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.

New Moon -- old stereotypes?

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.