By Avril Bell

The movie Avatar tells the story of a corporation from Earth mining ‘unobtainium’ on the planet Pandora. The indigenous Na’vi people are in the way, their village and Hometree located directly above the unobtainium deposit. The miners are supported by military contingents who fight the Na’vi, but cannot defeat them, and scientists, who study the local biota and Na’vi cultural and spiritual knowledge. While the scientists are interested in learning about the planet’s biological systems and how the Na’vi interact with them, the primary motivation for learning about the Na’vi from the corporation’s perspective is to convince them to move. To do so, the scientists need to get close to the Na’vi, to learn their language and interact with them. To achieve this closeness each scientist has an avatar, a second body made out of the combination of Na’vi and human DNA. While the human body sleeps in a ‘pod’ on the company’s base, the avatar is awake and studying life on Pandora.

Some of the scientists, and in particular the movie’s hero, Jake Sully, who is not a scientist but a disabled ex-Marine working with the scientists, come to empathize with the Na’vi and to admire their way of life. The Na’vi live an authentic life, spiritually connected to both nature and their ancestors. The film-makers have clearly drawn on representations of Earth’s indigenous cultures in their creation of these indigenous aliens. Na’vi dress resembles traditional dress of American and Pacific peoples, their body paint that of Aboriginal Australians, and their language is based on Polynesian languages. Beyond these markers of earthly indigeneity, the construction of Na’vi culture draws on long-standing stereotypes of indigenous peoples that contrast their values and way of life sharply with those of capitalist modernity. The Na’vi live in harmony with nature, in contrast to the destructiveness of the humans’ capitalist and technological engagement with the natural world. While the human society is driven by insatiable desires for more wealth, Na’vi society appears static, unchanging, maintaining balance with the natural world and connection with the spirits of their ancestors. Further, the two are distinctly incompatible. To get what they want the humans have to destroy Na’vi society (as inevitably turns out to be the case). To maintain their society, the Na’vi have to get rid of the humans. The two – indigenous people and colonizers/settlers – are drawn dichotomously in incompatible contrast to each other.

Avatar tells the well-worn story of colonization and exploitation as romance and is testimony to the continuing power of the archetypes of noble, authentic indigeneity and rapacious modern, capitalist development. The Na’vi embody an authenticity that modern society cannot co-exist with, but desires and romanticizes as it destroys. Despite the implicit critique of capitalist development, its destructive forces are given full reign here. The Na’vi social order is shattered and their village destroyed, before the narrative takes a less common twist that results in the banishing of the mining company. The Na’vi – and the audience – are left with the hope and expectation that they can rebuild their society. Like colonizing settlers, the Avatar audience looks nostalgically at, and identifies with, what their society has destroyed.

The ultimate failure of colonial settlement in Avatar has been read by some commentators as providing an optimistic twist to the usual colonial tale (Clifford, 2011; Simpson, 2011). But in many respects the movie recounts a classic settler colonial fantasy. The earthly invaders are split between the rapacious miners and military forces – who ultimately leave – and the hero, Sully,  redeemed by conversion to the indigenous way of life. It is Sully, rather than the miners and their supporting forces, who represents the settler colonial subject. Sully has fallen in love with the Na’vi princess, Neytiri (who, like Pocahontas, acts as his guide to her world) and with the Na’vi more generally.  He becomes not only Na’vi, abandoning his human body for his Na’vi avatar, but their new leader and redeemer, using his earthly knowledge to fend off the human attack and rebuild their society. A focus on Sully’s narrative trajectory undercuts the optimism some viewers find. Rather,  Sully’s conversion and redemption tracks the recurring settler fantasy in which the difference between indigenous and settler peoples disappears and the two are united as one. And as Lorenzo Veracini  (2011a:  361–2)  has  noted, this split between nasty colonizers and noble settlers follows  a  specifically American version of this fantasy, a version in which the American settlers are portrayed as distinct from the colonizing British, banished following the Revolution.1

This tale is wearyingly familiar to any student of settler colonialism. For me, a settler descendant myself, it is depressing that this romance can still be told and lauded, despite the very real earthly correlates to the destruction of the Na’vi way of life. I am stunned at how little we, settler peoples, have learnt about ourselves, our histories and our relations with indigenous peoples, that this story can be repeated and, more particularly, celebrated so widely, in the twenty-first century.

