James Cameron avatar folly

CW: suicide ideation, physical, emotional, mental, sexual abuse.

Someone asked me about James Cameron and his controversial statements about Lakota and the new Avatar movie. Up until then, I had re-posted some things, but hadn’t said anything yet. I hadn’t planned to until things settled in the apartment, but that could be months; see last blog for why.

This is one of the statements being called out.

“This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.” The Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/18/avatar-james-cameron-brazil-dam

The first time I attempted suicide, I was in 6th grade. The details don’t need to be shared. It began for me, a decades long struggle of self harming.

I didn’t attempt suicide because my people were “hopeless” or “a dead end society”. I was living under abuses that I may never fully detail and all of it came from somewhere. The person doing it was my own mother, but she had also been a student of Holy Rosary Mission, a residential school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Today, it’s known as Red Cloud School. I’ve heard horror stories from ma and people of her generation; I’ve lived some of them. Cycles of abuse continued through generations. Teachings from missionaries, from the government and society itself told my mother that she should not be Lakota. Students were banned from, and beaten for, speaking their language. Ma said that she only spoke Lakota at home. Another survivor told me that as younger children were put in the school, the older students would help the younger ones with English while also keeping the language and culture hidden from the nuns and priests to avoid punishments.

From my youth to about high school, I was taught that we should fit into white society as much as we could. That it would be safer and better to assimilate. But even from a young age, I knew that my brown skin was never going to pass for white, that it didn’t matter what I knew of that society, it wasn’t me. Church was torture and if I dragged my feet or protested going, I got beat for it. Eventually, I figured if I was going to get beat for it anyway, I wasn’t going. I couldn’t walk without pain for days in the following weeks before ma quit beating me for not going to church. Eventually, my siblings stopped going too. Ma didn’t believe we should speak our language and never taught us more than a few phrases throughout our youth.

Grandma -Uncí in Lakota- was the one who taught me the most in my youth. Growing up, especially when we got to live with her, she was always teaching something. One of her phrases has always stuck with me. “I speak, but you never listen!” I would protest that I was listening and I thought I was, but I think she meant might have meant that I wasn’t understanding. English was Uncí’s second language.

The reason that this is important is that this goes with the older kids teaching the younger kids about boarding school expectations -society- while maintaining culture and language -Lakota. Ma was the boarding school. Uncí was the encouraging whispers, teaching culture, even language. I went to church with Uncí and I loved going, not because of the religion, but because I got to sing Lakota with my grandma. I got to see how her and her friends gathered and I got to hang out with them and listen to gossip in Lakota while I made coffee and snacks for them. I couldn’t understand much of what they said, but to be present and hear the living language was special.

It wasn’t until her late 30s or so that ma stopped going to church and gave up the religion entirely. For the next decade, she became more involved in local Native communities and even worked at NARF, the Native American Rights Fund, in Boulder, Colorado. Nothing on legal issues, she did office work, but it was cool to see the work they did, you know? She started teaching us more about our culture and became active with the Oyate student group on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus when she went to school there. That’s where she met Tommy and a bunch of other students that became ‘ma’s other kids’. So for them, ma has always been an activist. I think some of them got inspiration from her. Some even called themselves ‘ma’s other kids’.

By the time my sister had babies, ma had gone from a terror to… mom. She ran for, and won, a seat on the tribal council and I got to help with her campaign. The problem then (and now, to be honest) was that our tribal government never seemed to do much for the people except talk, attend conferences and work on getting re-elected. She seemed to have gone full circle from that boarding school mentality to helping our oyate (people). When I first visited her when she got custody of the kids (my sons; my youngest sister gave birth to them), I had worried about her taking care of them, but she had such patience for them. I remember watching her with these babies and going from scared to resentment – why couldn’t she be that patient and caring mother to me and my siblings? It took some processing and I was just glad that she was. It took her languishing in a hospital bed dying of cancer for us to get closure on many things. By the end, I did value the person she became.

Because in that year and change that it took for her to pass, I saw that better cycle, that importance of teaching the next generation. I bet that the kids would have grown up speaking Lakota if she hadn’t passed.

Back in the day when we were being systematically wiped out, when federal and local governments called on the genocide of all Natives, our people weren’t looking out only for themselves when treaties were signed. Our people have always looked generations into the future. They didn’t see themselves or us as “hopeless” or “dead end”. 

We are the descendants of the people your ancestors failed to wipe out. We are still being subjected to colonization and genocide, but we are still here. It isn’t someone pulling a trigger or scalping our people for a few bucks anymore. It’s people like Cameron (and way too many people in entertainment – looking at you Stephen King) who demean us and pity our ‘demise’ as if we’re already dead. Who devalue our culture and history and then re-write it with a profitable version, not history- or reality-based. Who erase us outright, or the only representation that we get are in white savior films that portray us through a white lens to give the palatable version to other non-Natives. 

