May 7, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

So, how much does Avatar borrow from Maori history?

4 min read

So a few weeks ago, the newest blog from Digital Maori: Hori 3.0 was created by our CEO, Potaua Biasiny-Tule of In it Potaua mentioned the interesting parallels between Maori and the Na’vi, the people from the block-buster 3D movie Avatar by James Cameron (director of Titanic).

AvatarCAt the heart of the similarities were the use of the hongi (sharing the same breath – see image to the left) and the use of traditional tattooing (see images below and kia ora to the Horiwood Blog too). More contextually speaking was the depiction of the various struggles between indigenous peoples and those who came to colonise their lands to seek vital resources.

A few days later we saw an article on the Stuff by academic Rawiri Taonui who thoughtfully examined some of the same themes and provided additional points, saying that although “it was a great movie and had some progressive themes… it still repeated some stereotypes”.

Matua Taonui highlighted these stereotypes including rhythmic body swaying, the portrayal of indigenous men as simple minded creatures when the contrary has proved to be MORE true (with indigenous communities finding strategic and visionary ways of overcoming their).

Rawiri also questioned the time it took for the lead character to learn about ways and culture of the Na’avi suggesting that this implied that indigenous beliefs were simplistic. Taonui was particularly pleased with the way in which the film acknowledged the negative impact of colonisation on indigenous cultures saying:

“The fact that a movie like that has come out shows the Western world has less hang-ups about indigenous people. There is recognition that colonisation has a negative impact on indigenous people from a historical point of view.”

WhaleoilFA few more days passed and the infamous New Zealand blogger, Whale Oil (aka Cameron Slater), known for currently being before court for breaching suppression orders of 2 well-known NZ celebrities (re the Olympian and the Pakeha hip-hop artist both found guilty of sexual offenses), had a few words in response to Mr Taonui’s commentary, saying:

“I read that some Maori academic has decided that Avatar repeats negative stereotypes about indigenous people. WTF! the Navi win! They defeat the evil colonisers and destroyers of nature. Next thing we will hear the Catholics are marching in the streets because the movie depicts God as Gaia, the Earth Mother.

In response to the rhythmic body swaying Mr Taonui mentioned, Slater hit out saying:

Uhmmm.the rhythmic body swaying is FICTION, its a movie, it isnt a story about any indigenous population anywhere except in someones clearly furtive imagination.

AvatarC4Slater DOES acknowledge that there seems to be a correlation to the Plains Indians about the Settlers coming like the wind over the land, you cannot stop them or words to that effect.

He goes on to accept that “James Cameron has previously acknowledged that he drew aspects of the film from Dances with Wolves. The effect of white settlement on the Plains Indians and the eventual reservationisation of them is clearly a theme in the film”.

Hmmm the use of the hongi and ta moko-like tatooing on the Na’ivi’s faces seems to strongly contradict Slater’s challenge.

We also have read of the interesting similarities between the language that the Na’ivi use and te reo Maori, which was acknowledged in the New York by director James Cameron homself:

“For Avatar, [Cameron] worked with a linguist to develop the Navi language, inspired by fragments of Maori he picked up in New Zealand years ago.”

The following was sourced from an interview with Cameron on Dec 19 2009 where he said:

“But the way that the language was created, it started off innocently enough as I was writing the script. I came up with some place names and some character names and so on. You know, I was just sort of free-associating.

And I had been to New Zealand a few years ago and really liked the sound of the Maori language and some of the Polynesian form, so I put that in.”

See, so the man said it himself.

Remember that Cameron was here in Aotearoa New Zealand only a few years ago (and that James Cameron may be related to the colonial-era Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron).

Slater then goes on to say “Contradicts history? What planet is this academic on? The movie is set in the FUTURE. It is FICTION. The film is set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a fictional Earth-like moon in a distant planetary system.”

It’s hard to see how Slater could be completely oblivious to these significant parallels and it wouldn’t have taken long to check it out online as we have.

Anyway, by all accounts it is a visually stunning movie, so we’ve booked our babysitters and will find out soon what all the fuss is about! Please post your thoughts about this article and your reviews of the movie!!

22 thoughts on “So, how much does Avatar borrow from Maori history?

