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Avatar Meta - The Water Tribes - Avatar: The Last Airbender Meta
The who, the what, the how, and the why not?

cannot make bricks without clay posting in Avatar: The Last Airbender Meta
User: avatar_meta (posted by shes_unreal)
Date: 2006-12-13 12:19
Subject: Avatar Meta - The Water Tribes
Security: Public
Music:The Cardigans - Erase/Rewind
On the Northern and Southern Water Tribes

Anyone who watched the first season of Avatar, or at least caught episodes 1-2 and 18-20, realize that there is a fundamental difference between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. Not only is there a marked difference in size and presence of benders but also in technology. The fandom seems to attribute the relatively undeveloped nature of the South Pole to the tribe having been decimated by the Fire Nation attack that killed Sokka and Katara's mother, or some even earlier attack that reduced their numbers. Some people even chalk it up to a reduction in numbers caused by disease. And of course, the lack of technology is caused by the lack of numbers, isn't it? Well, I beg to differ.

In this meta, not only will I address the differences in technology between the two tribes, but I will talk about the tribes themselves -- and why Sokka is not a prince, even though it seems like the other men look to his father, Hakoda, as a leader.

First of all I should say that I'm going to make some assumptions about the regions based upon visual cues given in the series and the way the Avatar world seems to be based largely upon our own planet, as well as from discussions of technological differences in societies based on Guns, Germs and Steel and other texts (I know a lot of people have read that book, why I've never seen this discussion before is beyond me).

Why are the tribes different?

The difference in the two tribes boils down to one thing and one thing only: Location, location, location. Even if the Northern Water Tribe was first (which I think it is, considering the Ocean and the Moon live there, they learned waterbending from the Ocean, and one could imagine that as part of their lore the Water Tribes are the Ocean and the Moon's children), the Southern Water Tribe would still be less advanced simply because there are less resources present where they live.

Even if I wasn't going on an assumption that the South Pole was more like Antarctica and the location of the tribe at the North Pole wasn't more like above-the-arctic-circle-but-not-entirely-north, say, Alaska, we've seen visual cues in the series that would indicate this. All of the landscape we saw at the South Pole was made of ice, but at the North Pole we saw rocks and caves, when Zuko was trying to escape with Aang. The environment present at the North Pole would be more likely to be inhabited by large game animals and animals that could be domesticated.

As a matter of fact, one of the major differences between the Northern and Southern tribes is the presence of domesticated animals. The only domesticated animal we saw in the Southern Tribe was the dog-like animal (dogbear?) sitting amongst the children in one shot. But at the North Pole we see large antlered animals (yakgoat? goatdeer?). When we first see one as the Gaang enter the city, someone is actually sitting on its back. It is easy to imagine that these could also be used to carry loads, pull carts, and provide hides, meat, and milk.

They have also managed to cultivate some kind of green food, possibly seaweed, that we see being fed to Appa, the other animals, and could possibly be consumed by the people as well. The fact that the Northern Water Tribe has a stable source of food in the form of domesticated animals and seaweed gives them a huge leg up on the Southern Tribe, who would have to hunt for what they could from the surrounding landscape and thus would not have the time to dedicate to building elaborate structures, creating art, and the other cultural aspects that separate one from the other.

As opposed to the North Pole's city of large buildings and canals, the people at the South Pole live in tents and igloos. These are meant to be temporary structures and are indicative of a nomadic lifestyle, which the Southern Water Tribe would have to employ if they did not have stable sources of food.

Also, the fact that they have a stable food source would allow the people of the Northern Tribe to have more children than the Southern Tribe. The stability would allow for women to have children more frequently, because it is difficult for nomadic woman to care for or even carry more than one child at a time. Not having to travel around would provide less opportunity for children to be killed by exposure, sheer exhaustion, or predators.

I'm sure that the Fire Nation probably killed more people on their attack of the Southern Tribe than just Sokka and Katara's mother. And there is at least one other attack that we know of, as is attested by the presence of the Fire Nation warship that was obviously frozen in place by waterbenders (during the Siege of the North, waterbenders in canoes incapacitated ships in a similar manner). However, the marked difference in the size of the two tribes and the differences in technology are more a result of environmental factors than attacks from the Fire Nation alone.

Why Sokka is not a prince.

Once again this is a factor of the environment: if a tribe does not have the resources to support a non-working chieftan caste, there is no tribal chief. By his very nature as a chief, Arnook is involved in making decisions for the Northern Water Tribe and not involved in gathering food or fighting. But Sokka and Katara's father, Hakoda, is directly involved in hunting and fighting. The others may look to him as a leader, but he does not hold the status of a chief simply because the structure of their tribe does not allow for the presence of a chief.

The caste system - pure speculation

I first considered the idea that there was a caste system in place in the Northern Water Tribe when I noticed among the tribesmen on the wall one or two dressed in the same fighting leathers Sokka garbed himself in before confronting Zuko in episode 2 (they did not wear warpaint, however). This was confirmed when, in my research of Inuit practices, I read about there being a caste system in place in some tribes and how people born into one caste would be placed into arranged marriages with people of the same caste. It is also obvious that Princess Yue has servants from the presence of the waterbender ferrying her around in her canoe, which possibly indicates that waterbenders are in their own caste below the chieftans caste but above the hunter/warrior caste. This would also explain why Yue was engaged to Hahn, but Hahn could not waterbend against Iroh and Zhao; Hahn was a member of the chieftan's caste, not the waterbending caste.

