With beady headdresses and skimpy sashes, the Na'vi are clearly meant to evoke Native Americans, as well as similarly exploited tribes of South America and Africa. They pray over slain animals and feel at one with nature. Their tails (oh, yes, they also have tails) even connect—like nature's USB port—to things like mystical willow branches, horse manes or the hair of pterodactyl-like birds.
It's no coincidence that the Na'vi chief Eyukan is played by the Cherokee actor Wes Studi, whose credits include "Dances with Wolves," perhaps the film most thematically akin to "Avatar."
"Avatar," which Cameron wrote as well as directed, is essentially a fairy tale that imagines a more favorable outcome for the oppressed fighting against the technology and might of Western Civilization. Sully, who quickly takes to life as a Na'vi, begins to feel his allegiances blurred.
Though he has promised Quaritch to spy on the Na'vi (their home lies atop an Unobtainium deposit), he begins to appreciate their ways. He also falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na'vi princess and the one who introduces him to the tribe.
Many Na'vi are suspicious of Sully—"a demon in a fake body"—but they eventually embrace him. They accept him as a leader, even though he occasionally goes limp and vacant when his human body isn't connected.
This interspecies rapport happens often in fiction. For instance, the lizards in the TV series V put on human skins and then fall in love with humans. The creators assume that if people look the same, they'll think and act the same.
If you think about this, it's ridiculous. Could a traditional American Indian have become a US general during the Indian Wars? Could a GI Joe have become a Japanese general during World War II? Could an Anglo-American become the head of Al Qaeda today?
All these things are theoretically possible, but none have come close to happening in reality. Why not? Because the cultural gaps are too huge to overcome with perseverance and goodwill. The outsider usually remains a novice, someone to be tolerated if not accepted, like a child at the adults' table. He doesn't surpass the veteran members and become the tribe's esteemed leader.
The idea that an American or Terran could join an alien culture and quickly become its leader is silly. It's an example of the white man's hubris. Outsiders can't master our culture but we can master theirs.
For more on the subject, see Avatar Teaser Trailer and Avatar = Dances with Wolves?
Below: The character Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, in a scene from Avatar.