By Annalee Newitz
Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America's foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California's redwood cathedrals and Brazil's tropical rainforest. The moon's inhabitants, the Na'vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. ... When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.
Avatar: “Totally racist, dude.”
Keep in mind that the whole avatar thing is a gimmick. Cameron designed it so the white guy can switch sides, get the exotic princess, and become the tribe's hero. In other words, so white guys like Cameron can make themselves feel good.
The avatar thing wouldn't be necessary if Cameron hadn't made Pandora's environment deadly. Humans and Na'vi could've breathed the same air, interacted, and learned from each other. This would've left the Na'vi in charge of their own destinies. Surely they wouldn't have accepted a weak, puny, inept stranger into their midst.
In this scenario, the Na'vi could've killed Sully accidentally. Or intentionally, because they didn't trust him despite his friendly exterior. Or Sully could've gone back to the human side because he had mixed feelings at best. Because he couldn't overcome his cultural conditioning and imagine becoming an alien permanently.
There are several ways Cameron could've had the Na'vi learn the humans' plans and capabilities. Then they could've fought the colonization on their own. Instead of John Dunbar in a blue body, a Tecumseh or Crazy Horse or Geronimo type could've led them to victory.
For more on the subject, see Army vs. Indians in Avatar and Evoking Natives in Avatar.
P.S. If you can't imagine a story in which aliens are the primary characters and humans are the secondary characters, try reading Hugo Award-winning books such as Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity or Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.
Below: Jake Sully shows how a white guy usually gets the native girl.