The repetition of this double settler move – to continue to colonize and simultaneously to seek redemption – is at the heart of this book.  So too are indigenous strategies of resistance and assertions of autonomy and survival. It is within this context that the juxtaposition of (indigenous) authenticity and (settler) modernity, so evident in Avatar, is a recurring theme in what follows. This old story, which dates at least from the Enlightenment juxtaposition of ‘Modern Man’ and the ‘Noble Savage’, continues to play out in the relationships between settler and indigenous peoples today. It is a story that links the identities of indigenous and settler peoples as opposed characters in a modern narrative about lost authenticity. As in Avatar, it is a story about indigenous being and settler becoming, indigenous stasis and settler dynamism.

One of the key tasks of this book is to demonstrate how settler societies remain caught in these tragic colonial dynamics in the present. In powerful ways that we are largely unconscious of, the unhappy identities and relationships evident in Avatar shape the way settler and indigenous peoples think about their identities as national and indigenous subjects today. Issues of culture and authenticity lie at the heart of these unhappy colonial identities and relationships in the real world, as they do in Avatar. Authenticity, as it plays out in indigenous-settler relations, is an idea imported from the European Enlightenment and projected onto indigenous peoples, in the form of the Noble Savage figure, a figure of both desire and incompatible difference with settler modernity. Variations of this early figure of authenticity continue to plague settler accounts of and responses to indigenous assertions of identity. For example, while economic and social development is both demanded of and desired by indigenous communities, it can also put their status as representatives of ‘authentic’ cultures at risk. At the same time the settler also wants to be ‘authentic’ and authenticity is claimed, used and denied on both sides in the conflictual relations over land and belonging that operate between settlers and indigenous peoples.

The connected themes of temporality and agency also riddle these conflictual relations. The logics of authenticity frequently position indigenous ways of being as the ontologies of another time, incompatible with modernity. In modern society, indigenous ways of being appear as hangovers from the past. Indigenous ways of life can only appear in modernity in the form of ‘tradition’, appropriate for symbolic and ceremonial occasions, but not appropriate to the management of economic life, the organization of social relationships, or the practice of government. And given the link between the authentic and such frozen ideas of traditionalism (the authentic native does not change), the self-determining agency of indigenous peoples is also questioned and denied, the understanding of indigenous people as ‘actors  in the present, begin[s] to be theoretically submerged and marginalized’ (Nakata, 2007: 202).

The other key task of the book is to explore identity strategies and ways of thinking about identities in relation that provide us with new stories, new ways of thinking about indigenous and settler identities, new forms of indigenous-settler relationship – strategies and concepts that seek to escape the tragedy and violence of the colonizing romance. Perhaps an alternative end to the story is possible. There may be ways in which indigenous and settler peoples might co-exist differently, ways that avoid the problematic of the settler romance that ends with their conversion to indigeneity. This book explores a range of identity strategies indigenous peoples engage in to assert agency over their fates, outside of settler leadership and control. But, at least equally importantly, one of the arguments of this book is that settler peoples also need to change. The assertion of indigenous agency, or self-determination, calls for an affirming response from the non-indigenous population of settler societies. If colonial dynamics are relational, requiring both colonizing and colonized figures, new forms of both indigenous and settler subjects are necessary to break out of these colonial patterns. This book draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas to identify changes in thinking about settler subjectivities and relations with indigenous peoples that can support the development of new possibilities in the narratives of settler societies.

This is a book about identity politics – about what and how identities are made to mean and the effects of their articulation.  These effects are also linked to who articulates/speaks them and in what context. Ongoing settler propensities to define and delimit indigenous identities – to declare which are correct, to judge who is or isn’t a ‘real’ indigenous person – are crucial signs of the ongoing existence of colonial relationships. So how then do I, as a settler subject, speak about indigenous identities? The book maps the discursive field of settler and indigenous identities, setting out a range of ways in which both are constructed and relate to each other. In doing so I aim to assess the political effects, the limitations and achievements, of specific constructions of indigenous identities (and settler identities), but with the aim of identifying the work of colonialism and resistances to it, rather than to identify the truth of indigenous identities. The book is underpinned by an understanding that mobility and change are the truth of all identities, the signs of their vitality. What I want to defend and promote are relationships between settler and indigenous peoples that facilitate indigenous self-determination and self-representation, and it is in support of this that the book ends with a focus on the changes required on the part of settler subjects to minimize their propensity for judgment of indigeneity.

