Quileute Tribe Seeks Higher Ground To Avoid Tsunamis

The Quileute Tribe has achieved global fame in recent years from the fictional “Twilight” book and film series, wherein Tribal members who shape-shift into wolves battle against local vampires. The Tribe’s actual members have been focused on another potential threat that is all-too-real. Located on the northwest coast of Washington state, the Tribe’s territory is situated in an area that could be directly in the path of a Pacific tsunami.

In recent emergency drills, Tribal members have quickly evacuated to higher ground. However, such drills are conducted after hours of advance notice and coordination. In a real earthquake and tsunami, Quileute members would likely have only minutes to escape.

To alleviate the potential devastation the Tribe might suffer from a mega-quake and tsunami, the Quileutes have been working with Senator Maria Cantwell on a land swap. The provisions of Senate Bill 636 would provide the Tribe with 785 acres of land in the Olympic National Park so its roughly 300 members could move uphill. In exchange, 4,100 acres of wilderness would be added to the park. The National Park Service supports the deal.

Eclipse Fails To Block Out Native Stereotypes

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.

New York Times: Twilight And New Moon "Sucking The Quileute Dry"

This site has commented previously on cultural issues arising from the blockbuster film Twilight and its recent sequel New Moon. This week the New York Times features commentary by Angela R. Riley regarding the economic impact of the film and book series on the Quileute Nation, whose members are portrayed as shape-shifting wolf people locked in a centuries-long battle with local vampires.

Ms. Riley is Associate Director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA. Her analysis of the economic circumstances of the Nation is succinct:

“Twilight” has made all things Quileute wildly popular: Nordstrom.com sells items from Quileute hoodies to charms bearing a supposed Quileute werewolf tattoo. And a tour company hauls busloads of fans onto the Quileute reservation daily. Yet the Tribe has received no payment for this commercial activity. Meanwhile, half of Quileute families still live in poverty.

Tribes Turn To Federal Court In Pacific Fishing Rights Dispute

In a case with implications for more than twenty Tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the issue of Native American fishing rights and boundaries in the Pacific Ocean has been brought before the federal District Court for the Western District of Washington.

In an earlier proceeding, the Court determined that the Makah, Quileute, and Quinault nations had usual and accustomed fishing grounds in the Pacific Ocean. It was determined that the Makah’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds “included the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca . . . extending out into the ocean to an area known as Swiftsure and then south along the Pacific coast to an area intermediate to Ozette village and the Quileute Reservation,” as well as certain rivers and lakes. The Court determined that Quileute usual and accustomed grounds included certain rivers, lakes and streams and “the adjacent tidewater and saltwater areas”, and that the Quinault utilized “ocean fisheries” in “the waters adjacent to its territory.” See 384 F. Supp. at 374 (FF 120).

However, the Court did not define the precise boundaries of the nations’ “usual and accustomed fishing grounds” in the Pacific Ocean, and the Court’s decision was limited to waters within the jurisdiction of the State of Washington and within three miles of shore. The question of precise ocean boundaries for the nations’ respective fishing rights remains unresolved. The Request for Determination filed by the Makah Tribe alleges:

On the basis of the information Makah assembled in response to the threat posed by Quileute’s and Quinault’s intent to participate in the Pacific whiting fishery in the manner described above, it appears that Quileute and Quinault have authorized and currently are conducting fisheries for salmon, halibut and black cod outside of their actual usual and accustomed fishing areas. Although Makah, Quileute and Quinault have been able to resolve disputes over these fisheries in the past, the Quileute and Quinault fisheries for these species compete directly with Makah fisheries for the same species.

It is interesting to note that the nations had previously worked out such issues through direct negotiation, but now have placed the power over their respective jurisdictions and economic rights in the hands of a federal judge.

Teaching Indian Languages Preserves Heritage

The Seattle Times recently ran an article entitled, "Saving Native Languages."  According to the article, there is a diminishing number of elders whose native tongue is their first language and tribes are racing to preserve their languages by teaching it to the youth in their communities.