  1. just going along with some of the other comments ,the reason there has to be a tauiwi as the hero is because they have to support the myth that the tauiwi is superior

  2. Love the opportunity to read the differing korero. My hoha is about the portrayal of the indigenous woman who is so naively seduced by a bloke. Supposedly she is so mesmerised by his maleness that she doesnt have the internal nous, skill, sense, intuition that some strange dude who happens along may be a threat to the entire fabric of her tribal being but being the dumbo equips him with all ancient knowledge with which to destroy it all. Puhlease! What’s up with that? It’s the same Disney Pocahontas story again. Heck, Adam and Eve, he born out of the image of God and she merely his rib! Whateva! The great hope and of course white. Male clap trap.

    1. In case it didnt show ha ha, loved the cinematography, the references to Ihoa, the hongi, the regard to wairua and tupuna, the fabulous colour. Just spoilt by the Gungho macho carry-on. Not required I think. 3D was great, although I expected more of an impact as saw it 2D as well and wasnt a hugely notable difference I thought.

  3. i have seen the movie,& there is a hint of maori with in the film, the story line leans towards tino rangatiratanga,& i think the director & co have got the message through by using human vs alien as a camoflage as opposed to using human vs human but still with the freedom fighter element to stir the right from wrong feelings.10 out of 10

  4. Love the article. I haven't watched the movie yet but I will.
    Its time that we stand up and show the world our culture. I would love to see the story of Papa and Rangi on the big screen. Can you imagine how amazing that would be?

  5. Kia Ora – Interesting koreroI think we miss an important point though when we worry about whether or not Avatar was influenced by Maori and that is why does pakeha NZ and indeed the world have aroha for the native people in Avatar and yet here we are, as real as day and they have nothing but contempt for us and our treaty grievences as well as our rights as native people? Maybe if we were 10-15 foot tall and blue they would respect us like they do The Navi? It also strikes me as odd that a lot of pakeha I have heard talk about this find it so easy to separate themselves from the colonisers in the movie. Need they be reminded that it was their tipuna who dud the exact same thing to us? And to a certain extent they still do. One thing that really struck ne in the movie was the destruction of (for want of a better term) their God Tree. For a lot of people this was a very sad part of the movie. But guess what up until 2-5 years ago this is exactly what the government was doing to my iwi in Tauranga. They were blowing up chunks of Mauao, the ancestral maunga of Ngai Te rangi. Maori themselves in our maunga, awa and whenua so when they were blowing up Mauao they were blowing up me. I don’t know if we are reading too much into a simple movie or if we aren’t but what u can say is I wish we were blue with tails, then, at least maybe pakeha NZ will feel some aroha towards us.

    PS: sorry for the grammar / spelling I wrote this on my mobile phone.

  6. I saw a hard case piece on Dave Chapelle with a black comedian remarking how offensive The Last Samurai was. I think it went…'Tom Cruise?! The last Samurai. Please… I'm gonna make a movie called The Last Nigger on Earth…starring Tom Hanks! Why can't the white people who make movies let brown/black people save themselves for once?

  7. Wiremu Reedy
    '' posted for our readers. We thought we would share our 'whakaaro' (thoughts) with your readers… enjoy!
    The rst is o ''. Kia ora tatau!

    Monday, January 11, 2010
    AVATAR – A Movie with touches of Maori Culture
    What an absolutely wonderful piece of movie magic of a story well presented, visually fantastic with the added touch of the Maori culture. The first time I saw the 'hongi' sequence after Jake appeals to Ewar for help in the up and coming battle sequences towards the end of the movie, and where the 'hongi' exchanges of breaths or 'mauri ora' that took place between Jake and Neytiri, was well placed in the movie with the scene leading up too IT, and the two actors… when they 'did it'… was 'tino ataahua'… very beautiful and uplifting… in my eyes.

  8. Absolutely people should go for a pitch if they need the help of someone else. Bearing in mind Peter gets "pitched" at constantly lol. I'm guessing the reason why we have not seen a Maori Epic yet as Te Ngakooterangi describes it, is not for want of trying or a lack of determination.

