Orin Starn has written a lucid, generous account of a troubled history. It's a risky undertaking because he needs to acknowledge and mediate strong, contradictory opinions. And there's no disengaged place to stand. Knowing this, Starn doesn't so much provide an authoritative overview as tell an unfinished story, an ambiguous and open-ended narrative without ideological guarantees or a clear outcome. This, it seems to me, is the only realist way to represent the changing times we are all, in different-but-linked ways, living through. Moreover, and perhaps most risky in our political and intellectual climate of hypercritique, Starn is optimistic—offering contingent hopes for new terms of engagement and exchange. The relations of anthropologists and natives have decisively changed. The world of interactions and struggles evoked in Starn's concluding pages is certainly nothing like the monogamous “arranged marriage” that characterized the first phase in his three-part history. Nor is it an extended family well governed in neoliberal diversity. In the wake of anthropology's (and more broadly “the West's”) decentered authority, we are left with discrepant voices, sites of intervention, tension, crossover, and alliance.

Starn recognizes that we aren't “postcolonial” yet, and his opening invocations of Avatar (2009) underline this fact. The film's all-too-successful reinvention of exotic tropes and colonial paternalism is blatant—and not just for those of us steeped in colonial discourse analysis. David Brooks (2010) of the New York Times wrote a trenchant critique that was pretty much what I might have written myself. Yet I left the film strangely moved, thinking we shouldn't write off Avatar too quickly as just recycled imperial stereotypes. Why has it been banned in most parts of China? Could it be that what makes this rather familiar romantic story of native virtue and civilized vice different (beyond the effects of its cinematic technique, which require a different discussion) is its lack of a tragic frame, the presumed disappearance of noble savages?Avatar invites the imagination of indigenous resistance leading to definitive anticolonial victory. Yes, it still takes a white leader to turn the tide. It is always possible to see Avatar's retelling of a 1960s vision of liberation as a neoimperial containment. Yet I think the story of indigenous victory needs to be taken seriously, as something excessive and open-ended. Victory isn't an adequate word, though, given the history of transformation Starn recounts. Other terms are needed: survival (or in Gerald Vizenor's more complex, relational term, survivance); emergence (on wider social and political stages); transformation (a dynamic, interactive process of change); and mobilization (at local, national, and global scales). Whatever terms we use, native peoples have not, as predicted again and again, gone into history's good night. This, in a real sense, is a historic victory.

I’d like to devote the remainder of my comment to a different telling of the Avatar story. This will provide contextual and oblique commentary on the history Orin Starn tells, with which I am in basic agreement. The book I’ll discuss emerges from the second stage of his story, while drawing on roots in the first. It is acknowledged as a source by James Cameron. The Word for World Is Forest (1972), although very much a product of the 1960s, looks beyond visions of national liberation and ethnic–racial separation in ways that prefigure Starn's critically open sense of the present moment. The novella was written by Ursula K. Le Guin, who was literally an offspring of Starn's “arranged marriage,” specifically her father Alfred Kroeber's long engagement with California Indians. Although not free of romanticism (and who, other than the most utterly critical critic, would want to be entirely free of romanticism?), Le Guin is quite rigorous in her view of historical possibilities. She will have nothing to do with white saviors, redemptive scripts, or primitivist escapes. Instead her novella delivers violent clashes, awkward interactions, partial (but real) alliances and translations, and a happy ending that raises hard questions. I read the novella as another source for Starn's realist sense of constrained possibility.

Le Guin's widely admired fiction is permeated by the Native Californian stories she heard as a child from her parents, from individual Indians who frequented the household, and that she later gleaned from wide reading in ethnographic scholarship. Her imagined, future worlds translate and transmute the land, creatures, and history of Northern California. These are not, of course, her only inspirations. Le Guin draws on folklore and popular culture, Taoism, post-1960s feminism, and environmentalism. Of course it's foolish to reduce a great writer to her “sources.” And there can be no question of reading her works as romans à clef—for example, viewing the anthropologists and cross-cultural interpreters that populate her fiction as versions of her father. Yet at broader allegorical, analytic, and meditative levels, Le Guin often returns to knots and themes central to the changing anthropologist–native relationship that Starn traces: colonial domination and miscomprehension; the compromised but real possibilities of cross-cultural understanding; complicity and friendship at fraught frontiers; and preservation of traditions and the dynamics of cultural transformation. Much of her work shows an acute awareness of the difficult role of anthropology betwixt and between in power-laden situations. In her “Hainish” series, which includes classics like The Left Hand of Darkness, quasi-ethnographers, or “mobiles,” moving between distant but related worlds, grapple with the simultaneous risk and necessity of cross-cultural exchange. Among these quasi-anthropological novels, The Word for World Is Forest (1972) offers perhaps the most direct meditation on colonial violence, anthropology, and indigenous futures.

