Seeking Tsaheylu: What Avatar Teaches Us About Connection and Disconnection

The movie, “Avatar” (2009) is the highest grossing film of all time, earning close to three billion dollars ($2,922,917,914). Why?

Avatar’s message resonatedFor most of human history, we were hunter/gatherers.  We lived like the Na’vi people on Pandora.  Being “disconnected” from nature is a very contemporary phenomenon in human history.

One of the movie’s main messages is that man’s attempt to dominate our environment is unsustainable and self-destructive.  The native Na’vi have no reason to dominate Pandora.  They have an innate understanding that the plants and animals with which they share their land enhance their lives.

We see ourselves in this movie.  We loved how protagonist Jake Sully, in his Avatar body, was out of his wheelchair – he had legs again.  He was able to run and jump freely from tree to tree.  He was reconnecting not just with a fully functioning “body” but also with nature.  And in Jake’s reconnecting to nature, to the forest on Pandora, he was again free.  This is who we are too… and our spirit resonates with his experience.

In Avatar, individual beings were not “individuals” in the sense that we think of ourselves as individuals.  The misconception that we are separate from one another is the source of much suffering in our modern world.  Sometimes we feel like we’re all alone, which I suppose is part of the human experience.  But this becomes a problem when we actually believe it – when we forget our connections to others.  Homo sapiens have only been able to survive and thrive over millennia as a result of being social creatures.  Our strength is found in our ability to lean on one another, and we derive significance and meaning in the relationships that we form.

On Pandora, the native Na’vi were connected to something larger than themselves.  They respected the wisdom of the collective group, as well as the signs of nature.  The lives of the plants, animals, and the Na’vi people on Pandora (technically a moon) are brilliantly interconnected, and there’s a spirit that unites everything.  The Na’vi call this spirit Eywa, their deity made up of all living things. This demonstration of intricate connectivity on Pandora is how director James Cameron lets us contemplate, or remember, that all beings here on earth are connected.  

It is for this reason that what we witness in Avatar resonates deep in our bones, in our DNA… and we are able recognize – this is who we truly are – connected to all things, part of the whole.  This is who we have been, and who we yearn to be again. 

The Key Conflict

Though we are connected through Jake Sully’s eyes to this colorful and vibrantly alive world, we also see the sharp contrast of disconnected humans, who are on Pandora for one purpose: take as much as they can.

Earth, in the year 2154, is, in Jake’s words, “a dying world,” leading humans to explore space to see what else they can exploit.

Jake is sent into his Avatar body to enter the Pandoran world with an ulterior motive: gather information about the Na’vi people, learn their ways, and earn their trust so that he can negotiate the terms of their relocation.  This is a scheme for the disconnected humans to get what they really want – a precious mineral called unobtanium. 

The tribe of Na’vi that Jake meets through his fortuitous encounter with Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) is the Omaticaya clan.  The Omaticaya find themselves the unwitting targets of the “Resource Development Association” or RDA’s exploitative mission, because their village sits on the richest unobtanium deposit on the entire moon.

The disconnected humans want the unobtanium because they think it’s going to make them rich.  Giovanni Ribisi’s character Parker Sedgefield (head of the RDA) tells us this.  “This is why we’re here: unobtanium, because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason.”

When his mining mission appears to be in jeopardy, Parker warns, “There’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement.”  In fact, the disconnected humans will stop at nothing to achieve this end, including killing the Na’vi, or, “Blue monkeys” as Parker calls them.  This includes destroying the sacred Tree of Souls, the Na’vi’s direct link to their ancestors.  

Parker and company view the Na’vi as “hostiles” and relate to them as the enemy, which makes sense given their view of the Na’vi as obstacles to their mission to mine unobtanium.

This is how it’s done,” Jake laments in disgust, late in the movie. “When people are sitting on sh*t that you want, you make them your enemy, and then you justify the taking of it.”

The story of Avatar is playing out here on earth

Though the quest for man’s dominance is evident across earth, there is no better corollary for the lush forest on Pandora than the Amazon Rainforest. 

Though it stretches across eight South American countries, the largest portion of our planet’s largest rainforest is in Brazil.  Mongabay reports that deforestation in 2022 was especially bad in the Brazilian Amazon, with more than 640 square miles cleared in just a month, an area more than 28 times the size of Manhattan.  That’s just in August. 