Because the sentiment is pitying our ancestors from the comfortable perspective of ‘ancient history’. It isn’t, ‘looking back at what my ancestors did to Natives and First Nations, we’re responsible for a genocide that we still benefit from.’ Don’t pity our people. Take accountability for the fact that yours and society’s wealth are the spoils of that ongoing genocide.

And can we talk about the appearance of Cameron’s ‘merciless blue savages’? People exotify us yet apply white beauty standards so it’s little surprise and kind of an eye roll reaction to these slinky aliens looking the way that they do. Like those white chicks in headdress tattoos. Kind of sort of look like us if you squint and close one eye, but it’s not us and it’s not meant for us and does not represent us. The phrase oft used by racists springs to mind too, ‘I treat everyone equally; I don’t care if their skin is black, white or purple.’

What a lot of -primarily white- people see of present day Natives are ghosts of the dead, not a living people. It also suggests that you knew better than an entire people -that you have no real understanding of- being hunted and brutalized what would have been best. If that were YOUR people, they would have endured, right? Do the Navi get wiped out in the end of this Avatar movie? I’m betting not. That rewriting with Lakota in mind makes Navi -and Cameron- superior to the Lakota who were killed. It’s just another element of white supremacy.

When people look at our people only through a historic lens, it promotes the idea that Native culture, language and people are dead. In recent years, we’ve suffered people like #BubbaOtep, Cher, Kaya Jones, Johnny Depp. Even @/Lakotaman1 on Twitter who focuses on our dead in the guise of education and promotes a whitewashed view of Lakota that’s more palatable to his ignorant followers. Supporting white supremacy through colonized politics and the idea that our culture only existed in the past.

Our ancestors looked out for us in the actions that they did. Just as our people now continue to keep our cultures alive. We are not just descendants of our ancestors. To understand what that means requires substantial effort and time. It won’t be some throwaway statement like, ‘yeah their anger is valid’.

I will share two tales of people attempting to support representation and discovering that the effort was too much.

The video game.

One of my friends in tech wanted my help to create a character for a video game. I didn’t have a lot of time so I suggested another Native. At first, I got updates and then silence. I asked my friend what happened and she said that the team felt that the time and effort it would take to respect the culture of a Native character with what they wanted to do with his history was too difficult. They wanted to do it their way or not at all because certain aspects were shot down. They scrapped the Native character. 

The novel.

Another friend was a writer who wrote a novel. I hadn’t read it yet but I got a copy. At one point, he asked if he could run a storyline by me that involved numerous tribes. I said I couldn’t say anything about any other tribe and not even really mine, but I could give insight from my experience. He gave me the premise and immediately, it was problematic and would not have respected Lakota culture and I said so. Probably not any other tribe’s culture either. For a while, he suggested different aspects to keep the storyline and it became uncomfortable. In the end, he scrapped the idea.

Cameron. Hollywood. Every ‘my great great grandmother was…’ family lore keeper. Stop thinking you know us or about us. You can learn, but it will take time and effort. Years, decades, a lifetime. Know people, plural, not just a token Native to support or excuse what you do. If you ask enough Natives, you’ll find some who will support something counter to what’s good for the people for a number of reasons. Natives have supported the Washington team with a slur for a name, for example. Some don’t care or know about their own culture so they wouldn’t know or understand the harms and dismiss concerns when asked. Those are the Natives the media and society seek out the most.

This speaks to another phenomenon. When doing something negative, people like that Washington team will go to great lengths to justify their choices. But who gets to speak about us? Because it’s been decades that actual Natives have protested disrespectful mascots yet the Washington team claimed that an overwhelming percentage of self-identified Natives supported the name via some internet poll. 

Self-identified doesn’t mean having ancestry or a connection to the culture one claims. There’s a distinct and important difference when speaking about either.

As for being a dead end society. The Sioux treaty of 1868 wasn’t that long ago in terms of generations. The Wounded Knee massacre happened in 1890. Uncí was born around 1912. They weren’t just our ancestors as if all this happened so long ago. They were our relatives. 

As for modern Lakota. Not wearing traditional regalia was forced on us in an attempt to assimilate our people. It wasn’t a choice. Just as this nation’s creation wasn’t our choice. Or of being forced onto prisoner of war camps such as #334, or what’s now known as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Or being subjected to brutalities of boarding schools, the last of which closed not so long ago, but yeah, our ancestors didn’t fight hard enough?

For only a few generations, our people, our culture and our language has endured. We are fighting to find an equilibrium between being Lakota and forced ambassadors of our people among society. We have lost our people for many reasons but maybe look at the root of why and what is still happening to this day. Your focus on how ‘pitiful’ we are speaks volumes to how you actually view our living people.

You have a platform and made a statement that denigrates Lakota people. Lakota don’t need your pity or empty apologies. What you need is education and respect for what you obviously don’t understand. How about just leaving us alone rather than contributing to our genocide.

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