But, just as the World Wars and the end of the Colonial Era changed the shape of genre fiction in Europe, (you won't find many non-ironic scions of Allan Quatermain in modern British fiction) the influences of an evolving society and the Civil Rights struggle specifically led to a dramatic shift in the public perception of Native Americans in the 1960s and 70s. In 1964, legendary American filmmaker John Ford made his final Western, the groundbreaking but uneven "Cheyenne Autumn," a native-centric drama that Ford openly cited as an elegy for the real abuse suffered by Natives from U.S. policy... and from their portrayals in many of his earlier films.
A slew of Native American hero books, movies, TV shows, and so forth followed, with "good natives versus evil colonists" becoming the new dominant structure of such stories. It also quickly spilled over, in the form of metaphor and analogy, to genre-fiction. Both the books and films of "Planet of the Apes" drew strong parallels between the ape oppression of "savage" humans and the European Colonial oppression of indigenous peoples. J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of The Rings" and "Hobbit" books experienced yet another pop-culture rediscovery as a new generation found a strong parallel to Post Colonial native-hero concepts in the symbolic juxtaposition of the rural Shire and the encroaching, industrially-tinged Mordor. And we must not forget the ultimate (pre-Avatar, anyway) application of this analogy in Return of The Jedi, wherein the technologically-superior Empire is brought to its knees by the forest-dwelling, explicitly Native American-styled Ewoks.
And then, of course, there's Dances With Wolves, the massively overrated 1990 Kevin Costner vehicle that managed the nifty narrative-contortion trick of combining the Post Colonial native-hero story with the Colonial "great white adventurer" archetype by telling the story of a Civil War veteran (Costner) who comes to respect Native American culture so much he switches sides and fights with his adopted Sioux brethren against evil-to-the-core U.S. Army heavies. The film is, of course, highly notable for its unabashed sympathy for the native plight, and its portrayal of the conquest of the Native Americans as a wholly-despicable tragedy, but isn't it odd how it feels it needs to make its main "native" hero/spokesperson a white man in order to do so? And this, of course, is the broad arc suggested by the pitch for Avatar: The Na'vi (blue alien kitty-people) are the natives, and we'll be asked to root for them against the human Colonialists... through the eyes of a "good" human who trades teams.
What a strange, oblong loop it all eventually makes: From the White Adventurer as the only hope of saving the native through Colonialism to the White Adventurer as the only hope of saving the native from Colonialism. And how emotionally and morally convenient for the Western/European-descended members of the audience, who get to be on the good team without the discomfort of having to fully see themselves (or their own history) in the bad team: "Ah, see? I'd never be with those mean, colonizing, indigenous-displacing bad guys... I'd be that one guy who fights with the natives!"
Sure... just keep telling yourself that.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.