Since the beginning of 2022, Brazil’s deforestation alert system tracked 7,135 square kilometers of deforestation, or 4,443 square miles, the highest on record dating back to 2008 (Mongabay).

This is particularly tragic for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, whose rights to protected, sacred lands are ignored, exactly as it is for the Na’vi on Pandora.  In mirroring human behavior on earth, Avatar brilliantly showcases the illusion of human dominance.

This is an illusion, because like the disconnected humans trying to mine unobtanium on Pandora, humans are not the owners of earth.  We’re just acting like we are.  The movie demonstrates the cost of this mentality, as the quest to take and destroy ends poorly for the disconnected humans – who are defeated at the hands of Jake Sully the Na’vi, aided by the power of their deity Eywa.

Back on earth, the toll of our misguided sense of ownership is mounting.  Time Magazine reports that in Brazil, the total area of deforestation at the hands of man is now larger than Texas, which reflects former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policy that, “The Amazon is open for business.”*

This trend isn’t new to 2022.  We remember the fires, visible from space, burning through the Amazon in 2019.  “Since Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has risen more than 75% from the previous decade” NDTV (New Delhi Television) reports.  The forest cut down over the last three years for cattle farming, mining, logging, and for the palm oil industry, among other extractive practices, amounts to an area nearly the size of Qatar, where the World Cup was just played.  The rate of deforestation in Brazil equates to an area roughly the size of a World Cup-sized soccer field being cleared every minute (BBC).

In speaking about the natives in Avatar, Parker’s character quips, with a mouthful of food, “These people have to learn that we don’t stop.”  Parker’s attitude and actions are just another mirror for us to witness our species’ own disconnected behavior on earth. 

We can’t fathom hired gunmen arriving on our property telling us to leave or they’ll shoot us, but this also happens every year now in the Amazon.  In Brazil alone, over 1,300 people have been killed defending their land since 1985. (TIME)

Cultures Steeped in Connectivity: Our Indigenous Peoples

Though the central conflict in Avatar is caused by the actions of the disconnected humans, Avatar does have its share of human heroes.  Sigourney Weaver’s character Grace is what we would call a “connected” human.  As a botanist, her curiosity and affinity for Pandora is seen through the lens of science, but she also has a sense of reverence for the sacred, which defines life on Pandora.  The Na’vi people live is as if their lives, their land, and their shared home are all sacred, as indigenous peoples do here on earth.  

One of the many reasons I love this movie, despite the (intentionally) frustrating displays of human ignorance, is because the native Na’vi people on Pandora are inspired in part by ancient cultures.  Here are four traits of indigenous cultures portrayed in Avatar: (each described below):

  • Invisible Connections: A network of energy that flows through all living things
  • Living with respect for each other, their elders, and all beings
  • Direct connection with animals: Tsaheylu, “the bond”
  • Taking only what you must and giving thanks for what you take
Invisible Connections: A network of energy that flows through all living things

As we watch Avatar, we are given the opportunity to contemplate life on earth through the same lens of connectivity as the Na’vi have on Pandora.  As Jake begins to learn from Neytiri, he narrates that, “She’s always going on about the flow of energy, and the spirits of animals.”

Neytiri says to Jake, “All energy is borrowed, and one day you have to give it back.”  This shows the understanding the Na’vi have of the interconnectivity between all living things, a common theme found in indigenous cultures around the world.

Seattle, a Suquamish Native American Chief, famously said that, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

Avatar shows us the futility of humans fighting to dominate their environment in sharp contrast to the Na’vi, who live with reverence for their forest and a maintain strong connection to what they believe to be sacred.

Living with respect for each other, their elders, and all beings

When we first meet Neytiri, she is silently tracking Jake, who is struggling to escape from a pack of hungry hyena-like (but scarier) viperwolves.  As she draws an arrow to shoot this intruder on her land, (Jake) Neytiri hesitates as Pandora’s white fairy-like creatures (called woodsprites) begin to land on her arrow.  Later, after she saves Jake from the viperwolves, and he’s pleading his case for her help, they slowly land on him until he is covered in white.  

