Of all the battles Native American communities have been compelled to fight to preserve their heritage and dignity, their most unlikely and unexpected foes have now become the most well-known in popular culture: Vampires, and the Hollywood studios who love them.
The Summit Entertainment cinematic release “New Moon” is easily the blockbuster film event of the year (and perhaps the Century). Set in the traditional lands of the Quileute Nation near Forks, Washington, it continues the “Twilight” saga of vampires who interact uneasily with local mortals and the members of the Native community. In the series, the Quileute people have been imbued by the film’s writers with an interesting genetic trait. Having evidently descended from wolves, they are able to shape-shift back to their animal form when required for fighting vampires.
The first instance of shape-shifting actually occurred during the film’s casting process, when a teen heartthrob of German/Dutch ancestry named Taylor Lautner was given the leading role of Quileute hero Jacob Black. This continues a long Hollywood tradition of using “He Looks Native” actors in place of genuine Tribal members. Going back to the days of the oligarchic studio system, it was common for filmmakers to use dark make-up on white actors (or even to employ Asian-Americans) to play the roles of Native Americans. New Moon’s producers did however cast some Native actors in supporting roles in both this film and its predecessor Twilight, for which they deserve a measure of credit relative to their peers.
New Moon also dusts off another traditional Hollywood stereotype: the interracial romance. True to form, the Indigenous male plays the role of forbidden suitor to the nervous-yet-intrigued Caucasian female. In the film, the “Native” Jacob is smitten with and pursues the fair-skinned Bella (Kristen Stewart) – who resists because she is already committed to the “So-White-He-Sparkles” vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Nevertheless, Bella finds herself drawn to Jacob’s longing affections – particularly after he saves her from a vampire who happens to have even darker skin than he does. Jacob spends a good portion of the film without a shirt, in accordance with the longstanding cinematic stereotype that Indigenous people like to forego clothes – even in chilly Forks, which has nearly the highest annual rainfall on the continent. Alas, Jacob and Bella’s powerful but tortuous attraction to each other cannot truly be requited – because unlike those of Native communities, the cultural traditions of Hollywood must be respected.
Perhaps the most troubling issue with New Moon and the entire Twilight series is the use of the wolf as the basis for Quileute identity. The Quileute people do not even have a wolf myth in their cultural lexicon – although other Tribes such as the Seneca and Cherokee do. In New Moon, when members of the Tribe come under stress or confront a significant challenge, their common reaction is to morph from a sentient human being into a feral beast whose favored mode of behavior is bloody violence. The audience can understandably view this as a message sent from the film’s writers, consciously or unconsciously, that when it comes to Native Americans: “Deep down, they’re really just wild animals.” Despite its cultural boorishness, New Moon will most certainly reap untold millions of dollars in profits at the box office. It will be interesting to see what portion of this wealth the film’s writers and producers contribute back to the Native Americans who provided the “human” element for their success.