didn’t realize that so many battles were still ongoing around the world. “I guess I believed that the world is more enlightened now and that these kind of fights were not quite as common as they were then. As a result of a success of the movie, so many people have come to me and said, ‘This is happening right now in our communities.’ It was a wake up call for me.”

“This story of Pandora is the story of the fight of all the indigenous around the world,” Condori said, “it has been the story going on for years, and is still going on. That is why I thank you for this movie. … It gives hope, and a positive message to the indigenous communities and that is why we see you aligned with us on this fight.”

“We all feel something about nature, everybody,” Cameron said, “but a lot of people have it suppressed. They are in denial of the problems and they want to turn a blind eye and they don’t want to see what is happening to all of you. Hopefully this film reminds them that they do have a conscience and a heart and that they do feel something.”

“Through my art as a filmmaker, I decided to finally to say something to express my moral outrage about what was happening on this planet to the natural world and to the indigenous people who are the best stewards of that natural world,” Cameron said. “… But unfortunately there are still resources in the ground that are yet to be dug up and, plundered if you will, it is so critical that we deal with these issues now. I think time is running out for our civilization to shift its set of values, this is what I was trying to say with Avatar.”

Cameron received an outpouring of support, prayers and gratitude, which included many gifts including handmade textiles from Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, beads and jewelry, a piece of a whale’s tail to help him “be a strong man” from the Russian arctic region, and a feathered head dress from West Papua. At one point, Cameron was wearing most of these gifts at the same time.

James Cameron receives several gifts from indigenous communities after Avatar was screened to some 400 delegates of the U. N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the New York Directors Guild Theatre in Midtown Manhattan April 24.

“This evening, what you have organized and these wonderful gifts and the emotions of it, it means so much to me,” Cameron said, “more than anything Hollywood could offer, more than an Academy Award. … “This is what you try to do as a filmmaker. You try to communicate, to try to create connections between people.”

While Cameron expressed “cause fatigue” from being contacted by so many people and organizations to invite him to join in on their struggles, he stressed his commitment. “For right now my activism has to be at a global level,” he said. He explained his main interest will be to focus on situations where conflict has arisen between the necessity for energy development and economic growth and the rights of indigenous peoples and the protections of their lands. He urged Canada and the United States to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the last two U.N. member countries remaining to sign-on after New Zealand announced April 19 it would now support the declaration.

And that activism might take him home to Canada. He said he is very interested to learn more about the devastation caused by the extraction of crude oil in the Athabasca tar sands in northeastern Alberta. "I do think that direct action, using media, appealing to the conscience of the public by the media sources can do some good," Cameron said.

This will delight Gerge Poitras, of the Mikisew Cree First Nation who has been battling tar sands oil extraction companies. “I went to see the film with my two young nephews,” Poitras said at the afternoon panel. “I realized during the film that this was the story of so many indigenous peoples all around the world, and definitely the story about me and my people’s struggles.”

Poitras said told Cameron that he was deeply moved by the scene in Avatar where the mother, Mo’at, comes to Jake after the destruction of Home Tree and says, “If you are truly one of us, then help us.”

Full audio files from both the "Real Life 'Pandoras' on Earth" panel discussion and Q/A after the screening of Avatar will be available here soon.