Instead of killing Jake, she chooses to take him to her elders and let them decide what to do because, as she puts it, “There has been a sign.” Neytiri later explains to Jake that these woodsprites that were drawn to him in the forest are, “Seeds of the sacred tree… very pure spirits.”  This is Neytiri paying attention to nature’s messages to her.

Direct connection with animals: Tsaheylu, “The bond”

One of the most remarkable aspects of life on Pandora is the Na’vi connection portal at the base of their hair, which they use to merge consciousness with animals.  When this connection is made, it is called “Tsaheylu,” which means neural connection or, “the bond.”  You can see this connection reflected in the eye of the creature, such as the dragon-like flying banshee, or “Ikran.”

This connection, though helpful for the Na’vi in their ability to ride and fly, isn’t just functional.  It also represents the forming of a relationship with the animal.  When a Na’vi establishes Tsaheylu with an Ikran, for example, the bond is made for life. 

There are many indigenous cultures that relate to animals as their guardians, or guides to help them through challenging times.  For the Hopi people of the modern American Southwest, each type of bird feather represents a different meaning.  Because eagles are respected as courageous, when a Hopi native wears an eagle feather, it signifies bravery and strength.

If you were to visit Macchu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes, you’ll see Incan symbolism of animals all over the ancient ruins.  One of the most prominent animals for Incan culture was the condor, representing a sacred connection between the spirit or “upper” world and the earthly world.  How might our behavior on earth be different if our modern societies were steeped in such reverence for the non-human creatures here with us?

Taking only what you must and giving thanks for what you take

Neytiri teaches Jake when they’re hunting that her people give thanks for an animal that has to die in order for them to eat.  To give thanks for a living creature sacrificed in order to support life is an indigenous practice as old as time itself.

Coastal Cascade Head, Oregon was Nechesne Native American territory.  The Nechesne tell stories of the seemingly endless waves of Chinook, Chum, Pink, and Coho salmon that would arrive from the sea in such abundance that the Nechesne threw a giant party.

Instead of simply laying their nets in the river to capture and take everything that came their way, they first sat idle on the shore as the salmon swam by, and gave thanks.  As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “They prepared a feast of sacred foods from the land – venison, roots, and berries. Only after four days of fish have moved safely by is the First Salmon taken by the most honored fisher and prepared with ritual care.  They celebrate the water that connects them all in a ritual passing of the cup. They dance in long lines, singing thanks for all that is given.”

After their celebratory feast, and after they harvested what they needed to make it through winter, these Native Americans stopped fishing.  Still the salmon swam by, left alone, to continue on their way to feed the rest of nature – bears, eagles, and with the nitrogen from their eventual decomposition – trees.

Seeing with New Eyes and Purpose

Avatar, though it is entertaining, is much more than entertainment.  It gives us a portrait to view our relationship with earth.  Disconnected humans in the real world relate to the natural world like it’s expendable, like it’s all there for our taking.  When we prioritize short-term gain over long-term impact, we fall out of balance. 

Avatar shows us, over the course of several hours, how beautifully connected life is on Pandora, and how sacred life is through the eyes of Neytiri and the Omaticaya clan.  Do we love this movie so much because we know this is true for us too here on earth?

In following Jake’s journey, we also see that it is possible for a disconnected human to become a deeply connected human.

When Mo’At, the spiritual leader or “Tsahik” of the Omaticaya tells Jake that Neytiri will teach him their ways, she says, “Learn well, Jake Sully… then we will see if your insanity can be cured.”

The jury is still out on human beings. Will our insanity (our stubbornness, disconnection, and resistance to change) be too much in the end, or will we wake up to the realization that our actions have a lasting impact on earth, not just while we’re here, but for our future generations?

Fortunately, we can learn from one another right here without having to travel light years through space.  Our indigenous cultures around the globe have always known how to coexist respectfully with the natural world, while procuring all they need to survive.  We must seek their counsel, respectfully, as we look to live in right balance with nature.

Like the Potowatomi Native Americans (Great Lakes Region) who think seven generationsahead when considering the impact of their decisions, I believe it’s possible to remember what we seem to have forgotten, discard our shortsighted thinking, and instead choose CONNECTION.

*Jair Bolsonaro was defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2022, and the transition to power to President da Silva is now complete.