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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Katara Piujuq’s profile picture on Twitter features the familiar cartoon face of Katara, the lead heroine in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” 

At first glance, it might seem like any other fan account found on social media. But there is one difference with this Katara depiction — it includes traditional Inuit face tattoos, drawn by the account’s owner.

“I appreciate Avatar’s representation of Inuit. Most of the time Inuit in mainstream media are just people who eat raw meat and live in igloos with no personality. But in Avatar they aren’t one dimensional characters,” the Nunavummiut Inuk Twitter user, who wanted to keep her offline name anonymous, told Indian Country Today.

She isn’t the only one who feels this way: across Twitter, thousands of people have tweeted about the Indigenous representation seen in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

The popular cartoon show aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, but has maintained a steady fan base since then, thanks in part to its recent debut on Netflix. The series centers around a fictional civilization, where each nation is characterized by a different element: the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads and the Water Tribes. Certain people are able to harness their nation’s elements in a superpower-like style known as “bending.” Only one person can bend all four elements: the Avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, whose role is to keep peace between the various nations.

The series follows Aang’s adventures with his Southern Water Tribe friends, Katara and Sokka, as they attempt to stop the aggressive Fire Nation from conquering neighboring nations.

While most of the show’s nations are supposed to portray characters of Asian heritage, the Water Tribe illustrates characters that live in the Arctic, with parallels to real-world Arctic Indigenous communities.

The connection between the two hasn’t gone unnoticed.

On Twitter, some people say they consider the show’s depiction of the Water Tribe as one of the only representations of Arctic Indigenous people, specifically Inuit communities, in mainstream media. Others believe the creators of Avatar used Inuit culture as inspiration for the Water Tribe, but are disappointed that they have not made an effort to include Inuit input throughout the show’s production or the following adaptations.

Although Avatar’s creators are rumoured to have based the Water Tribe on Inuit cultures, it is never explicitly mentioned in the show. This has left it up to Twitter users to defend the Indigenous aspects of Avatar themselves.

One example is Ruth Dan, who is Yup’ik and from Alaska. Dan created a Twitter thread describing the similarities between Inuit cultures and the show’s Northern and Southern Water Tribes. (Dan uses they and them pronouns.)

They pointed out that several names used in Avatar are taken from Inuit names, including Tonraq, Unalaq, and Noatak. 

“Bottom line, if you’re looking to take inspiration for a people with an ice-based lifestyle, the Inuit are pretty much the only option,” they said.

The thread accumulated over 2,000 retweets and 5,000 likes. Hundreds of people chimed in to share their thoughts, with many tagging Netflix in an effort to get media executives to notice the comments.

Dan grew up watching the show, and felt more connected to characters from the Water Tribe than any other figures they saw in children’s media. It eventually dawned on Dan that there was a reason for that — the Water Tribe was a fictionalized version of their culture.

“I definitely connected with it a lot. And still do, partially because I just didn't have anything better. We have such little media representation,” they said. While Dan is a fan of Avatar, they also pointed out that the Water Tribe isn’t a 100 percent accurate representation of Inuit culture. The creators used elements of it, but it is still a fictional, cartoon world. Dan hoped that in the future, there could be more shows that fully depict Inuit life.

Countless others on social media have expressed experiences and opinions that align with Dan’s. 

Some have designed their own fan art similar to Katara Piujuq’s, that depict the Water Tribe with traditional Inuit tattoos. 

Others have called for Inuit actors to be cast in a live action version of the film.

“uhh, friendly reminder that katara is an inuit character, indigenous to northern canada, alaska, greenland etc. so casting an asian would be a form of erasure, and indigenous actors are underrepresented as it is,” one user tweeted.

“The water tribes are inspired by Inuit culture and geography location. To be true to the story they must be played by Inuit actors,” said another individual in a tweet. “For the background characters I doubt they’ll do it, so those should at least be indigenous actors, but speaking roles INUIT ACTORS ONLY!”