Bonus - why Yue is not a waterbender

Yue wears gloves.

Take a look - the only time we ever saw Katara wearing gloves was in the first episode, and then she took them off to practice waterbending. And when they arrive at the North Pole, she does not put her gloves back on, even though they've returned to an arctic environment. Zuko also never wears gloves to protect his hands, even though he does wear a hood and a mask to protect his face. Even Yugoda, the healing teacher, did not wear gloves, even though she only uses waterbending to heal.

Bending is not required of rulers - King Bumi is an earthbender, but the king in Ba Sing Se is not (we know because he wears shoes, every other earthbender we've ever seen has been barefoot). Chief Arnook also wears gloves, so he's not a waterbender, either.
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cannot make bricks without clay: quiescent
User: shes_unreal
Date: 2006-12-13 20:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
True. But it seems to me that the Dai Li wearing shoes is another way to conceal their true nature; also that most of the time they only bend using their stone gloves and not the actual stone in the environment around them. Since fire- and airbenders kick up their element as well and they all wear shoes, I'm thinking that to every earthbender but Toph, being barefoot is more an affectation than a necessity.
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Smilla's Sense of Snark: Haru: SPH (apologies to Resmiranda)
User: smillaraaq
Date: 2006-12-14 11:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Haru: SPH (apologies to Resmiranda)
All the Earthbenders in "Imprisoned" are wearing shoes -- thin, lightweight-looking shoes admittedly, but none of them are barefoot. Haru's shoes earlier in the episode could be written off as the boy having to conceal his bending abilities, but that wouldn't really explain why Tyro and the rest of the Earthbenders held captive on the coal rig are also wearing similar light footwear.

In "The King of Omashu", Bumi's palace guards are wearing boots, along with uniforms that are otherwise a bit different from the normal Earth Kingdom soldiers. The differing uniforms don't seem to indicate bending vs. non-bending soldiers -- most of the palace guard types are unarmed, just like the usual bending Earth Kingdom soldiers, and we do see a couple of them bending the "door" into the Gaang's guest quarters. And the few that we do see with weapons have the same sort of polearms that are occasionally seen in the hands of the regular troops -- so it seems like the presence or lack of weaponry is probably the only obvious sign of bending vs. non-bending soldiers. Bumi himself is wearing some sort of shoes or sandals under his garish robes in his first scene, although he goes barefoot for the fight scene at the end and is barefoot as a child in Aang's flashbacks.

The Avatars can all earthbend, of course, and while they're obviously special cases it's worth adding them in to consideration. Kyoshi is the only Earth Kingdom avatar we've really seen in detail, and her boots were a plot point in "Avatar Day". But Aang himself, for all that we've seen him earthbending with shoes on in recent episodes, also went barefoot back in "Bitter Work" when Toph was still teaching him.

So here's the general rundown:

Dai Li (including Long Feng)
Omashu Palace Guard
Coal rig prisoners/Haru's village
Avatar Kyoshi

Master Yu and his students
Xin Fu and the Earth Rumble guys (except "Fire Nation Man")
Regular Earth Kingdom soldiers

(Aang we've seen train barefoot and fight shod, while Bumi we've seen going shod, but seems to prefer to fight barefoot.)

So I'd agree it's probably partially a matter of affectation, uniform or local styles, etc. -- but between the training scenes with Toph and Aang, and the scenes at Master Yu's academy, it seems to me like there is a practical element as well, especially for novices. Being shod clearly doesn't make earthbending impossible, but the consistency with which they're showing students, common soldiers, and competitive athletes going barefoot makes me think there's probably some element of greater flexibility, sensitivity, etc. that makes going barefoot somewhat preferable, espeically if you're expecting to be in a combat or sparring situation. (Notice that the folks who are routinely in shoes here are mostly folks who aren't expecting fights -- civilian villagers, an elderly king, guards whose duties are more ceremonial than frontline combat -- or folks like the "cultural authority" Dai Li who probably don't want to LOOK like they're expecting fights. For folks who do expect combat/competition/practice and aren't trying to hide it, barefoot does seem to be the prevailing choice.)

As for waterbenders wearing gloves -- actually, back in the very first episode, Katara only takes off ONE of her mittens when she's practicing her bending. Admittedly she was still relatively inept and inexperienced there, but she still managed to manipulate a good-sized glob of water with only one hand uncovered. And a little later on in that same episode, when she loses her temper at Sokka and inadvertently cracks Aang's iceberg with her emotional-outburst unconscious bending, both hands are gloved. Now, given that Pakku and the rest of the benders at the North Pole are all going barehanded to bend, when everyone else is bundled up against the cold, it does seem pretty clear that there has to be some advantage of greater precision, control, what-have-you to make up for the risk of exposure -- but Katara's little tantrum shows that much like shoes on earthbenders, covered hands don't make waterbending impossible.
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User: sovietdolphin
Date: 2007-02-26 03:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It doesn't seem unfathomable to me that the Earthbenders in "Imprisoned" were forced to wear shoes, by Fire Nation command - even the ones on the ship. To crush their spirits a little, perhaps. However, otherwise, very compelling arguments.
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