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What’s Wrong with Avatar?

OK, I enjoyed the movie. A lot. Right up to when I took off the goggles and reflected on the ending.

Avatar film still

In James Cameron's Avatar, former Marine Jake Sully leads the indigenous Na'vi in a war against defense contractors working for a mining corporation from Earth.

Photo courtesy of OfficialAvatarMovie

But first let me acknowledge that Avatar is an incredible production. James Cameron accomplished a feat of imagination and technology that marks a breakthrough in the movie-going experience. And, like many of my progressive friends, I loved the fact that Avatar portrays a nature-centered culture in such a positive light and vilifies one that is exploitative, corporate-driven, and alienated.

But then there’s that ending. Ouch. It takes a white guy to save the natives from the white guys. The white guy tames the biggest, baddest bird. He comes sailing in with his breakthrough notion to unify all the tribes and crush the exploiters in spite of their massive firepower. They do the battle and win! So now it’s the natives holding the machines guns.

What is wrong with this picture? Well, first let’s note that the Jake Sully character is not the first person to have thought about uniting the natives to fight the invaders. To take just one example, let’s remember Tecumseh. His vision was to unite all the tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains and prevent the outsiders from taking their land. He mobilized a whole confederacy, and, as on Pandora, at first they won some battles. But you may have noticed that the invaders got well beyond the Appalachians. Tecumseh’s people were famously defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe and the victorious General Harrison then rode his reputation as a winner straight to the White House. Native people the world over have experienced the same problem—if you defeat one group of invaders, the “sender culture” just sends more.

Morocco-1Weapons of Mass Democracy
Here’s evidence that nonviolence is the most powerful tool to promote democracy and overthrow tyranny.

So what’s the real answer? There are many paths to power that don’t involve guns. Yeah, they take longer and can’t be portrayed in a burst of climactic drama. But they seem to work better. That’s why native people for centuries have survived by withdrawing to a safer spot to regroup. Some have gone on to find those other routes to power. Like using the “sender culture’s” laws to gain recognition of rights; exploiting the sender culture’s enthusiasm for gambling to gain financial power; reviving traditions to strengthen cultural power; and perhaps most importantly, working with allies to change the sender culture itself. It’s that last one, I believe, that’s the true solution.

I’ve got a great example of its success right next door with my neighbors the Suquamish. They’ve been using all the nonviolent levers. Yep, they’ve got a thriving casino. They, together with other Northwest tribes, have mounted lawsuits to defend their rights to fish and to protect land and fishing grounds. They’ve helped revive the region’s magnificent canoe journey traditions. And they’ve worked with allies to, among other things, regain their land.

One place is particularly poignant. In 1904 the U.S. military took over part of their land where Chief Seattle once lived. In 2004, exactly 100 years later, the State of Washington returned that land, after a campaign that involved many non-native allies, including YES! Magazine editor Sarah van Gelder. Then, just last March, they opened a new building, called the "House of Awakened Culture," right next to the newly regained land. It’s a place of community for the Suquamish. But it is also a place for native and non-native alike to share a different vision for how to live—one that respects all the creatures and the Earth and allows us to come together as a community, honor our ancestors and our roots, and build a world that works for everyone.

So, back on Pandora, my advice to the beautiful Neytiri and the warrior Tsu’tay: Don’t follow Jake. Instead, enlist him. And biologist Grace too. Get them to support you in preserving your own culture, learning the sender culture’s laws, strengths, and weaknesses, and helping the sender culture to learn another way to be in the world. Build a House of Awakened Culture and gradually grow the number of Jakes and Graces to work for a transformed world.

James Cameron, I’ll leave to you how to make that ending work cinematically. It hasn’t got the colorful triumph of your violent ending, but it may be truer to human history. In the meantime, thanks for a great ride and for getting a lot of people thinking—including me.


Fran Korten

Fran Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fran is the publisher of YES! Magazine.

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