In order to preserve this crucial aspect of their heritage, elders have compiled dictionaries for languages that were entirely oral; recording elders; transcribing tapes; and especially, teaching the next generation of speakers. They have even set up classrooms and prepared teachers to pass on the gift of the native language. At Tulalip Elementary, for example, classrooms are set up to teach children Lushootseed, one of Washington state's native languages. Approximately 80 percent of the students are of Native American decent, but nonnative children are just as interested in learning the new language. Incredibly, the article reports that by fourth grade, many of the children can speak in sentences, writing and following commands, all in Lushootseed. I had to learn English when my family immigrated from Poland and it's amazing how quickly I picked up the language as a seven year old child. It was easy and fun for me to learn a new language. Just as it is easy for the children attending Tulalip Elementary.  The article reports that  the students take to the language with ease and greatly enjoy the cultural experience of learning a new tongue, especially in the earliest grades.

According to the article, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, more than 300 languages were spoken in North America. Today an estimated 175 or so indigenous languages are spoken in the United States but about 90 percent are moribund, with very few children speaking them as their first language. Today, there are about 16 native languages still spoken in Washington. They are languages as musical as their names: Makah; Okanagan, Klallam, Quileute, Lushootseed.

It is incredibly inspiring to hear that not only have Tribal elders taken a proactive role in preserving Native American languages, but that the youth have embraced learning the language that will give them one of the most intimate connections to their cultural heritage possible -- and that is one of the greatest gifts of all.


Is The First Amendment A Friend To First Nations?

The current cinema blockbuster “Twilight” is, on the surface, a teenage vampire movie set in the somewhat unusual location of Forks, Washington. While the film doles out helpings of the standard teen angst, parental alienation, and enigmatic vampires typical for this genre, it also contains an interesting subplot – the vampires will not tread upon the traditional lands of the Quileute Tribe. This is due to the (cinematic) fact that Quileute members are descended from wolves, and evidently retain the power to shape-shift into supernatural wolf-hybrids that are deadly to vampires. An uneasy truce prevails between the two camps, with the Tribal members keeping constant watch on the local “undead” and remaining ever-ready to defend the Tribe’s territory against vampire incursions. Given the film’s success at the box office, a sequel appears inevitable, with a Battle Royale between the Forks Vampires and the Quileute Wolves as its likely centerpiece.

The Quileutes are a real-life Chimakuan Tribe living along the Quileute River on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state. The Tribal members depicted in the film are striking in every sense – stoic, wise, humorous, and physically appealing. As an added bonus, they possess the aforementioned supernatural powers, which clearly set them apart from the rest of the local community. Although it would appear that the filmmakers sought to cast the Tribal members in a positive light – and even provide them with physical and moral advantages over the rest of the population – they also unquestionably depict the Native American characters in the film as something other than purely human. While certainly legal under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, do such mass-media portrayals of Native peoples as “different” serve to perpetuate negative generalizations - and thereby damage the culture and dignity of an entire people?

While current films may capture the most immediate attention, popular attitudes toward even the oldest interactions between Native peoples and European immigrants still reflect stereotypes engendered through various forms of media. Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts features a re-creation of an English village from the 1600s and a Native American homesite, and Native American guides offer historical insights into the earliest connections between the two peoples. Yet a number of the thousands of people who visit daily bring with them startling misconceptions about the Native people, which still persist and are promulgated through free speech. Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said one of the first things she learned when she started working at Plimoth in Massachusetts 30 years ago was: "People will say things that will hurt you." She’s overheard parents reprimand their children by saying, "If you don't behave I am going to leave you with this Indian squaw and she will cook you for dinner." Native docents at Plimoth have endured inquiries from guests such as "Where do you get your alcohol?" and "I thought we killed all of you." Officials who run the site work to educate visitors by putting up signs asking them to avoid stereotypes, and showing a short film at the beginning of the tour explaining what really happened when the Pilgrims first arrived on the continent.

To what extent have the essentially unbridled freedoms of the First Amendment served the interests of Native peoples? Freedom itself, in the absence of the power to effectively exercise it, is often of little value for those to whom it is ostensibly granted. The percentage of traditional media outlets owned or controlled by Native Americans is small to an extreme, leaving Tribal members with a correspondingly small amount of power to shape the portrayals of their people, history, and culture through these outlets. The negative and often fraudulent portrayals of Tribal members in film, television, books produced by the mainstream media cast a pall over Native heritage throughout the 20th Century. As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Native peoples will need to be increasingly proactive in their use of new-media forms such as YouTube, blogs, and mobile communications technology in order to create an accurate and forward-thinking consciousness regarding Tribal issues. These forms of communication are acting to decentralize the transfer of information, bringing a global audience within the reach of anyone possessing an Internet connection and the determination to put forth a positive message. Capitalizing on these technologies can and should bring the freedoms of the First Amendment to bear for the benefit of all Native Americans.