What is Kiawentiio Tarbell’s ethnicity? The actress’s Indigenous roots

Kiawentiio Tarbell

Kiawentiio Tarbell will star as Katara in the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Tarbell landed the role despite having a relatively short resume. She’d appeared in 5 episodes of Anne with an E and starred in Beans before booking Katara’s role in Netflix’s Avatar. “I’m excited to share that I have been cast as Katara in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender!” Tarbell captioned an August 2021 Instagram post

Kiawentiio Tarbell hails from the Mohawk people of southeastern Canada

Kiawentiio Tarbell was born on 28th April 2006 to Barbara and Corey Tarbell. She is a member of the Mohawk people of southeastern Canada. Kiawentiio grew up on Cornwall Island, part of the Akwesasne First Nations reserve. She attended Akwesasne Freedom School before transitioning into a white high school. 

Tarbell’s roles have provided insight into the lives of Indigenous people in Canada. Through her portrayal of Ka’kwet in Anne with an E, Kiawentiio showed how white educators in residential schools for Indigenous Canadians physically abused children and forced them not to speak their native language. The series demonstrated how Indigenous children were pressured to learn English and adopt Christianity.

“I was mindful of what I would be doing when they picked me to tell that part of history,” Tarbell told Indian Times. In Beans, people view the Oka Crisis through the eyes of Kiawentiio’s character, Beans, a 12-year-old girl from Kahnawake. 

The Oka Crisis was a land dispute between the Mohawk People and the administration of Oka, Canada. It started when members of the Indigenous community protested the building of townhouses and the expansion of a golf course on a native burial ground. The violent protest lasted 78 days. Two people died, and many were injured. 

Tarbell’s parents prevented her from reading the violent and graphic parts of the script during her audition. “I knew it was going to be rough because I knew what it was all about,” Tarbell told Perch Magazine. “But since I’d always heard the stories, it was also easy to embrace the script.”

Tracey Deer, the film’s writer and director, wrote the script based on her experience during the Crisis. Tarbell talked to Now Toronto about the pressures of the role: “It was a huge help that it was Tracey’s story. But it was two-sided. I felt pressure because it was her story and I wanted to get it exactly right. But it was helpful because it was her experience and she could tell me exactly what she was feeling.”

Some people protested Tarbell’s casting as Katara, claiming she wasn’t dark enough for the role

While most fans celebrated Tarbell’s casting as Katara, a select few expressed displeasure, saying Tarbell wasn’t dark enough for the role. A Redditor claiming to be Tarbell’s neighbor admonished the critics, stating that the community in Akwesasne was extremely proud of Tarbell. The Redditor wrote:

“I was completely shocked and saddened once I seen the online reaction to her being casted. Calling it whitewashed and calling Kiawentiio ‘white passing’ and that 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. And Kiawentiio isn’t even light skinned.”

“It’s 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. It seems like we were always discriminated against for having dark skin now we can just as easily be discriminated against for having light skin.”