When Princess Yue made the ultimate sacrifice in year 112, she did so in the context of a life or death decision, with the fate of not only her tribe, but the world itself hanging in the balance. Consideration was not given to the long term effects this action would have on public life in the Northern Water Tribe. The ascension of a human to the spiritual plane is always a momentous occasion, and has led to widespread social change wherever it is believed to have occurred, most prominently in local spirituality.
While passed family members are traditionally held dear by the people of the Water Tribes, they are not usually venerated to the degree they are in the Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom, where public orthodoxy demands long terms shows of respect and performance of regular rituals to placate the dead. However, with the ascension of a member of the ruling family to the very top of the Water Tribe’s spiritual hierarchy, a major shift in the performance of public rituals was incipient.
The end of the Hundred Year War and the lifting of barriers on trade and movement imposed by it led to the widespread exchange of culture across the four nations, and with the space opened by the ascension of Princess Yue, the adoption of the ceremonies associated with ancestor veneration for worship of the moon facilitated the widespread importation of ideas from the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation which proved instrumental to the modernization of the Water Tribe state. Within five years of the end of the war, the first college for the study public rituals was established in the capital.
The study and adoption of ancestral rites formulated in large nations to the south to venerate Princess Yue gave adjacent ideas, such as a corps of professional, meritocratic administrators, a foot in the door. While the chief of the Water Tribe had previously relied on reciprocal obligation with local chiefs and elders to run the tribe and oral tradition to educate, the expanding urban population was primarily educated by written texts from the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation, which led to calls for reform and modernization. Under pressure from educated urbanites, the chief promulgated the Water Tribe’s first written law code in the year 122, codifying social norms that had been passed down orally for thousands of years.
If Yue’s ascension provided the motivation for cultural exchange and modernization, the reintegration of the Northern Water Tribe into the global economy provided the means. Prior to the end of the war, most trade was carried out within the Tribe, and used a kind of trust based credit system, where members of the same tribe trusted that they would provide for each other when there was need, with the understanding that their obligations would be roughly equal in the long run. However, the nature of international trade, the promulgation of clear economic regulation, and the lack of trust between foreigners led to the widespread adoption of money as a more concrete method of payment. With the philosophical and legal underpinning of a modern state in place, the Water Tribe instituted many of the hallmarks of the modern state, like a professional military and a bureau of finance.
This combination of culture and economy proved instrumental in the modernization of the Water Tribe. That is not to say there hasn’t been resistance to the more humanist, rationalist ideas of the southern nations; the devastation of the capital by vengeful spirits in year 173 was seen as a rude awakening by the Chief, and Unalaq’s ascension to the throne was considered a major victory for the Traditionalists.
- The Water Tribe: a Cultural Encyclopedia