In writing this book I am very much guided by  Antonio  Gramsci’s  (1971: 324) observation that ‘the starting point of critical elaboration is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’. Against the individualist and future-oriented assumptions that saturate modern settler cultures, a basic premise of this study is that we are all significantly the products of our cultural and political histories. The book catalogues some of the items of the colonial ‘inventory’ – authenticity, modernity, universalism, the linear relationship of past, present and future, liberalism – that are sedimented into settler ways of thinking, and looks at how they have contributed to shaping indigenous-settler relations. While these ideas are labelled as arising out of settler histories and interests, their massive impact on indigenous peoples and ways of being is undeniable.  They have also made their way inside the heads of indigenous peoples and inflect the possibilities of what it is to be indigenous in the twenty-first century. Identifying these traces of history is the first step to assessing them and determining what is worth holding on to and what is holding us back. […]

The settler imaginary

A key argument of this book is that the settler peoples of Australasia and North America share a ‘settler imaginary’ – the set of ideas and values that underpin a peculiarly settler discourse of nationhood, identity and indigenous-settler relations. In developing the idea of the settler imaginary I draw on Charles Taylor’s conception of ‘social imaginaries’: ‘the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations’ (Taylor, 2004: 23). Taylor argues that a social imaginary is not the same as a theory, but is rather the result of the percolation of theory into the imaginings of ordinary people, expressed in ‘images, stories, and legends’ rather than theoretical terms. The social imaginary constitutes an implicit ‘background’ that provides ‘the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life’  (Taylor,  2004: 24). It also provides the basis for a ‘widely shared sense of legitimacy’ about the form, practices and social relations of a particular society.5 Social imaginaries can change over time, as new theories can penetrate and transform the social imaginary, so that people take up, improvise, or are inducted into new practices. These are made sense of by the new outlook, the one first articulated in the theory; this outlook is the context that gives sense to the practices. Hence the new understanding comes to be accessible to the participants in a way it wasn’t before. It begins to define the contours of their world and can eventually come to count as the taken-for-granted shape of things, too obvious to mention. (Taylor, 2004: 29)

We live at such a moment, in which the settler imaginary that developed in the experience and practice of establishing colonial relations with indigenous peoples – and necessary to the continuation of those relations – is in a process of transformation. Indigenous rights movements offer significant challenges to the legitimacy of settler law and institutions, challenges that governments in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA are responding to via a range of policies of recognition of indigenous land, and of resource and cultural rights. These policies both concede rights and resources to indigenous communities and work to contain the challenges indigenous being presents to the ideas of universality, such as ‘one law for all’, that are engrained in the settler imaginary. But as indigenous communities are empowered by these politics of recognition – securing land, economic resources, governance rights and representation – they further challenge the ‘settled expectations’ (Mackey, 2017) of the wider community. Settler assumptions about the nature of their societies and ‘how things go on between them and their [indigenous] fellows’ are coming up against new assertions of indigenous property rights and political and cultural projects that unsettle these understandings. Effectively a new theory of indigenous sovereignty is percolating its way into community life, empowering indigenous individuals and communities to act in new ways, to institute new social relations with their neighbours. And while the response of the settler community is mixed and grudging, this shift points to the possibilities of transformation also in their settled imaginary. Over time, the constant presence of the enactment of indigenous rights will make a ‘new understanding accessible to the participants in a way it wasn’t before’. Over time, there is the possibility of transformed imaginings and new understandings of how we (settler and indigene) ‘fit together’ and ‘how things go on’ between us, the possibility of what I am calling here a relational imaginary, founded on settler acceptance of indigenous autonomy.


Extract from Bell, Avril, A Land of Milk & Honey? Making Sense of Aotearoa New Zealand, 2017, Auckland University Press, Auckland, pp.1-7.

Avril Bell is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in indigenous-settler identity and is the co-author of A Land of Milk and Honey? Making Sense of Aotearoa New Zealand

See Also:

How can we stop indigenous oppression?