Avatar and Indigenous Leaders: A Very Special Screening

James Cameron with indigenous leaders

Avatar Director James Cameron with indigenous leaders

Huddled outside Manhattan’s Director’s Guild Theatre on West 57th St. this past weekend, a long line of people representing diverse cultures from around the globe clutched movie tickets for a special screening of Avatar, while photographers and filmmakers angled for shots of a soon-to-arrive VIP guest.

As the line slowly moved into the theater, passersby looked on with piqued curiosity to find out what the buzz was all about.

James Cameron at the Avatar special screening

James Cameron at the Avatar special screening

“A special screening of Avatar with director James Cameron”, I told them, “presented to indigenous leaders from around the world.”

What followed was a mixture of blank stares and hopeful requests for stand-by seats: few observers on the busy sidewalk seemed to understand the symbolic correlation between indigenous people and Avatar, but they were certainly eager to catch a glimpse of the mega-successful director whose innovative film has grossed nearly $2 billion in ticket sales worldwide so far.

In coordination with the Ninth Session of the United Nations

Didgeridoo player

Didgeridoo player

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place this month, and in celebration of the film’s Earth Day release on DVD, Conservation International, through its Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, co-hosted the famed director’s special screening for indigenous leaders gathered in New York City.

It was a celebration of the film’s message, and an opportunity for indigenous people to communicate their gratitude and concerns to the Hollywood icon and activist. In addition to his work on the film, Cameron has recently traveled to the Brazilian Amazon and spent time with the Amazon’s Kayapó people, with whom CI has collaborated on

James Cameron on stage with indigenous leaders

James Cameron on stage with indigenous leaders

conservation efforts for nearly twenty years.

After a live didgeridoo performance by Aboriginal artist Cameron McCarthy, and funny 3D viewing glasses were distributed, CI’s Indigenous Program VP Kristen Walker welcomed the crowd. Then, Cameron took the microphone to greet the audience and cue the film to start. Three hours and many backstage interviews later, the Avatar writer/director walked on stage to thunderous applause.

In Avatar, an indigenous species called the Na’vi resists an invasive corporate military force intent on exploiting their planet’s valuable minerals. Many people in the theater saw their stories reflected back in the larger-than-life blue of the Na’vi. “They call us the red indigenous people, so there must be blue indigenous people somewhere in the universe. So thank you very much”, said Oren Lyons, a Native American leader from North America.

“You’ve showed something that is our reality”, said another indigenous leader from North America to Cameron, “but it gives indigenous people hope.” Then, indigenous leaders including CI’s own Board Member, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz visiting from the Philippines, presented the director with symbolic gifts of gratitude. “This book on indigenous issues”, smiled Vicky as she handed the director a text, “is to help you with research on your next film”. (A second round of supportive applause…)

“I think it’s very important to write from the heart, and Avatar is what came out”, said Cameron. “What’s so exciting to me is to see all these people from all these cultures. There’s so much we can learn from you. We just need to wake up that awareness with the rest of the public.”

“I think we’re at a critical moment in history”, he added. “Doors are starting to open.. and collectively we can start to do things.”

Off-stage, I was genuinely impressed to see how open, passionate, and gracious James Cameron was in posing for pictures, signing autographs, answering journalists’ questions, and then sitting down with CI President Russ Mittermeier, and Chairman’s Council Member Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier to talk about their experiences with the Kayapó people of Brazil. The man really cares about indigenous issues.

And I, for one, was happy to shake his hand.

Check out Avatar in theaters or on Blu-Ray or DVD, if you want to share in the experience.

Kim McCabe is CI’s U.S. Media Manager.


  1. Charlotte Wilson says

    THE most important story with the most ramifications worldwide. see: http://www.worldviewopinion.com/blog/_archives/2010/4/23/4512519.html
    Brazil technology is the most advanced in the world, something they don’t talk about. Brazil has the technology to power their own huge country for as long as the world turns. They do not need any hydroelectrical projects. It will take years before any of the Belo Monte project produces, far longer than it will take to implement this new technology. The entire world needs this technology; Brazil has it but must apply it for good, instead of for weapons.

