What Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra Can Tell Us About Colonization, Cultural Erasure and Migration

Written by Chenzhen Hu

Edited by Carla Matsue

TW: colonization, settler-colonialism, genocide, cultural erasure.

Spoilers for TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra and ATLA comic trilogy The Promise.

While “Avatar: The Last Airbender” showed us how Earth, Water and Air nations grappled with Fire nation colonialism and struggled to decolonize and liberate the world, “Avatar: The Legend of Korra” was more about the aftermath of colonialism and the effects of formal decolonization and the mistakes committed by people responsible for the decolonization process. In that universe setting, team Avatar (Avatar Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko and Toph) were some of the most important characters regarding the Fire Nation post-colonial order. They helped to build and re-shape the new societies and status of the nations and to make amends and reparations to what the Fire nation did to the rest of the world.

Illustration by Steven Sakai
@cherryinky

In “The Legend of Korra”, we get to see how these changes came to fruit and some visible issues that Aang and his friends didn’t prevent. Naturally, then it’s Korra’s task to solve some of these problems, more related to modernization and civil society. Republic City is seemingly the capital of the world and the multicultural convergence in a rapidly industrialized society. However, despite its resemblance to contemporary cities from our reality, Republic City it is not only a city built from scratch in Avatar’s universe: it’s the result of a conflicted and negotiated decolonization. In the comic series that comes rightly after “The Last Airbender”, “The Promise”, it’s revealed that the later Republic City, heart of “The Legend of Korra”, was in fact a Fire nation colony in the Earth Kingdom, a city called Yu Dao. 

With combined efforts between Team Avatar and Earth King Kuei, Zuko (as the new Fire Lord) and Aang (as the Avatar who defeated the previous Fire Lord, Ozai) designed a movement called the “Harmony Restoration” Movement that would ensure a correct transition into a world free of Fire nation colonies and imperialist influence. While Zuko and Aang are both eager to apply it quickly and without hesitation, some unexpected conflicts arise as they keep planning the restoration. Zuko is reprimanded by his own people because of the seemingly lack of deliberation he shows to the Fire nation in comparison to the Earth Kingdom citizens. Kori, daughter of the mayor of Yu Dao, attacks Zuko and calls him a betrayer to his own nation because of what he’s about to do. The main challenge of “The Promise” is then revealed: many Fire nation families had been settling in Yu Dao for generations, and for some of them it is the only home they know. Although “The Promise” is set in the Avatar’s universe, problems concerning nationalism, decolonization and settler-colonialism resonate with our own histories. 

As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang said in “decolonization is not a metaphor”, “the decolonial desires of white, non-white, immigrant, postcolonial, and oppressed people, can similarly be entangled in resettlement, reoccupation, and reinhabitation that actually further settler colonialism” (1). Although there are many layers to what decolonization actually means, these authors pointed out this concept is overused as a metaphor, obscuring the land implications and the settler-colonial reality. In “The Promise”, we get to see that even though Zuko is committed to a movement towards peace, he’s not all about decolonization. As the Fire Lord, his interests still align first with his own people, so he chose to withdraw from the Harmony Restoration Movement. Aang, being the only living Air Nation nomad alive after the genocide committed by the Fire Nation during their expansionist and imperialist period, is not only vocal about pursuing peace, but we also see how he wants to enact justice, accountability and decolonization, even if he is not sure of the means to achieve these goals. Like in ATLA, Aang seeks counsel from Avatar Roku, who still suggests him to be ‘decisive’ if he has to confront his friend Zuko. 

Even when Zuko shows Aang and Katara why he decided to maintain Fire Nation citizens in Yu Dao, Katara herself notices how they aren’t equal: Earth Kingdom local residents are by no means alike in terms of social class and status to their Fire Nation counterparts. Aang ends up arguing with Zuko about the outcome of this decision, as he warns of another potential war. For the Avatar, harmony requires four separate nations: “You can’t have balance if one nation occupies another!” (2) Earth King Kuei himself sees this change as a betrayal and agrees to start another war if necessary. What we have in “The Promise” is not just a conflict between different leaders seeking to build a post-colonial world order, but it’s also what we will later see in “The Legend of Korra”: the consequences of de-colonization executed by world leaders as a process from above and not as a grassroot and liberation movement. Strictly focusing on the nations, Aang, Zuko and Kuei remain limited and discover along the way how they are not necessarily aligned with the needs of the people, the land and the colonized. By framing the story also from a Fire Nation settler’s perspective, “The Promise” falls in the premise of the “settler as innocent”, as Tuck and Yang remarks (3).

