Comics Newsletter

Here’s How AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Can Acknowledge Its Inuit Roots

Melody Schreiber

Staff Writer

Melody Schreiber is at work on a nonfiction anthology of premature birth. As a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., she has reported from nearly every continent. Her articles, essays, and reviews have been published by The Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, NPR, The Toast, Catapult, and others. She received her bachelor’s in English and linguistics at Georgetown University and her master’s in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @m_scribe.

Recently, Netflix announced they would be partnering with Nickelodeon to do a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Fans rejoiced! But they were also a little cautious; the previous version of the show and the 2010 movie do not have a great history of showcasing diversity.

This time around, the showrunners say it will have “a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast,” which is a good start.

But as one Alaska Native, Ruth Dan, recently pointed out on Twitter, significant parts of Avatar’s world are based upon Inuit culture. Adapting the show to live action could have certain pitfalls and missteps.

Ruth Dan and I spoke about the northern aspects of Avatar and how the live-action show has an opportunity to represent Inuit culture accurately.

MS: First, tell me a little about yourself!

RD: I’m Ruth Dan. I am Central Yup’ik and my family is from Stebbins, Alaska. I was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and I currently go to school at the University of Rochester. My pronouns are they/them.

MS: It’s lovely to meet you. To start off, let’s share the points you mentioned on Twitter:

MS: What else might you add to these really excellent insights?

RD: Maybe this was unintentional on the part of the creators, but in Book One, Episode 15, Aang, Katara, and Sokka meet up with Bato, a warrior from their village.

Bato has his room set up in traditional Southern Water Tribe style, with animal furs—another thing that you’d find in many traditional Inuit houses.

But what I really enjoyed was when they ate “stewed sea prunes,” which is a traditional dish for them. Aang tried some, and had this really exaggerated, grossed-out reaction, which is funnily how many non-Inuit people react to our food in real life.

There’s a really similar scene in Action Bronson’s show “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” when he and his crew visit Alaska. An Iñupiat family hosts them and feeds them traditional food—and Action Bronson himself is really down with it. But one of his crew has a reaction really similar to that scene in Avatar, and I always laugh when I watch it.

MS: That’s funny! What were they eating?

RD: There were a number of different foods, I think—whale, seal, fish.

MS: Nice. Okay, so I’m sorry if this is a totally dumb question, but: it seems like you really enjoy the show, despite its appropriation of Inuit culture. What is it like to watch a show that reflects some parts of your culture?

RD: I think Avatar is one of the few cases of appreciation, rather than appropriation.

An important distinction to make is that the Water Tribes in Avatar aren’t Inuit. Comparing the show to say, Moana: in Moana, the people are clearly a Polynesian nation. It’s a fictionalized Polynesian nation, but they are definitely Polynesian. But Avatar is a fictional universe, and the creators made sure there was a lot of healthy breathing room between actual real-life Inuit and the Water Tribes.

A lot of the time, if things are too close, it can feel like non-Natives or non-Inuit are using us as puppets. They’ll take our culture and history, and fill it in with their own ideas about what we should do or think.

But with Avatar I never felt like that.

It’s pretty incredible to see people like us, even if they’re not exactly the same, being main characters with well-developed backgrounds that are crucial to the story.

And the creators avoided most of the stereotypes and racist tropes many racists use against Inuit in real life. For the most part, Avatar didn’t treat the Water Tribes like they were savage or backwards or incapable of great accomplishments and civilizations.

MS: That’s such an important point! With the new series, then, what would you like to see, especially in terms of acknowledging the connection to Inuit culture?

RD: For the most part, all of the elements of Inuit culture I saw in Avatar are totally fine to use for the live-action series just as they did in the animated series.

What’s really important, I think, is the actors.

If our culture is used to develop the Water Tribes, that can work, but they should also use our actors. They shouldn’t use our culture when it’s easy, but then switch out the actors with those of other communities because it’s hard to get Inuit actors.

And of course, it wouldn’t hurt to hire an Inuit cultural advisor. While they did fine in the animated series, not every element of our cultures are okay to take or misrepresent, and if they change anything significant in the live action series they may run into that problem.

MS: Why is it important to see yourself—your culture and community—reflected in a show like this?

RD: For many Inuit, seeing ourselves represented on screen is important, but having actors that played those big roles in the community is equally valuable.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is loved by thousands and thousands of people, and to show that Inuit kids that we can play big roles like that, like any other ethnicity or community, that would be huge.

MS: Thank you so much! You’ve done a ton of work to put this together, and I know you’re a college student—how can people show their appreciation?

RD: If you want to compensate me for the hours of work to put this together, I appreciate donations to my PayPal. Quyana cakneq!