Avatar, the Displacement of Indigenous People, and the Destruction of the Environment
A paper about the connection between the 2009 science fiction film, Avatar, and the Trail of Tears in 1837.
The Trail of Tears involved the removal of the Cherokee from their land in 1837, and the devastating event earned its name due to thousands of casualties suffered from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation. Even worse than that, a troop of 7,000 soldiers demolished the tribe’s territory, so the Cherokee literally could not go home again. Avatar, although classified as a fantasy and science fiction film, illustrates the displacement of indigeneous people and the destruction of their environment. Therefore, it bears a striking resemblance to the Trail of Tears, causing waves of anger and sadness to come over viewers like me while I watched the movie.
Jake Sully, the main protagonist, takes the phrase “going native” to heart in his Avatar persona (e.g. fighting any beasts that come his way, speaking the Na’vi tongue). The original purpose of the experiment is to gather intel about their way of life, just as the English settlers traveled to Cherokee land to study their targets more closely. That way, they obtain the information necessary to force them out. Jake, the longer he resides in Hometree, finds himself sympathetic to the culture. Sure, the scientists on Earth see the Na’vi race as a major threat to humanity, but really their hospitality far outweighs their blue countenance and tall stature — both of which can be alarming at first.
Looking back on these scenes, I remember the days before I attended Saint Dominic Academy. I was coy at the first function I went to, my first time ever stepping foot in an all-girls school; furthermore, I thought the Student Ambassadors would treat me like a stranger. Instead, every faculty member and student welcomed me with open arms, and I felt a part of the sisterhood. Neytiri, taking Jake under her wing as the Cherokee did for the white man, symbolizes the tribe’s eagerness to show foreigners the ropes. Little do the two know, though, the ulterior motives Jake and the English settlers have as participants in their worlds.
The second theme established in Avatar emphasizes the relationship indigeneous species have with the environment. Pandora’s ecosystem, an essential part of what keeps the Na’Vi afloat, is abound with animals and plants dependent on each other for survival. Conjointly, the land offers outlets such as the Tree of Soul as well, heightening spirituality. The natural world was just as vital to the Cherokee, as they held religious ceremonies to praise God. Not only that, it was through the greenery and the rivers that they harvested the bare necessities. I, in the face of adversity in my own life, find solace in music, reading, and the written word. The same is true for the Na’vi who use Mother Nature to maintain balance and harmony in their lives. Without her, the milieus assumed total disarray, leaving the Cherokee and Na’vi to fend for themselves. Hence, it broke my heart watching Hometree burn down as a result of the nuclear destruction.
So to recap, Avatar is the Trail of Tears from a science fiction perspective. The scientists and President Andrew Jackson, adamant about expansionism, mercilessly invaded the Cherokee’s and Na’vi’s lands to manifest such lofty goals. What’s more, the film depicts otherness fighting a losing battle against their oppressors — that is, when the land they love gets caught in the middle of the ongoing conflict. For these reasons, I harbor feelings of disgust and disappointment at both parties for treating these innocent beings with disdain.
Thank you for reading,
This was originally written for my United States History I class on November 24, 2019.
If you like reading film analyses like this, read my previous one here: