As the blockbuster Twilight film series continues its box office dominance with the summer release of Eclipse, it’s worth taking a break from the hype to examine how Native Americans are portrayed in this franchise. The general storyline is familiar to many at this point: vampires living near Forks, Washington have a volatile coexistence with shape-shifting wolf-people of the local Quileute Tribe, with the teenage protagonist Bella Swan as the center around which they all revolve. Previous articles regarding Eclipse predecessors Twilight and New Moon have noted the ill-informed but all too common stereotypes of Native people reflected in the films. Unfortunately, the latest installment does little to reverse this trend.
Eclipse offers a central role to the character Jacob Black, a teenage Quileute member who was revealed in the previous movie as embodying the wolf transformation gene. In the current film, his fiery but unrequited love for Bella takes front stage. Keeping with the stereotypical tendency toward domestic violence that was proffered in New Moon, Jacob’s affectionate advances to Bella are physically forceful and anything but tender, resulting in a punch from Bella that breaks her hand. Naturally, Bella cannot reciprocate Jacob’s love, for she has pledged her heart to the whiter-than-white vampire Edward Cullen – “It’s always been him.” She will, however, continue to lead Jacob on with a seductive kiss in order to keep his mind right for the upcoming battle to protect her. Jacob is thus consigned to the old-Hollywood role of the “noble savage” – good enough to fight, kill, and die for the white female, but beyond that they can be nothing more than “friends”.
Numerous tired stereotypes of Indigenous people appear throughout the film, some more subtle than others. Quileutes are repeatedly referred to by vampires as smelling like wet dogs – indeed, so powerful is their pungent odor that vampires cannot locate luscious Bella if she’s being carried by a wolf-member. When Jacob is injured in battle, his life must be saved by the vampire doctor Carlisle Cullen – because of course Western medicine is far superior to Native healing practices that have sustained Indigenous communities for thousands of years. Jacob’s single-minded focus on Bella causes him to pass up opportunities for leadership among his fellow wolf-protectors, and he cedes his “Alpha” position in the clan so as to have more time to pursue and protect his fair-skinned obsession.
One aspect of Eclipse actually rings true from an historical perspective – white settlers enlisting Native people to fight their battles for them. In Eclipse, when the Cullen clan is threatened by a army of rogue vampires from the mean streets of Seattle, they turn to the Quileute wolves to rescue them. The climactic battle scene shows the vampire army being decimated by the ferocious Quileute attack, for which the interlopers were singularly unprepared. This premise has in fact played itself out innumerable times in the history of North America. Whether French versus British, British versus colonial Americans, or American forces versus other Tribes, settlers from abroad have long sought to employ Indigenous fighters’ skills, courage, and tactical experience as a decisive weapon of war. The other common pattern, both in Eclipse and real history: the reward to Native warriors for their bravery and sacrifice on behalf of occupying powers is rather difficult to discern.
The Twilight saga has a final installment, Breaking Dawn, that will be presented as two separate films over the next two years. For the series’ producers, this represents two more chances to break free from stereotypes and embrace a dignified portrayal of Native people and culture.