March 7, 2010

Avatar and the Age of Heroes.

Most likely you’ve seen Avatar by now. It’s the top grossing film of all time. Despite its enormous popularity there has also been a considerable amount on controversy about Avatar. Some praise the film for its analogy of Pandora and the Na’vi, bringing awareness to the real world plight of Gaia and her indigenous people. Others claim that the film exploits the plight of indigenous people and places the white man in the role of the savior, a la Dances with Wolves.

As a person who has worked closely with indigenous people for over 30 years I am often amazed and somewhat baffled by the disconnect between what I have experienced among indigenous people and what I read from other sources. My experience among Indian tribes in the West has been whole-hearted, good humored and very gentle (teasing aside) vs. the angry, often vitriolic writings from the world of academia, often written by white people on behalf of native people with whom they may have had little of no actual experience.

One such writer has said ” Why is it that cinema’s indigenous peoples, no matter how wise, spiritually enlightened and physically fit they are, can somehow never figure out how to defeat ‘whitey’ without whitey. And not just whitey as advisor, a double agent, who can shed a little useful intel on the enemy, but as their leader?”

It’s as if we are saying that white people are inherently bad and any good that they do is just playing at being someone other than who they really are. And that indigenous people (like the Victorian vision of women) are pure and altruistic and if they commit any wrong it’s because (white) men somehow perverted them.

In contrast to this criticism of Avatar, in an article on Huffington Post, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President said he identifies with the film’s “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/12/evo-morales-praises-avata_n_420663.html

Personally, I don’t think it’s helpful to project our own rage and self-loathing onto indigenous people. It would be helpful to listen to them as they tell their story of colonialism and abuse and to grieve with them over the destruction of the earth. Then real dialog, healing and transformation could begin and we could turn our planet, the only home of every known living being, back into a garden. As one native elder said to me “we are all indigenous to this Earth.”

The type of collaboration depicted in Avatar where modern people work with ancient indigenous cultures to protect the environment is currently happening all over our planet. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken quotes Moises Naim, speaking about the Chiapas rebellion: “Global and local activism have transformed intolerance for human rights violations, for ecological abuses, and for discrimination of any kind into increasingly universal standards among governments, multilateral bodies, NGO’s, and the international media….Environmentalists and indigenous populations are thus obvious political allies. Environmentalists bring resources, the experience to organize political campaigns, and the ability to mobilize the support of governments and the media in rich countries. Indigenous groups bring their claims to land on which they and their ancestors have always lived.”

The Na’vi are after all no more like the ancestors of Native Americans than they are like the ancestor’s of Euro-Americans (or any human being for that matter.) No doubt in James Cameron’s ancestral Celtic brain there are images of blue painted warriors who know the land and all it’s life forms like the back of their own hand, and who would gladly risk their own lives to protect it.

Perhaps what really bothers us about Avatar is the sense that deep down we know that this is not just a movie but rather a mythology based on the realities of our world. Beyond that we ourselves are being called upon, like Neo in The Matrix, to leave the laziness and anesthetizing comfort of the world we’ve known; to enter that mythology and make a hero’s journey of our own, possibly at cost of our own lives.

The hero’s journey comes about when an individual (male or female) loses themselves in the story and becomes willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of a larger vision. One of the few places that heroes are mentioned at all in our in world is in terms of war and violence, and often the hero mythology becomes distorted by those who are willing who to strap bombs to themselves and get on airplanes.

Cameron himself has stated that Avatar is political and that the film points to places on Earth where multi-national corporations, such as Chevron in Ecuador, are dismantling and poisoning lands and cultures.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/14/james-cameron-avatar-is-p_n_423068.html

In the youtube video below, Blanco Chancoso goes to see Avatar along with other leaders of Achuar tribe of Ecuador. As a wise elder she says “In the movie it doesn’t show dialog, it shows war. It’s as if the only solution is war and to begin with we see that the conflict is not resolved because everything is left destroyed and at the same time human lives were lost. So I believe there should be another message.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh_dFfoE6wo

As Blanco Chancoso suggests, in order to be a true warrior-hero, it is necessary to have a tender, open-hearted quality. Feeling our own heart allows us to develop tenderness toward other beings. This is beautifully expressed in Celtic Mythology where Credhe searches for the body of her lover Cael among the battle-slain warriors and feels anguish at the sight of a mother crane trying to protect her young from a fox. “And as she was searching she saw a crane of the meadows and her two nestlings and the cunning beast the fox watching the nestlings; and when the crane covered one bird to save it he would make a rush at the other bird, the way she had to stretch herself out over the birds; and she sooner would have got her own death by the fox than the nestlings to be killed by him. And Credhe was looking at that and she said ‘it is no wonder I to have such love for my comely sweetheart, and the bird in that distress about her nestlings” Lady Gregory – Gods and Fighting Men.

Another mark of the hero is that Nature, the expression of “things as they are” supports the hero’s quest, and provides “hope un-looked for” No one illustrated this point better than J.R.R Tolkien. When I was 12 I read The Lord of the Rings and it instantly merged with my inner mythological landscape.

In the four decades that have passed since then I have been amazed at the prophetic quality of Tolkien’s epic tale: where the environment is an active character, where Saruman breeds an army and builds the machinery of war in order to enslave mankind and Sauron turns the verdant Earth into pits of ash. A central theme of Tolkien’s work is what he referred to as ‘eucastastrophe’ where at the darkest hour there is a sudden and unexpected turning of the tide. Many among the great falter before that hour arrives while the small stand and face annihilation with resolute hearts.

The Golden Age of Heroes lies not in our past, not in the future but in the very days that we are living now. In the end every human being dies. All deaths are sad but some of us will leave behind the sad/joy of a life lived with courage and compassion that will inspire future generations.

Take for granted noble hearts in the golden age that’s flown.
Between us recall on a strong road we’ve known.

We will treasure all the secrets with life’s changing scenes,
Where our hearts were warm with love, so much love
Will the flowers grow again as I open out my hand?
Precious time, time for healing the beauty of this land.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: “Restoring nature where we live, work and play.” Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information www.suburbitat.org

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