Kiawentiio Tarbell ethnicity revealed – She has faced criticism for not being ‘indigenous enough’ for her Avatar role

Kiawentiio Tarbell will play Katara in the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fans have been crying out for a worthy adaptation of the popular series ever since M. Night Shymalan’s 2010 effort flopped. Anticipation for the adaptation is gathering momentum now that the main cast has been announced.

Tarbell is of the indigenous Mohawk tribe of Akwesasne, Ontario, Canada. Her casting represents an effort by the series directors to diversify the cast. Executive producer Albert Kim wrote in a blog post:

“This was a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people.”

Kiawentiio Tarbell was born on 5th September 2006 in Akwesasne, Ontario, Canada. She is an artist, singer-songwriter, and actor. In 2021, she released an EP featuring four songs, and you can find some of her artwork on Instagram.

Tarbell made her acting debut on Netflix’s Anne with an E, a series about Anne of Green Gables. Kiawentiio played Ka’kwet, a girl who befriended Anne after Anne wrote a piece about Ka’kwet’s tribe.

Ka’kwet went to school, but she ran away due to the forced assimilation at the school. The authorities caught up with her, however, and forced her back. Season 3 ended as Anne planned to rescue Ka’kwet. 

The series shed light on Canada’s dark history of indigenous schools and their damage to native communities. “I was mindful of what I would be doing when they picked me to tell that part of history,” Tarbell told Indian Times.

Tarbell revealed that to play the role better, she had to imagine that what Ka’kwet was going through was real. In Beans, a film directed by Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer, Kiawentiio’s character becomes embroiled in a conflict between the Canadian government and the country’s native people.

The semi-autobiographical depicted the Oka crisis, which saw indigenous people protest the construction of a golf course over native burial grounds. Tracey Deer was a young girl at the time, and through Tarbell, she expressed her view of the crisis. 

“I felt pressure because it was her view and I wanted to get it exactly right,” Kiawentiio told Now Toronto. “But it was helpful because it was her experience and she could tell me exactly what she was feeling.”

Most people have celebrated the casting on Avatar: The Last AirbenderAnne with an E’s lead actor Amybeth McNulty posted the following comment on Kiawentiio’s casting announcement post: “THIS. IS. EVERYTHING!!”

“She was literally my favorite character growing up you have no idea how happy this makes me. Perfect casting.” McNulty said in another comment. 

McNulty’s comments echo what most fans feel. However, some have criticized Tarbell’s casting, apparently because Kiawentiio is not indigenous enough. One Redditor from Kiawentiio’s tribe admonished the critics via a passionate post. The post reads in part:

“Calling Kiawentiio ‘White passing’ and she didn’t deserve the role because she’s not dark enough. Even comparing her skin tone to a fucking paper bag. We’re not all dark skinned. It so damn demeaning to see people say she doesn’t deserve to play the role because of her skin tone, it honestly feels like racism.”