  9. On balance we (tangata whenua huri noa i te Ao) can only benefit from the massive popular exposure this movie gets globally – esp. in 'developed' countries. Sure it's a simplistic story in many ways but it's a timely one. I'm in wonder of the millions of viewers who drawn in by the technical wizardry and escapism (pretty blinkin' amazin btw), have a version of our story wash over them. That's something! Props to Mr Cameron for that. Whether they get it is another question…

  10. Kia ora Rob, yep lol I havn't seen the film but realise its a rave. Must say that Cameron may have got the storytelling right if Xmas with some of my family is anything to go by…the 70 plus aunt's still want to 'save' the colonizing white ancestral fathers' who were surveyors and judges!!! believing that they had our best interests in mind back then. Aarh – Hollywood Sirens!!!

  11. Tautoko Te Ngako-o-te-rangi: The movie industry should throw some of that putea back into the communities that inspire. That would be the noble thing to do … but not a reality. I guess what wasn’t clear in my korero is that WE should be producing our own stories/movies/books from OUR point of view. This talent is beginning to show itself .. but not fast enough to keep up with the ravines of Hollywood who have the experience and foresight to produce movie product using the best technology/actors etc etc. I don’t want to see our own imaginations and creativity strangled by ‘ownership’ peculiarities. Nor should it be strangled by budget constraints .. some of the best movies at Caane have come from the smallest budgets with limitless imaginations and innovation.
    As for the idea of the colonizer winning .. well .. it was produced by a pakeha .. so he has made one of his own the hero .. hardly surprising. I know the First Nation people have just as big a problem with the hero of Dances with Wolves .. well.. time for us to step up and take the reigns of our culture and propel our own heroes and heroines onto the screen. That’s all I can say.

  12. I don' think there are at all issues to do with a "Create License" and/or trying to stop people from being creative. There are a lot of issue's surrounding "intellectual copyright" and there has been for sometime. Why would that be so? Because people are taking there culture/s intimate understandings and using that a) as a beautiful way to share there understandings and story with the world b) too make money and using that intellectual property as a commodity. Myra don't get me wrong we all want to share in any creative and artist movie that has a story of binging about levels of understanding that move us from the self serving environment we find our selfs in today. It's the reason why movie's like "Avatar" do so well, it's a conscious reminder of some of the messy thing's we as humans get our self's into.

    In saying that personally I don't feel that ultimately there is anything wrong in being inspired from different culture's and different idea's, and if we find our selfs in that position then let's acknowledge where those inspirations have come from and out of respect ask if its ok to use that idea to help sell our message and acknowledge it for the inspiration it has been, it feel that's really important. If inspiration has come from other cultures in the world bring it into the light, and share the remuneration with people whom help provided the creativity and inspiration – I see nothing wrong with that at all.

  13. There is no doubt that technically and creatively Weta studios and probably Cameron have done the most stunning job. That's what everyone is raving about – the visual feast is worthy of praise.

    Also, Cameron has revealed a change in thinking for a colonialist audience that has at long last begun to "personally" feel the negative impacts of their exploitation and polluting, thanks to the prolific media coverage of climate change.

    The disappointment was the portrayal of an indigenous people that apparently were so ill-equipped to face the colonisers, that they needed a rogue coloniser (and not a particularly clever or skilled one either) to swap sides and save them all from their inevitable fate – ie. repeat of Dances with wolves…. See More

    The moral high ground (that belongs to the colonisers) won.

    However, keeping that in mind … people have enjoyed the movie. Small steps I s'pose.

  14. Tena koe Myra – excellent korero, we were really taking issue with other commentators who wrongly suggested that Maori culture did NOT influence Cameron's imagination (along no doubt with other indigenous communities). With that said I also totally understand why indigenous communities, Maori in particular, may be a little too protective of that which is sacred to them being used commercially, when so much has been lost, stolen, taken… Mauri ora!

  15. Creation is inspired by many things. If we start censoring, ridiculing and taking ‘ownership’ of peoples imagination, such as that of James Cameron, then we are doing ourselves a serious dis-service. There is nothing to stop ANYONE from using experiences to colour their imagination thereby allowing them to create something we can all enjoy .. regardless of where the inspiration has come from. We all have the ability to create … technology has thankfully not hijacked our imagination and or the sources used to furnish it. Please, let us celebrate the freedom the mind still has in this world.

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