- Indigenous Literatures, Multinaturalism, and Avatar:The Emergence of Indigenous Cosmopolitics
Light and color are often the only signs of these lives invisible to the unaided eye.Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean
James Cameron's Avatar (2009) premiered to some predictably scathing reviews comparing the film to Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990) and Disney's Pocahontas (1995). Set 145 years in the future, the film tells the story of the Na'vi, 10-foot-tall blue-skinned humanoids living on an Earth-like moon called Pandora in a monolithic "Hometree." Humans have come from Earth intent on mining "unobtainium," a rare mineral located beneath Hometree and considered the solution to Earth's energy crisis. Hero Jake Sully, a parapalegic ex-marine, is hired to gather intelligence and given a genetically engineered Na'vi body, or avatar, to pilot in the alien Pandoran atmosphere. When he is attacked by wild animals, he is saved by Neytiri, the daughter of the Na'vi chief, and they later fall in love. Neytiri teaches Jake that Hometree and all living beings are alive with the spirit of "Eywa," described as a "network of energy" represented as bioluminescent, brightly colored seeds, trees, and animals. Given this romantic plot and luminous setting, it is not surprising that most reviews referenced the commonplace figure of the "ecological [End Page 143] Indian" in movies that seek absolution for the sins of industrialization and evoke desire for the re-enchantment of nature (Newitz n.p.).
What was surprising about some of the first responses to the film were the number of cautiously positive responses from indigenous groups, political figures, community leaders and scholars. For example, Evo Morales, the Aymara President of Bolivia, praised Avatar for its imaginative portrayal of an indigenous group fighting a greedy corporation ("Head of State" n.p.). Morales's comments resonate with the language of the 2010 Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth written at the World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Organized by Morales after the failure of the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, delegates declared that they would no longer be silent and would make themselves visible in international spaces of political negotiation (Eshelman n.p.). Their authority as politicians was based on a "cosmic spirituality linked to nature" thousands of years in the making and they would no longer support the economic models promoted by industrialized countries that had radically transformed their relationship to Mother Earth or "Pachamama."1
Throughout Latin America, Pachamama is understood not as a female-gendered planet but as "Source of Light" or "Source of Life" (de la Cadena 335, 350). Indigenous peoples and nations are mobilizing around the concept of earth-beings that "concentrate energy and life"; "being" is defined as "ecosystems, natural communities, species and all other natural entities which exist as part of Mother Earth" (UDRME Art. 4.1 n.p.). The resonance between notions of sentient earth-beings and Cameron's representation of Na'vi relationship to Pandora's networked energy may be one reason for Morales' positive response to Avatar. Another might be explained using Rob Nixon's work on the concepts of "slow violence" (6) and "spectacle" (16). Nixon, who is noted for bridging postcolonial and ecocritical studies, analyzes the work of writer-activists in the Global South, including Ogoni organizer Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prolific creative writer, novelist, screenwriter, and politician. Saro-Wiwa's work helped to illuminate an inattention to the attritional lethality of environmental disasters which exacerbate the vulnerability of ecosystems and people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced. In an increasingly globalizing world, this is a pattern that is often repeated, with transnational corporations based in the Global North promising to contribute to the progress of modern society, then managing to evade resolution of "matters of environmental injury, remediation, and redress" for decades (Nixon 6). Since there is a [End Page 144] deficit of spectacle or of "recognizable special effects that fill movie seats" in these communities, there is nothing to draw the global media's attention to their plight; consequently, slow violence often remains hidden (6).
Nixon has illustrated how a deficit of spectacle in Nigeria...