On noble savages and the humanity of the ‘other’
The problem with the noble savage cliche is that it is demonstrably untrue. The people who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans warred, died for lack of medicine, sometimes killed animal herds so unsustainably that they faced starvation — so despite the manifold wrongs done by the Europeans to indigenous peoples, it is inaccurate and simplistic to screen stories where savage Europeans war with noble natives living in utter harmony with nature.
James Cameron isn’t portraying native people of our world. His alien protagonists aren’t intended as stand-ins for the Navajos or the Aztecs or the Cherokee. In his different world, the native people really are in communion with nature. Were his purpose to comment on European history, this would be a terrible choice, but in fact Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way. That is why I approve of the decision to portray the kinds of natives that were shown.
Conor is off the mark here. Cameron’s Na’vi were the noblest of noble savages – hands down the least complicated, least dynamic, most shallow savages written into a major film in – I don’t know – decades? Years? A really long time. And Cameron was commenting on European/American history. Science fiction is always about history.
The movie theatre I saw this in was packed, and about half the audience were Navajos. My home town is mostly white, but the second largest racial demographic is Native American – mostly Navajo and some Hopi. In college, pretty much all my lit classes were on multi-cultural themes, but the vast bulk of time was spent on Native American literature in particular. I have spent more hours than I care to count thinking about these issues – about Native American rights, land rights, the various myths and religious themes which surround Native American culture, and the ways in which popular culture (and Hollywood) has portrayed native peoples in America. I have a number of friends (past and present) who are Navajo (or Diné, as they prefer to be called). We even have a public elementary school here which teaches one third of all its material in the Navajo language (and one third in Spanish).
So, whether the Na’vi are simple “stand-ins for the Navajos” or whether Cameron was trying to write his very own native-from-scratch is immaterial. Surely Conor has heard the term “extended metaphor” before. Cameron’s alien moon, Pandora, may not be the American frontier, and the Na’vi may not be the Diné, but the parallels are obvious and purposeful. And the real problem is not that such parallels exist but that Cameron’s handling of his Pandoran tribal people is so one-dimensional.
Why not rip off The Last of the Mohicans and have some bad Na’vi thrown into the mix? That would at the very least be more interesting, and certainly more honest. A film wherein the natives are not only exploited but turned against one another – whose weaknesses are exploited as well – would be more complex and realistic. Or Cameron could have taken some pages from the The Mission – a film which took seriously the questions of colonization, religious colonization and the indigenous response, and the merits of passive resistance.
This is the problem with treating the Na’vi as noble savages. They are unbelievable. They are too easy too sympathize with – childlike, fragile – and this exposes them to the white-man-as-savior theme all too easily. In The Mission the white man could not save the Guaraní from the Portuguese; the Church could not save them from the secular powers; God could not save them from death. The white “saviors” as Jesuit priests ultimately failed, both in their attempt to erect a mission and in their attempts – both diplomatic and eventually militarily – to stop the slavers and their political allies from eventually tearing the mission down. We are left with haunting questions about our own humanity at the end of that film – but also at the beginning as we watch the Jesuit priest, nailed to a cross, sent out over the falls into the endless spray.
I’m not sure how such a dark and honest portrayal of the colonized would have carried over into a $350 million dollar blockbuster, but it would have made for a much more compelling story.
Nor am I sure why Sullivan thinks that this is an example of Conor being a “contrarian conservative.” I’m underwhelmed by the idea that conservatives hated this movie while liberals loved it. I know several liberals who had almost identical thoughts as myself after watching the film – and perhaps that’s because we know so many Navajos and have been so steeped in that culture that we quite literally flinch at any portrayal of Native Americans (metaphorical or not) as noble savages.
It’s an immature way to understand a culture, for one thing. It erases all culpability – all humanity, so to speak – from the Na’vi themselves, and thus undermines and cheapens their struggle. If we are to understand our own humanity at all – as Conor suggests this movie allows us to – than we have to first understand the humanity of the “other.” Cameron, instead, asks us only to mythologize and glorify the other, and so we are left with another empty parable. This is more pernicious than you might think. Erasing the fundamental humanity of the “other” is what allows us to enslave and destroy them in the first place.
P.S. – Sullivan, don’t go hippie on us. We have lots of those around here, too, and that is not a road you want to go down….