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Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mohawk's review of 'Avatar'
Monday, January 18, 2010
Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment | Opinion


The movie Avatar is a painful experience for Native people because we know the ending after the first minutes of the film. The plot describes the attempt by humans to exploit, by mining, a mineral called unobtanium from a moon which circles a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. The moon, called Pandora by the humans, is inhabited by ten foot tall indigenous people who refer to themselves as the Na'vi. They are blue skinned, have cat like eyes, are tattooed and are graced with long tails. They live in and near a large, oak like tree called the "Home Tree" which in turn is connected, as is all lunar life, to all other life forms. The Na'vi trace this interdependence and consciousness to a single source: the Tree of Souls. The Tree not only gives them knowledge but is the place where their spirits go to when their bodies die. It is also a place of healing from physical and psychological wounds.

The humans perceive the Na'vi as stone age savages unwilling to exploit unobtainium and become materially wealthy. But the humans need the Na'vi's knowledge about the moon and the location of possible unobtanium ore. They assign an anthropologist to study the Na'vi along with biologist and botanists to investigate the surface of Pandora. The anthropologist develops a method to blend human and Na'vi DNA into a physical body called an "avatar" which enables the humans to look and act as Na'vi without the restrictions of humans trying to live in a place where the air is toxic to their lungs. The corporation which has hired the scientists and oversees the mining of unobtanium also has former marines hired as mercenaries the commander of whom has no tolerance for the Na'vi and instills fear and hatred of them into the military units under his control.

One of these men is a young man named Jake Sully, a paraplegic with shriveled legs selected to go to Pandora because his DNA matches that of his recently deceased twin brother. Since the company had spent a great deal of money on his brother's genetic splicing with the Na'vi Sully is hied to take his place. Once on Pandora his mind is able to control the body of his Na'vi avatar given him the physical freedom he has long desired. After an initial burst of excitement at having been liberated from his wheelchair he is released into Na'vi society where he overcomes danger, is taught how to survive by Neytiri, his female guide. He spends months among the Na'vi learning their customs and language. He makes periodic reports to his military commander Col. Niles Quaritch who, unknown to Sully, is using the data to locate unobtanium and devising ways to remove the Na'vi from any place where the mineral may be found.

By this date, set in the year 2154, earth has become a place of desolation. Although the planet is not shown it is clear that Earth is on the brink of ecological death with unobtanium promising to be a substance which may yet save humanity. The problem are the Na'vi and their refusal to allow the company to mine unobtanium the act of which causes massive deforestation. Making the situation more serious for the Na'vi is the discovery that the largest source of unobtanium is beneath the Home Tree. The Na'vi must be relocated even if it means their destruction. Sully learns of the plan to destroy the Home Tree after he is initiated into Na'vi society. When the Na'vi learn that he is acting as an informant they expel him but he is in love with Neytiri and has found his life as an aboriginal preferable to that as a human. He returns in time to lead the Na'vi resistance to the humans and is successful at expelling them from Pandora, marrying Neytiri and becoming a complete Na'vi.

That is the plot with a lot of fighting, flying on serpents, discovering new life forms, romance and hard science thrown into the blend. It is a familiar story to Natives of this hemisphere: from the presence of aboriginal female clan leaders to the respect for all organisms. We know what will happen when the humans arrive. After initial contact comes the recorders, those who will learn the language, study the people, analyze the society and send their reports to distant authorities who will then use that information to infiltrate, factionalize and disrupt the indigenous people, to get them ready for the coming invasion. A strong military force inevitably follows the recorders who bring with them not only munitions but disease and violence. They introduce new technologies the foster a dependence upon them. They enforce directives from the company including the imposition of formal education, organized religion and "tribal councils" in which the native communal values are replaced with capitalist ones. In the end, the goal is to have Na'vi fight Na'vi after they have been decimated by plagues and confused by religion. The plan is to have the Na'vi themselves operate the machines to extract the minerals with Na'vi soldiers securing the designated sacrfice regions and corrupt Na'vi sharing the wealth.

This is what we, as Natives, know will happen to the Na'vi. They may have been successful in routing the humans but we know the Earthlings will be back with a massive army prepared to use any means to secure the mining of unobtanium. The army will be trailed by the social scientists, the teachers, the religious cadre all of whom will feel an obligation to save the Na'vi from themselves, for the greater glory of God and for profit, whatever form it may take.

This is what we expect James Cameron will address in the sequel to Avatar and that is why we cringe when we see the movie. We were the tall, lean Natives looming over the bow legged refugees from the east. We were the ones who created an ecological paradise in much of the Americas, we lived at ease with the land, we took strength from our clans, we gave thanks for all things (including everything we consumed), we honoured the Great Tree of Peace, we held sacred the Great Tree of Light, we delighted in rituals and were, according to the Europeans, immodest in our dress. We, like the Na'vi, used tatoos, body paint and shaved our heads into the famous "Mohawk" hairstyle.

Given those similarities, which Mr. Cameron has acknowledged were by design, we can understand the Na'vi yet be apprehensive about their fate. Based on our experience the only way the Na'vi will survive is to act quickly and either form a confederacy of indigenous peoples in Pandora to (with a Tecumseh like leader) resist the Earthlings when they return or to convert all of Earth to the Na'vi way of thinking as would our prophet Skannenrahowi the Peacemaker.

Let's hope that Earth, at the time of its greatest need, will go Native.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is an editor, columnist and author. He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. Kanentiio is the author of three books including, "Iroquois on Fire", recently published by the University of Nebraska. He is the husband of the singer Joanne Shenandoah.



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