Avatar’s Lessons

My wife and I, along with our son, recently went to the newly released Avatar sequel; Avatar: The Way of Water. There’s been lots of hype about the movie since the last Avatar movie was released in 2009. It’s a story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their children) who get displaced and are forced to flee to another Indigenous tribe’s—the Metkayina—water world. I won’t give any more of the plot away than that.

It’s been over 10 years since my wife and I saw the first Avatar, so we watched it again. Avatar 1 takes place on the alien world of Pandora where the humanoid indigenous Na’vi live, a primitive, yet highly evolved people. The planet’s environment is poisonous for humans and to the Na’vi hybrids or Avatars. These Avatars link to human minds to allow for free movement on Pandora. Former Marine, Jake Sully, is paralyzed so becomes mobile again through his Avatar.

For me ((#blogger #blog #somseason #YA #authors) the most infuriating part of the movie is the corporate CEO’s intention to drive off the Na’vi in order to mine a precious material. In exchange for the spinal surgery to fix his legs, Jake gathers knowledge of the Na’vi way of life for a military unit commanded by an arrogant, egotistical Colonel. While bonding with the native tribe, Jake falls in love with Neytiri, one of the clan’s females. The Colonel uses ruthless bullying (#bullying, #antibullying) tactics to remove the Na’vi which forces Jake to take a stand and he fights back. The Colonel ends up destroying the clan’s village tree, and much of the story centers around the ‘Tree of Souls,’ the clan’s most sacred site, which is also destroyed by the Colonel.

Watching the two movies got me thinking about the indigenous people on our planet. Both movies have a similar plot; corporation gets rich taking valuable resources and uses any force necessary to do so. It is obvious the corporate world cares only about money and couldn’t care less about the indigenous on Pandora. Isn’t that what happened to our Indigenous peoples? I’m not just referring to North America’s (NA) Indigenous peoples, but also those found in South America, Australia, and Africa as well. I will focus on Canada’s Indigenous since I am most familiar with them.

According to National Geographic’s, The untold story of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in October 1666, King Charles II of England was told of the “great store of beaver” discovered in NA. That led to settlers setting up on James Bay’s southern shores where they traded with the Cree, but by the mid-1800s, attitudes toward Indigenous Peoples grew more contemptuous when the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) officials began to rely less on Indigenous knowledge. In 1822, George Simpson, a Scottish explorer and colonial governor of the HBC wrote that Indigenous peoples “must be ruled with a rod of iron, to bring and to keep them in a proper state of subordination.” The motto for the corporate world seems to be: If the Indigenous aren’t cooperative, then use force.

It struck me in the first Avatar movie that the indigenous people were referred to as “blue monkeys,” and “hostiles.” Our North America indigenous people were often referred to as “savages” and “barbarians.”

The Na’vi’s most sacred place the“Tree of Souls” is where they could access their ancestors. NA Indigenous people believe nature is sacred. A Native American Elder once said, “Honor the sacred. Honor the earth, our mother. Honor the elders. Honor all with whom we share the earth: four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged ones, swimmers, crawlers, plant, and rock people. Walk in balance and beauty.” It’s difficult to summarize Native American spirituality as there are hundreds of tribes, each unique, but there seems to be a strong sense of reverence for ancestors and nature in Native American culture. 

In another scene, Scully tells the CEO about how the Na’vi talk about ‘flows of energy, that energy flows through everything, and energy is only borrowed.’ When the CEO is told about the ‘Tree of Souls’ and the scientists urge him to leave the tree alone because the root system connects all trees, the CEO laughs and responds saying, “Those fly bitten savages. They’re just trees.” To the Colonel’s pleasure, the military is instructed to go in with force to move out the Na’vi. Soldiers just follow orders, showing no compassion or care for the Na’vi, except one pilot who says “I didn’t sign up for this shit,” when she realized a slaughter was happening.

Native Americans operate under the belief that both the living and nonliving have an individual spirit that is part of the greater soul of the universe.  Chief Big Thunder expresses it best when he said, “The Great Spirit is in all things. He is in the air we breathe. The Great Spirit is our father, but the earth is our mother. She nourishes us. That which we put into the ground she returns to us.” It’s why the indigenous people believed the land was never theirs, as Chief Seattle said, “The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.” It’s also why Crazy Horse, a Lakota war leader who said, “One does not sell the land people walk on.” An ancient native American proverb says, “We don’t inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children.” Indigenous people had no sense of ownership, everything was shared.

I’m presently reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is an indigenous woman belonging to the Potawatomi Nation, and is a distinguished professor of Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She tells a story of teaching a class when she asked the hypothetical question: What do you suppose would happen if people believed this crazy notion that the Earth loved them back? The class erupted and wanted to discuss it. One student summed it up saying, “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love” (page 124). Would our planet have the environmental crises it has today if that attitude had been adopted?

Kimmerer describes her early university experience saying,

The first plant science class was a disaster. I barely scraped by with a C and could not muster much enthusiasm for memorizing…There were times I wanted to quit, but the more I learned, the more fascinated I became…mesmerized by plant ecology, evolution, taxonomy, physiology, soils and fungi…yet there was always something tapping on my shoulder…My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observed, and the observed from the observer. Why two flowers are beautiful together would violate the division necessary for objectivity…I scarcely doubted the primacy of scientific thought. Following the path of science trained me to separate, to distinguish perception from physical reality, to atomize complexity into its smallest components, to honor the chain of evidence and logic, to discern one thing from another, to savor the pleasure of precision… (page 42)

Science compartmentalizes and seldom looks at the big picture, or the interconnectedness of things.  Science doesn’t acknowledge what American author, Amy Leigh Mercree says, “Interconnection permeates the entire universe. We are all one.”

There is a scene in the first Avatar where Neytiri is sad after she killed the animals who were attacking Sully’s Avatar, and she even apologized to them. According to the article, What Is the Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Animals, many Indigenous Peoples believe that: “the Animal People have spirits and enter the human world to give their bodies to supply men with food, fur and other materials. After their flesh is used the animals return home, put on new flesh and re-enter the human world whenever they choose.” Indigenous people respect the animal world and never took more than what they needed.

Britannica’s article: Which Animal Is the Smartest? says, “Strictly speaking, humans are the smartest animals on Earth—at least according to human standards.” That is what we’re taught in our Western World, and I grew up believing that, but Kimmerer writes in her book,

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of creation—and the plants on the bottom. But in the Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of creation.’ We say the humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we’ve been and have had the time to figure things out. They [plants] live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then give it away (page 9).

We humans seem to think we have it all figured out, that animals and plants are inferior, yet the Indigenous culture teaches us to learn from nature; to learn from the plants and animals because of their wisdom . How much better off would we be if we had liberated ourselves from our arrogant Western ideals and learned from the Indigenous? That is one of Avatar’s lessons.

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Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.

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