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A feature-length, live-action version of Avatar was released in 2010. The movie received poor reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 5 percent. The director, M. Night Shyamalan, infamously cast white actors for some of the lead roles, even though there are no white characters in the original cartoon. The movie ended up being viewed by many as a prime example of whitewashing in Hollywood.

In 2018, Netflix announced that it was working on a live action remake of the show with the help of Avatar’s original creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Fans were overjoyed, and it seemed that the characters’ correct cultural backgrounds would finally reach the screen.

“We can’t wait to realize Aang’s world as cinematically as we always imagined it to be, and with a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast,” DiMartino and Konietzko said in a statement.

However, this August, both DiMartino and Konietzko left the project over creative differences with Netflix. The project is still on track to be produced without them, leaving some people worried that it will be a repeat of the 2010 incident.

Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite potential setbacks in the film’s creation, Twitter users continue to remind both viewers and producers of the Water Tribes’ Indigeneity. The posts suggest that Avatar has become a symbol of Indigenous representation in entertainment for many, whether that was the creators’ intentions or not.

“ANYWAYS AVATAR IS ON NETFLIX!! and just a reminder that the water tribe is based on Inuit culture!! if they make another live version of this they better cast indigenous peoples,” said Charitie Ropati, Yup’ik, in a viral tweet that collected nearly 700 retweets and 4,000 likes.

Like Dan, Ropati grew up watching Avatar with her siblings. She remembers immediately being excited by the Water Tribe’s similarities to Inuit culture — specifically their clothing, hair styles, tribal markings, and local food.

“We were just little Alaska Native kids, and that was the first time we had seen Alaska Native representation like that on screen, so it felt pretty monumental,” she recalled.

Not only did Avatar portray parts of Inuit cultures -- it also portrayed the characters in complex, adventurous, leading roles. Certain Water Tribe characters had intriguing powers and featured storylines that were “just cool concepts in general,” Ropati said. For her, this was a welcome change from the stereotypical depiction of Indigenous people that’s often seen in mainstream media.

“As Native kids, we're taught to think that we have to fulfill this stoic Native stereotype role in the movies,” she said. “Watching Avatar as a kid with my younger siblings made us realize that we didn’t have to be subjected to what non-Natives thought we were — we can be waterbenders, we can be astronauts, we can be people who fight in the galaxy, and still hold on to our Indigeneity.”

Although Ropati is a fan of Avatar overall, she believes there are still some problematic components of it that should be discussed. For one, the creators never consulted Indigenous people when using aspects of their culture or addressing themes like colonialism. She viewed this decision as a symptom of a larger problem: Hollywood’s long history of excluding Indigenous people from telling their own stories.

“We need to make sure that [the media industry] knows they don't hold any autonomy over telling our own stories — that we're very much capable of doing that ourselves,” she stated.

It’s been years since Ropati first saw parts of her culture reflected on TV through Avatar. At the time, it was the best media representation she had encountered. But today, she is able to point to examples of more accurate and inclusive forms of Indigenous representation that give her hope for the future.

This includes Indigenous TV shows created by Indigenous writers, actors, and producers, such as the PBS cartoon “Molly of Denali,” which follows the adventures of a young Alaska Native girl. It also includes Indigenous directors like Taika Waititi. Waititi plans to cast Indigenous actors in various movie genres, like his recent Mandalorian production — not just in media that focuses on Indigenous histories, traumas, or traditions.

“People say to me, ‘Charitie, why are you thinking so deep about a kid’s show?’ Well of course I’m thinking deep about it! This is a show that people all over the world watch… and I really want Native youth to understand that it’s very possible to reclaim these narratives,” she said.

Dan agreed.

“If an actor came to my school, an actor that was Inuit and looked like me or my fam and someone said to me, ‘they were in AVATAR!’ I’d be blown away,” said Dan on Twitter. “That would be absolutely huge and Inuit kids in every country rarely, *if ever*, get to experience a feeling like that.”

“It's really important that Alaska Native kids, and Alaska Native adults even, get to see themselves in the media.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.

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