Written at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, the novella portrays an invasion in which genocidal extermination was considered part of the “progress” brought by technologically superior outsiders. Like California after the gold rush and many other frontier contexts that proved deadly to native peoples, there is no functioning, reasonable government that can be counted on to play a moderating role. In The Word for World Is Forest, representatives of an emerging intergalactic League of Worlds can only ratify the results of a bloody conflict. Le Guin, however, inverts the usual story of conquest, imagining a successful war of resistance. But her resolution is shadowed, ambivalent. At the core of the tale two translators, an indigenous leader and an anthropologist, forge a friendship. The cross-cultural bond is real, admirable, … and fatal.

A heavily forested planet, Asche, is invaded by 2,000 men from Terra, a distant world whose inhabitants long ago wrecked their environment, destroying all the trees. Loggers and soldiers, the first arrivals, harvest timber and send it home on robot spaceships. As the story begins, a shipment of women has just been unloaded whose purpose is to reproduce and transform “New Tahiti” from an extractive to a settler colony. The three million indigenous Ascheans, genetically human, have evolved into three-foot tall, green-furred beings with a culture adapted to their forest world. These little people are understood to be doomed to extinction in the face of a more advanced, heavily armed society. (Creechies is the racist term used by the invaders, reminiscent of California's digger Indians, also apparently unheroic and close to the ground.) Passive and dreamy, a mixture of child and furry animal, the Ascheans apparently pose no threat to soldiers who fly around in updated Vietnam-era helicopters armed with bombs, machine guns, and flamethrowers. The loggers defoliate and clear-cut the forests, rounding up “volunteer” laborers who are kept in “creechie pens” (against the high-minded but ineffectual regulations of a distant home government). It is a classic extractive colonial invasion, reminiscent of King Leopold's Congo and many others. The Terrans are all recognizable imperial types, sexist and predatory, self-aggrandizing or, at best, “just following orders.” Here Le Guin paints with a heavy satiric brush (and the correspondence with Avatar is close). But the expedition's anthropologist, Raj Lyubov, is treated with more complexity.

Through his research, we learn that the Ascheans live in a world where the line between waking and dreaming is fluid and can be manipulated. Dreaming is not limited to sleep but occurs in cycles throughout the day. Men are typically hunters or intellectuals (dedicated “dreamers”); women hunt and are political leaders. Old women have final say on important issues, informed by the male dreamers’ visions. Like precontact California, there are no organized tribes or large-scale governments. Villages led by headwomen are dispersed throughout Asche's forested islands. Everything is close to the earth, lodges semi-subterranean… Life proceeds without hierarchy or war, in social and environmental equilibrium. Population size is under control, and behavioral mechanisms have evolved to keep anger and violence, which do break out, from becoming lethal.

Aschean culture, while it embodies the “balance” so central to Le Guin's Taoist ethics, is not static or unchanging. The novella portrays a war between two dynamic societies, with two-way cultural translation integral to the conflict. Raj Lyubov finds himself in the midst of a transformative struggle where neutrality is not an option. The anthropologist is caught between a vicious imperialism for which he provides a liberal alibi and an Aschean resistance movement with which he feels a growing sympathy. A “spesh,” technician or scientist, he is charged with researching and reporting on native custom without involvement in either political or military aspects of the operation. As the situation deteriorates, he grapples with this “neutrality” in ways that recall the debates about anthropology's complicity with empire that surfaced in the early 1970s just as The Word for World Is Forest was being published.

As in much of her science fiction, Le Guin focuses on a cross-cultural friendship. Lyubov's Aschean counterpart, Selver, is an Achean who learns the ways of the colonists and functions as an indispensable but scorned servant. Recognizing Selver's crossover skills, Lyubov recruits him for anthropology, and the two work intensively on the forest people's language and culture, exchanging perspectives on the clash of values and ontologies. Guided by his informant, the anthropologist even begins to learn how to dream consciously. Selver seems content with his role as a culture broker until suddenly, in an act of suicidal revenge, he attacks one of the invaders who has just raped and killed his wife. The object of his rage, Captain Davidson, unambiguously of the “exterminate all the brutes” school, has plans for bringing “light” into the “dark” forest by cutting or burning down the entire world of the Ascheans. (His counterpart in Avatar is the gung-ho militarist, Colonel Quaritch.) Davidson, a practiced killer, is about to finish off the tiny Selver when Lyubov organizes his assistant's escape into the forest. This act cements their personal loyalty, but is understood by the colonists as a betrayal. Lyubov, always a suspicious relativist, is now firmly classified “pro-creechie.”

Already an adept dreamer, Selver oneirically processes the terrible present and its possible futures, understanding that his world's survival requires something very new. Coco Mena, an old man and a great dreamer who realizes that Selver is now a “god,” confirms his vision: “This is a new time for the world: a bad time. You have gone farthest. And at the farthest, at the end of the black path, there grows a tree; there the fruit ripens; now you reach up, Selver, now you gather it. And the world changes wholly, when a man holds in his hand the fruit of that tree, whose roots are deeper than the forest” (Le Guin 1972:48). The fruit Selver has picked from Coco Mena's visionary tree is war. Called to charismatic leadership, he will gather overwhelming numbers of Aschean men and women for a series of raids that mercilessly kill hundreds of Terrans, and especially all the females recently imported for purposes of colonization.

