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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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Paul Starr
User: pts
Date: 2006-12-13 22:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is a very "Guns, Germs, and Steel" style argument -- by which I mean it is thorough and compelling. Good work.
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Becca Stareyes
User: beccastareyes
Date: 2006-12-14 05:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was going to say that too, actually.
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