In “The Promise”, although the struggle is mostly happening between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation over land matters, we get to see another effect of colonization: cultural erasure. During his journey, Aang encounters many fan clubs that are interested in Air Nomad culture and practice their customs and sometimes dress like Air Nomads. The Air Nation cultures are the most devastated after Fire Nation imperialism, as they are totally destroyed. Avatar Aang is the only person alive who is from the Air Nation, so he’s the only one maintaining their customs and knowledge. But this changes when he discovers there are fan clubs that are so interested in Air Nation culture, so he’s glad there are more people beside him committed to the revival of the Air Nomad culture. However, a fan club goes further and uses Air Nomad tattoos to show their ‘authenticity’. Aang is upset and clearly states: 

“Those tattoos are sacred to my people! They describe who we are and how we see the world! You have no right to tattoo yourselves like that! But how could you study Air Nomad philosophy at all and still do something like this? For you to treat our tattoos like a part of some costume…! My culture isn’t a game!” (4)

One of the effects of colonialism and cultural erasure is that it isn’t only about occupation, militarization and extraction, but also about the destruction of particular epistemologies, cosmologies and ways of life. Aang understands this aspect of colonialism, as he tells Katara the importance of keeping autonomy and self-determination within nations to maintain the culture and what makes the Air Nation different to the rest of the world: “Air Nomad culture can’t survive in a world where the nations invade each other, corrupt each other” (5). At the end, Aang reflects as the only remaining Air Nomad and decides to teach its culture and pass his knowledge to more people. He then treats these people not as fan clubs, but as air acolytes, considering that in order to survive, his culture also has to belong to the future. The difference here is between the “fan club” and “air acolyte” category. One is particularly engaging and respectful whereas the other is just cultural appropriation with the use of aesthetical symbols, contributing to a greater removal of the target culture. In “The Legend of Korra”, we get to see how Aang’s son, Tenzin, is totally committed to the perseverance of the Air Nomad culture and teaches it to the new air-benders. A colonized culture is not then a historical tradition that needs to survive against the colonizer culture, but also a culture that needs to be reimagined in a present context to offer a truly decolonized world, beyond a single epistemology and logic as eurocentrism.

After solving the conflict, the leaders of each nation had to think of something to do with Yu Dao, as it couldn’t just be a melting pot between Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom families. The result is Republic City, which will become the most industrialized and multicultural space in Avatar’s world.  It isn’t only the legacy of Yu Dao generations, but also a city that attracts migration from elsewhere, making it similar to a great metropolis that looks as an opportunity for many people to make a living there. The accumulation of resources, capital and the consequence of leaving Yu Dao as a capital of the world makes Republic City the embodiment of modern cities: a region that is privileged in relation to its externality and reproduces this inequality inside. Non-benders revolt and are concerned about the power and privileges of benders in Book One — even if the bender population is not necessarily more privileged and some non-benders rich industrialists are in the movement. Kuvira, the Earth Kingdom leader who is commonly related to fascism, ends her crusade attacking Republic City in Book Four.

The post-colonial reality in Avatar clearly overlooks the impact of hundred years of Fire Nation expansionism, colonialism and genocide, making the posterior conflicts and tension present in “The Legend of Korra” as more related to a modernized and industrialized world which has forgotten and neglected the spiritual and the cosmologies and epistemologies of every nation. Republic City is where many benders display their powers to some sort of consumerist and manufacturing means, like we see in the sport pro-bending and the jobs with specific benders (electricity benders powering machines in some factories). Instead of seeing cultural appropriation as with Aang in “The Promise”, there is a commodification of national culture in the form of “moving pictures” (cinema). Fire Nation colonialism accentuated the acceleration towards a more militarized, industrialized and materialistic world. These are, perhaps, the most visible effects of colonization in “The Legend of Korra”. But there is also some lost potential of exploring how the Fire Nation handled the outcome. We explore the different reactions from the different nations, from the Unalaq interests of becoming the Dark Avatar embracing the forgotten traditions of the Northern Water Tribe and his occupation of the Southern Water Tribe to Kuvira’s project of reviving the Earth Kingdom as a powerful nation, emulating the Fire Nation in ATLA in many aspects. Even within these nations, their concerns and thoughts are rarely formulated as a reaction against the former Fire Nation empire, but as a much more subtle reaction against an industrialized world which struggles to maintain peace and fill the vacuum left by the reforms made by Aang and the rest of the leaders. 

One interesting feature is the criticism of the notion of Avatar in TLoK. The idea of having a powerful being around the world to maintain peace and harmony is challenged, even Korra herself decides to subvert the first Avatar’s (Wan) decision to separate the human and the spirit world. Korra’s era is also a period where we begin to see a skeptical attitude towards the Avatar and its power, as Book Three’s villain Zaheer shows. The Avatar is not just seen as a powerful peacemaker, but also as an authority figure that is not necessarily sided with the people. After all, Avatar Wan, as the first one of his kind, changed the world and set a particular order in the centuries to follow, and in this universe, this paves the way to the separation between the material and the spiritual. 

In brief, Avatar’s universe was groundbreaking in terms of Western animated series that also explored sensitive topics like colonialism, imperialism, spirituality, modernity and industrialization. Though it’s by no means a replica of our own histories, there are some parallels and we have to analyze them in a critical lens. After all, despite the Asian representation and all the positive material, Avatar’s creators have been criticized for falling into Orientalist tropes and the lack of Asian people as writers, producers and cast (6). In terms of character development and representation, these series are still acclaimed as revolutionary: Korra as a queer and brown main character, Aang’s refusal of traditional masculinity, and all the development regarding family, revenge, honor, forgiveness and mental health. 

1 – Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1–40.

2 – Yang, G. L. (2013). Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Promise) (Part One). Dark Horse Books.

3 – Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 9-10.

4 –  Yang, G. L. (2013). Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Promise). (Part Three). Dark Horse Books.

5 –  Ibid. 20

6 – Beccatoria. (2015, August 19). The Legend of Korra: Deliberately Deconstructed. https://beccatoria.dreamwidth.org/186113.html?thread=2706177.

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