Quileute separate fact from fiction for 'Twilight' fans

November 10, 2010

Quileute separate fact from fiction for 'Twilight' fans

Quileute children point and observe in delight as three pods of whales approach the beach
during the Quileute's Calling the Whales ceremony.
(Courtesy of Photo by Chris Cook)

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

Seattle, Wash.-- The Seattle Art Museum opened an exhibition of some of the oldest-known objects from the Quileute Nation, including more than a dozen items that have never been displayed from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

The exhibition, "Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves," is meant to provide a counterpoint to the popular "Twilight" series of books and movies, which fictionalizes the Northwest tribe and its origins. When the first movie came out in 2008, the Quileute's one-square-mile reservation in a remote part of coastal Washington state instantly became a worldwide destination for tween fans.

But real Quileute have nothing in common with the werewolves that the movies interpret them to be, as 1,600 people who crowded into the Seattle museum this summer to see the tribe's teens and adults perform their ancient wolf dances soon learned firsthand.

"After 'Twilight' came out, I got my ears pinned back by some of our elders," said Ann Penn-Charles, a Quileute, who dances and shares her culture with her tribe's youth. She is known as Miss Ann. "They said, 'How dare they portray us as werewolves? That's so disrespectful. I want you guys to go represent us the way we Quileute are meant to be.'
"When you get directives from the elders like that you have to honor them. A lot of our youth were like, 'We're not werewolves.' We have been here since the beginning of the flood. Our kids are like, 'Man, we've got to show it.'"

When Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art for the Seattle Art Museum, came to Quileute in the summer of 2009 to ask if an exhibition at the museum would help dispel stereotypes, she found the Quileute more than willing.

Gathering the exhibit

Brotherton scoured museums and archives across the U.S. looking for historic Quileute cultural materials. While the tribe has lived on the Pacific Coast since time immemorial, it sustained a major cultural loss in 1888 when a homesteader burned the Quileute village, destroying most of the tribe's longhouses and their precious contents. A year later, the reservation at La Push was established by an executive order from President Benjamin Harrison.

In 1916, Leo J. Frachtenberg, an anthropologist and teacher at a federal Indian boarding school near Salem, Ore., obtained several Quileute ceremonial objects for famed New York collector George Gustav Heye. Frachtenberg sent Heye a letter reporting that Quileute culture was devastated.

Heye assembled a collection of nearly a million Native objects, which was purchased in 1989 by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. It provided many of the Seattle exhibition's 25 objects, including a painted-wood wolf headdress and a cedar basket with wolf-head designs. Most had never been seen by living Quileute people, and most of the pieces had never been exhibited before.

Between 1905 and 1909, Albert Reagan, a teacher and Indian agent at Quileute, asked the children in his school to draw their culture. The results were rich and vivid, depicting a living culture.

The children's work was later deposited in the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives, where it remained unknown to the Quileute for a century. Brotherton convinced curators to let the fragile drawings, made with colored pencil on paper, come to Seattle so that descendants of those artists could see the work. Although the children who made them grew up to be the grandparents and great-grandparents of today's Quileute, no one remembered any drawings being made.

But the descendants of James Hobucket, one of the young artists, told Penn-Charles that they remember him as an adult using a stick to draw on the sand, and then letting his pictures wash away in the tide.

The century-old drawings depict simple scenes of deep culture--a coming-of-age dance in which people crawl covered in wolf skins while others decorate themselves with salal branches; a wolf society ceremony in which men wear carved wooden headdresses and bark aprons; a public competition between two shamans to see who was more powerful; a whaling canoe with a whale being pulled alongside.

Penn-Charles said the drawings are bringing back information, such as details of the regalia men wore at the time, skirts made from cedar bark. Still, she wishes there were more images to answer more questions.

Brotherton thinks the drawings show how alive the culture was to the Quileute children in 1905-1909.

"Clearly, these kids were watching wolf dances, even if it was outlawed and only being done privately."

The exhibition doesn't dwell on the books and movies that prompted it, except to show Quileute objects or types of tribal objects that have appeared in the films. The movie character Emily, who is supposed to be Makah, wears a carved paddle necklace, like those commonly worn by the Quileute, the Makah and other tribes in the area. A replica of a deer-hide drum borrowed by the film crew from a Quileute girl is on display. And a dream catcher featured in the movies is not Quileute at all, but is made more "coastal Indian" by the inclusion of beach glass and a wolf charm.

The Quileute opens the door to their culture

"Twilight" has drawn tourists from all over the world to the Quileute reservation, about a four-hour drive west of Seattle in a rainy corner of Washington state. Rather than closing their borders, the Quileute have let the world in to the Wednesday night drum and dance circle where they teach their culture to their children. Instead of focusing on the liberties Stephenie Meyer took in making up a fictional culture for a tribe and naming it Quileute, the Quileute have focused on getting more of their youth to dance, to know their songs and practice the culture that makes them distinct in the entire world.

"When we do our dances we carry our families; we dance to represent our families," Penn-Charles said. "We dance all together as one, and never turn away anyone from dancing. The elders don't like it when only certain people go up to dance. If someone wants to dance we let them all dance. If they have a shawl, we bring them out, and always bring extra shawls."

One of the Quileute youth told Brotherton that if he were making the "Twilight" movies, he would have put a lot of Quileute culture in, because it's a great culture.

"I think there is a real intelligence among Quileute kids," Brotherton said, "that 'Twilight' is Hollywood, and Hollywood does what it wants to do--but they know who they are.'

For more information: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.


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