  2. Ronnie says

    This organization claims to be a positive influence for the environment. Maybe that is their genuine intention but I am skeptical. How can an organization that claims to be ethical have the President of Botswana S.K. Ian Khama on its board of members? This man is discriminating and actively persecuting the Busmen of Botswana.


    There are no people who are more eco-friendly/pro environmental than tribal people. This “man” is denying these people water and trying to sell their land to diamond mining companies. To add further insult they are opening a wildlife preserve on there land. So tourist can come and have fun in a pool and have access to running water but the Bushmen can’t?

    Khama is a low character man. There is no justification for these actions. But I am now starting to question the character of the rest of your board members. What kind of eco-friendly organization is this really.

  3. Molly Bergen says

    Dr. Leo Braack, director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Program, responds:

    In the Kalahari region of Botswana, Conservation International is working to support San and other communities with a variety of initiatives, including:

    • Capacity building within the communities to establish community representative structures in order to strengthen appropriate financial and governance mechanisms.
    • Support for the establishment of a representative association of traditional music and dance groups in various villages, and—in partnership with the association and Botswana Tourism Organization—arranging a dance festival for these groups to showcase their culture and generate income.
    • Supporting community artisans by providing training for them in business skills, assisting in developing new products and accessing new regional markets for their crafts.
    • Training skilled hunters and trackers in San communities on the use of Cybertracker technology, which connects local knowledge with broader environmental monitoring. In this way the dying art of wildlife tracking and critical traditional knowledge is being nurtured and conserved.
    • Working in partnership with relevant government departments (the Ministry of Lands, and the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife & Tourism) to assist in creating constructive and collaborative networks and platforms for dialogue.

    Much of the work we do depends on working with government departments; without the direct support these departments provide, our ability to provide benefits to local communities would be significantly hampered because much of the land in the area falls under the direct authority of such departments. Our philosophy is that if we want to bring benefits to local people, it is best to work with all stakeholders and create constructive and collaborative networks, which is precisely what we have been achieving. We try to maintain a balanced view and working relationship that aims to get secure long-term advantages for everyone concerned.

  4. Mike says

    Then that’s even more contradictory. So Mr Ian Khama’s government is constantly abusing the San, by not letting them live and access the Reserve’s resources, while it opens a resort with swimming pool and starts discussions with diamond company to operate there.

    So tell us, Mr director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Program, why are now Bushmen appealing to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for help.


    It seems CI is working with government departments of any many countries except for Botswana although the very same president of Botswana is in the board of your organization. I see here a huge contradiction, or a huge hypocrisy. Maybe Mr Khama could respond himself to this, although according to his own declarations of 2008 maybe neither you guys like his answer.

  5. Mike says

    Finally, from Mr director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Program’s words, what CI is working on with the Bushmen:

    – representative structures
    – music and dance
    – art craft training
    – training hunters
    – create collaborative networks…

    All this is nothing if the Botswana government does not give them one more basic and primary thing, right to live in freedom, recognition of their human rights. Dance? Would you dance if you were dying because you can not drink? Arts, would you do crafts if you were dying? Networks? Would you network with whom, your torturer?

    With all due respect, all this is BS if the most basic right, the right to life where they belong is denied and they are confined in resettlement camps and punished for returning to their land. Don’t treat us as if we were stupid, we don’t buy this crap.

    Thanks for replying with proofs, facts, not just words.

  6. Chris O'Brien says

    Dr. Braack,

    Here below is an extract from this recent article from Survival International http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/6754:

    “Speaking at the country’s largest diamond mine, President Khama accused the Bushmen of living a ‘life of backwardness’, ‘a primitive life of deprivation co-existing alongside wild animals’, and ‘a primeval life of a by-gone era of hardship and indignity’.”

    I realize that CI has to work with governments, but surely there are circumstances like this when CI has to say something like, “sorry, this leader is so offensive to the people we are trying to help and to the values that we uphold that we must remove him from our Board and, if necessary, temporarily cease cooperating with his government.”

    As long as you allow Mr. Khama to remain on CI’s board, the longer he will maintain some credibility for his outlandish and dangerous views, while at the same time degrading CI’s reputation.

    Surely it’s time for CI to give Mr. Khama his marching orders.

    Chris O’Brien

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