Avatar, The Dakota Access Pipeline, and Colonial Fantasies in Film

UPDATE: This episode and blog post first ran back in early February, but we thought it would be appropriate to bring it back in light of the opening of Disney’s new Avatar-themed amusement park, plus the recent legal news that the Trump administration’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline violated the law. You can listen to the updated episode below. We are still hoping that James Cameron decides to do more for indigenous people’s issues on his own planet, but so far he has not responded to our tweets. Maybe he will to yours!

Avatar was a force of nature upon its release in 2009. Not only did it break box office records, it pioneered 3-D and motion-capture technology, spawning a new generation of 3-D films. It also had an explicit (some might say heavy-handed) environmental message. With so much ground-breaking going on, it’s understandable that not a lot of serious attention was paid to the ground it retread, jokes about Pocahontas with blue people aside.

Avatar is a science fiction/fantasy film, of course, taking place on the distant moon Pandora in the year 2154. But it takes great pains to remind the audience of a shameful wound in United States’ history- our deception, genocide, and exploitation of America’s native peoples. The Na’vi, blue humanoids indigenous to Pandora, are obviously analogues to Earthly indigenous peoples, or at least stereotypes of them. They wear body paint, ride horse-like creatures, and shoot bows-and-arrows while letting out war whoops. They also have a profound spiritual connection to nature that is in danger of being irreparably harmed by humans’ greedy exploitation of their world for a lucrative mineral resource, unobtanium.

The journey of protagonist Jake Sully is on its surface a heartwarming story of a man finding himself and a deep spiritual connection to nature through assimilation into an indigenous culture. But it’s built on a deeper question: what if that painful history of violence and exploitation never happened? What would we do, given the chance to do it all over again?

Narratives of colonial fantasy like Avatar are often commended for raising awareness, or getting audiences to sympathize with an oppressed group. Yet they situate themselves in a fantasy world where exploitation hasn’t happened yet, and then resolve that situation through a White Savior who crosses cultural boundaries to fight on the oppressed group’s behalf. Not only is the idea that Jake Sully could assimilate into the Na’vi, become the best of them, and be the only one capable of rescuing them laughably out-of-touch, the entire premise is dull and intellectually lazy. The colonial exploitation of native people and their lands did happen, and those repercussions are still felt today.

In our latest Carbon Neutral episode, we acknowledge the environmentalist themes of Avatar while questioning whether repeating simplistic fantasies like the one it depicts is actually helpful to the environmental movement. Real-life situations are rarely as simple as a tale of sneering, corporate Evil versus innocent, nature-loving, Good. So how does watching those tales play out on the big screen prepare us to tackle dilemmas of environmental injustice in real life?

Let’s look at The Dakota Access Pipeline for example. Upon completion, the pipeline will run 1,172 miles from North Dakota’s northwest Bakken region to a point outside Patoka, Illinois, where it will join other pipelines. The project has since become hotly contested by environmentalists and indigenous tribal communities, most notably the Standing Rock Sioux. Most of the pipeline is on private land (much of it obtained through eminent domain), so it is not subject to the kinds of permitting processes and Army Corps of Engineers oversight that is in place for projects on federal lands. Portions of it are on federal lands, however, and cross over waterways that impact the Standing Rock Sioux. Though the pipeline does not actually cross tribal land at any point, the indigenous communities are still legally required to have a voice in the project. From a September 2016 article in The Atlantic:

“But it is in partial recognition of the painful history of colonial land grabs that modern federal law accords certain rights to Native groups. Since 1992, one of these rights could be described as the right to be consulted: Whenever a federal agency undertakes or approves a construction project, it must consult with local Native nations or tribes about whether sacred sites or places are nearby.”

This issue of preserving sites of sacred or historical significance is in addition to environmental concerns the Standing Rock Sioux have voiced. A leak or break in the pipeline could result in a spill into the Missouri River upstream of the tribe’s major population center. The Missouri River is the tribe’s only source of water. Environmental activists cite pipelines’ troubling number of leaks and contamination incidents as reason to oppose the pipeline on environmental grounds, tribal concerns notwithstanding.

I will not pretend to be well-versed in tribal law or the duties of the Army Corps of Engineers, though in reading the memorandum denying the injunction requested by the Standing Rock Sioux, I am left with several questions about the process for permitting projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline: Why is it in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers (and not the potentially impacted tribes) to determine whether an activity has the potential to damage historic tribal properties? Why do the surveys they use to make that determination, which are conducted by licensed archaeologists, not required to include tribal participation or supervision?

The Dakota Access Pipeline may be legal (though there are serious concerns that the Army Corps of Engineers did not conduct an adequate environmental impact assessment, and The Standing Rock Sioux claims they were not properly consulted in the planning and permitting of the project). The legality of an action does not necessarily correspond with its morality, wisdom, or righteousness. In the movie Avatar, the violent actions of the corporation were probably legal, in the sense that the Na’vi were not adequately protected by laws that weren’t created by them or for them. History has shown that United States law has not been an adequate protection for indigenous communities, either. “It’s how we did it before” is never a robust argument for future action. Neither is the fact that a majority of the project has now been constructed. And regardless of the fate of the Standing Rock Sioux and the Dakota Access Pipeline, conflicts involving indigenous authority over ancestral lands will persist.

James Cameron reportedly made a record-setting $350 million from directing and producing Avatar. In 2016 it was announced that no less than four sequels are planned, in addition to a Disney theme park and Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas. For all of the money being made on a movie that preaches respecting indigenous autonomy and prizing the earth and people over corporate greed, I haven’t heard anything from Cameron regarding Standing Rock and DAPL, or any of the struggles facing indigenous communities. Therefore, we invite Cameron to put his money where his mouth is and use the considerable profit he received from Avatar to help indigenous communities fight for their rights. We will be tweeting @JimCameron to #PutYourMovieWhereYourMouthIs and use his vast fortune for good.


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