The Price of Prosperity

James Cameron's Avatar

James Cameron’s film: Avatar

Migration in the movie Avatar mirrors 1800 westward expansion in that both result in “superior” races exploiting weaker natives.

The Na’Vi are the blue, tribal people who inhabit the fictional planet Pandora in Avatar. Plains Indians were a group of nomadic Native Americans who lived in the Midwest prior to westward expansion. In Avatar the Na’Vi were a less powerful, less technologically advanced race in the same way that the Plains Indians were during the 1800’s. Humans migrated to the planet Pandora in effort to exploit the Na’vi for their vast natural resources. Similarly , American settlers moved west to take the lands and resources that Native Americans occupied.

Prior to outsider migration the Plains Indians and the Na’Vi people lived very comparable lives. Plains Indians had occupied the mid-west several centuries before American settlers began to move there. On the plains they lived a very primitive lifestyle; hunting and gathering for their food, using the most basic of weapons such as bow and arrows and wooden spears.  A heavy reliance on nature shaped their way of life. All of their food, supplies and shelter came from the area around them. No resource was more valuable to the Plains Indians than the buffalo. Francis Parkman,  famous historian of the 19th century, once wrote about the Plains Indians saying: ” When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away.”(Simkin).  Their reliance on buffalo and natural resources exhibits the basic nature of their lifestyle, which can be compared to the Na’Vi’s way of life.

Na’Vi Clip

This short clip from the Avatar film illustrates several key factors about the Na’Vi.  In the clip Jake, a human avatar, is working with a bow and arrow because it is crucial to the Na’Vi’s lifestyle. They rely  heavily on the bow and arrow for protection and hunting , thus in order to survive in the Na’Vi’s world Jake must learn to use the bow and arrow effectively. Another key take away from this clip is the fact that the Na’Vi people are barley clothed. A lack of clothing symbolizes the simplicity of their culture. The Na’Vi are a hunting and gathering community that rely heavily on the world around them. All of their food, clothing, weapons, supplies and shelter are derived from the natural resources of Pandora and require no technological involvement(Avatar) .

A Plains Indian man praying, showing the simplicity of their culture

A Plains Indian man praying in nature, showing the simplicity of their culture

Both the Na’Vi and the Plains Indians represent races that are highly underdeveloped. Notice the similarities between the Indian man in the picture and the Na’Vi from the video clip. The Na’Vi and the Plains Indians are displayed as primitive cultures by their lack of clothing and  technology. This lack of technology caused both races to  live mainly off the natural world around them to use only what was needed for survival. Simple tools were developed specifically for the purpose of hunting and fighting. A recurring theme with the two races is the realization of the power that nature has on their lives. The simple lifestyle of these primitive races would soon be interrupted by the intrusion of a much more technologically advanced group of people.

The humans cause for migration to Avatar parallels the advancement of American settlers into the west in that both sought out new streams of valuable resources. Around the turn of the 19th century American settlers began to make a push into the Great Plains of North America.  Migration westward was not purposeless. Americans saw great opportunity on the Plains, a chance to develop a better life. Settlers were in quest of exploitable resources, fresh farmland and commercial opportunities and the west was prime for this(Baird). Americans had depleted much of their resources back home and needed a fresh source of resources. The west was full of natural resources that could be exploited and turned to make a profit. Issues arose when settlers came face to face with the Native Americans that were already living on the land (Billington).

When humans had depleted their resources on Earth in the Avatar film they  desperately needed new sources and they saw an opportunity for this in the terrestrial planet Pandora. Pandora is a rainforest like area with vast resources, but the main attraction for the humans was a very valuable mineral called unobtanium(Avatar). Migration to Pandora was for the sole purpose of exploiting the land for the valuable unobtanium and using it to make money.

Financial opportunity was the driving force behind the migration of the humans into Pandora as well as the American settlers movement into the west. Americans saw the Midwest as a chance to expand their resources for economic gain. Similarly, humans came to Pandora in order to harvest the valuable unobtanium. Both the Na’Vi and the Plains Indians had occupied their land long before the intrusion of the humans and Americans. Due to their sparse technological innovation the Na’Vi and Plains Indians had no other option but to initially obey the demands of the more powerful intruders.

The Humans advancement into Pandora parallels American westward expansion in that both resulted in technology superior races taking the resources from a primitive race of natives. Humans coming to Pandora in order to harvest the Na’Vi’s valuable unobtanium mirrors American settlers moving to the Midwest in order to exploit the Plains Indians valuable land and resources.  James Cameron displays themes in Avatar that symbolize 1800 westward expansion.


Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.

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White, Richard. “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”. The Journal of American History, 65 (Sep. 1978).pg 319-343.

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