Before the first attack, Selver risks the element of surprise by warning his friend not to be present at the Terran base on a specific night. Lyubov fails to inform his superiors. Having thus misled his own people and protected the resistance, the anthropologist has nowhere to go. He cannot, or will not, save himself. When the Ascheans overrun the base, Lyubov dies in his burning house. From the rubble, his victorious former informant carefully preserves the ethnographic descriptions and texts they have prepared together, later handing them over to representatives of the newly formed intergalactic League of Worlds. At the novella's end, as all the surviving Terrans are being evacuated, it is confirmed that a formal decision by the League now places “World 41” off-limits in perpetuity. Only a small scientific survey, after five generations, will be allowed to contact the Ascheans. Selver also learns that Raj Lyubov's ethnological reports have played a crucial role in justifying the decision to leave his forested world undisturbed.

In The Word for World Is Forest a seemingly inevitable historical momentum is stopped dead. Sheer numbers combined with visionary leadership overcome the invaders’ technological and military superiority (lacking this time that most potent ally in the U.S. conquests, disease). But turning back invasion cannot mean a return to the “precontact” world. Something crucial has changed. As Selver tells one of the departing interplanetary authorities: “There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.” Le Guin leaves her readers wondering if the Ascheans will sustain their peaceful, balanced way of life. And it is far from clear whether being left alone forever (indigenous “sovereignty” with a vengeance) is a happy ending. There is no place for innocence in this story.

In The Word for World Is Forest, violence is not portrayed as something simply imposed from outside, a contaminating agent. Le Guin has a dialectical sense of historical change. In Aschean culture a “god” is a “changer, a bridge between realities” (1972:35). When Raj Lyubov first hears the term used to describe his friend, he searches the ethnographic dictionary he and Selver have compiled, finding among the definitions: translator. Selver, the latest in a series of Aschean “gods,” men and women, brings across a new reality from the dream time into the world time. Lived tradition is dynamic, as the elder, Coro Mena, says: “the world is always new, however old its roots” (Le Guin 1976:33). Ascheans consider dreams and the material world equally real. But the connection between them is obscure. A translator-god can bring one into the other, as world-changing speech and deed. The anthropologist wonders whether by translating and enacting a new reality—in this case calculated killing—Selver is speaking his own language or Captain Davidson's. He cannot know for sure. Nor can we.

It is tempting to compare the Aschean god-translator to the Indian prophets who played so important a part in western U.S. contact histories. Wovoka, the great Paiute dreamer who inspired the Plains sun-dance movement is the best known. But prophetic dreaming religions played a role throughout native California in the late-19th and 20th centuries. Of course these histories are quite specific, and the analogy with Selver, can certainly be overdrawn. Suffice it to say that a focus on interactive traditions, empowered by dreaming and prophecy, gives a different sense of transformative authenticity than before–after narratives of the “last wild Indian” or ideologies of “acculturation.” Change, even violent change, can no longer to be confused with cultural death. One wonders what the scientific mission returning to Asche after five generations will find? Five generations is about the time span between the final military subjugation of American Indians in the western United States and the composition of The Word for World Is Forest. This long after the nation's founding violence, Native Americans are alive, embattled, creative, and different.

Le Guin wrote at a moment when contradictions of power and knowledge had been sharpened by decolonization movements, feminism, and, most acutely, Vietnam. In The Word for World Is Forest, while the loyalty and respect linking native and anthropologist is real, the relationship is deeply troubled. At the book's end, Selver realizes that a person like Lyubov, “would understand, and yet would himself be utterly beyond understanding. For the kindest of them was as far out of touch, as unreachable, as the cruelest.” A harsh summation. Yet there was no way of severing the connection that had been forged. Selver: “This is why the presence of Lyubov in his mind remained painful” (1972:166). There would be no detachment, no getting clear. Selver's intimate yet unapproachable friend lives forever in his dreams, as the ghost of “the Indian” haunts Anthropology.

The Word for World Is Forest, a tale of successful resistance, makes clear there can be no return to a precontact way of life. Freedom from domination is good. Separation, being left alone forever, free of violent and loving entanglements with others, is a questionable and probably impossible outcome. Le Guin's relational anarchism imagines a deeply rooted, contemporary, diverse, and interactive indigenous life—a utopia for more than the descendents of North America's first peoples.

I read Starn's genealogy of a “strange marriage,” its breakup and (partial) reconciliation, as making space for this possibility, a postcolonial future negotiated pragmatically in relations of respect and collaboration. I also see him hesitating, recognizing the persistence of old and newly flexible structures of power, and the appeal of self-confirming sovereignties, dominant and resistant. He leaves us, nonetheless, with a compelling vision: anthropologists and Indians, in a new historical moment, working their way out of a bad marriage toward some other kind of kinship.


  1. Top of page
  • Avatar   2009 James Cameron, dir. 162 min. Twentieth Century Fox. Los Angeles .
  • Brooks, David 2010 The Messiah Complex. New York Times, January 7., accessed February 17, 2011.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness. New York : Ace.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. 1972 The Word for World Is Forest. New York : Berkeley.
  • Vizenor, Gerald 1994 Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance. Hanover , NH : University Press of New England.