In late December, a few friends of mine started discussing James Cameron’s new movie “Avatar” quite enthusiastically. Critics have called it “Glorious.” I developed a desire to see it, and managed to watch it on January 1st. On its face “Avatar” is a futuristic science fiction flick that portrays events in a distant galaxy about the year 2150AD. A military conflict between two civilizations, an abundance of space and planetary images, and images of heavily armed flying gunships and walking robotic fighting machines remind us of older sci-fi classics, like Star Wars, and Dune.
Yet “Avatar” hit me much more deeply than those other science fiction movies. Why? Normally I do not relate well to novels or fantasy stories, and have always preferred true histories instead. What made Avatar strike me as it did?
One factor that makes Avatar resonate strongly with American audiences is that fundamentally it is a story of Indigenous-vs-Non Indigeneous conflicts, and racial struggles. It brings to mind past chapters of American history involving Native American battles for sacred sites preservation and tribal survival. In “Avatar”, Non-Natives propose to relocate Natives from their ancestral homeland so that valuable mineral resources can be mined. Natives who resist containment and relocation are called “Hostiles” and “Savages.” Battle scenes are fundamentally mis-matched because Native warriors are armed with body paint and bows and arrows, while Non-Native invaders possess heavy armament, gunpowder, guns and explosives. One Native American friend of mine commented, “This is not entertainment. We already lived through this.”
Some reviewers, noting Native American parallels, have discussed similarities with “Dances With Wolves” and “Pocahontas.” Similar to DWW, our Non-Native hero in “Avatar” gets adopted into a Native population, and begins seeing the world in much deeper ways. Similar to the “Pocahontas” legend and movie, a Native chief’s daughter’s love and sympathies for our Non-Native hero facilitates his being adopted, and his not being killed.
Other elements in “Avatar” make it a good tool to introduce some Native American history, and world views to non-Native audiences. For example, the world in which most of the movie takes place is a true natural paradise, complete with old growth forests, footpaths, waterfalls, and mountains. It could easily be South America, and an intact rain forest, in places. Nature is overwhelmingly magnificent and beautiful as well as a source of Native wisdom, power and strength.
The notion of ancestral spirits being alive, and communicating with living Natives harmonizes with much old Native belief, and suggests American historical influences. The film’s artful play with the question of which is “real”—waking state or dream state experiences—also brings to mind past studies of dreaming in Native traditions, such as Robert Moss’s “Dreamways of the Iroquois: Honoring the Secret Wishes of the Soul.”
Perhaps one reason the film hit me so deeply, is because it is archetypal. On one level, it crystallizes and references many true Native struggles. It is tragic because it reminds us of the degree of needless human slaughter and suffering and environmental mega-destruction that have occurred time and time again when “Western” concepts of reality have been imposed on older, Indigenous and more Natural societies. “Avatar” reminds us of Spanish conquistadores who brutalized, tortured, enslaved, and slaughtered Indigenous American populations after 1492. It reminds us of the series of horrible 19th century “Indian Wars” in the American West that were chronicled by Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It brings to mind the military mis-match that characterized the Tarratine Wars and invasions here in Native Naumkeag in Massachusetts between the years 1607 and 1619. Fundamentally, it paints a picture of sharp territorial conflicts and misunderstandings between those-who-live-simply and see more holistically versus those-who-do-not live-simply, and who see little at all.
“Avatar” in addition to being a futuristic film can be seen as a parable. It can also be used as a prelude when teaching about life and worldviews in ancient Naumkeag after the development of the French Fur Trade in 1603 opened new floodgates of human greed and destruction. The film also reminds us of current global struggles and the necessity to adopt sustainable resources utilization practices as our 21st century advances.
“Avatar” is more than futuristic science fiction. Parts of it can be seen here: http://www.avatarmovie.com
It took 4.5 years to craft, consumed a production budget of $250 million dollars, and each showing is over two hours long. What do you think of “Avatar?”
AS AN ASIDE
Here is a "new interpretation" of what the "Disney princesses" would have looked like in authentic period clothing.