The Quileute Nation sits on one square mile of land on Washington State’s sleepy Olympic Peninsula. Surrounded by the Olympic National Forest and the Pacific Ocean, the landscape is certainly picturesque. But it’s also in the middle of a tsunami zone.
That’s why the Quileute are asking the federal government to give them land on higher ground, something only an act of Congress can achieve. And, luckily, they have considerable support in both houses. In mid-April, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Norman Dicks (D-WA) introduced legislation that would give the Quileute the land they want. The proposed legislation would also protect thousands of acres of the Olympic National Park from development, and guarantee public access to beaches along the coast.
The Tribe has gotten substantial international press for their effort, due in no small part to their prominent role as a tribe of shapeshifting werewolves in the mega-hit Twilight franchise. But there’s an important aspect of the Quileutes’ request for land at higher ground that isn’t told in the various media reports — the reason the Quileutes’ village is only one square mile in the first place.
For centuries, the Quileutes’ land “stretched along the shores of the Pacific from the glaciers of Mount Olympus to the rivers of rain forests.” They were masters at boat building, weaving, whaling and sealing. In 1855, they had their first official contact with Europeans, signing a treaty with the then-territory of Washington, where they agreed to move to their first reservation.
It was in 1889 that President Benjamin Harrison mandated that the Quileute Tribe trade their 800,000 acres of land for the 1 square mile reservation that they still call home today. 1889 was also the year that a white settler who wanted their land burned the entire reservation to the ground and with it the all of the pre-contact artifacts that had not been relocated to museums or private collections.
In 2005, after the decades-long decline of the fishing and logging industries, the Tribe had an unemployment rate of 70%. Twilight-related tourism, however, added a much-needed boost to the local economy, with business on the reservation increasing by 30%.
While the Twilight franchise has certainly helped business in the community, the Quileute Tribe still has mixed feelings about their portrayal in the books and films. Tribal member Ann Penn-Charles told the Seattle Times that,
“A lot of elders are hurt because we were portrayed as werewolves, and they didn’t want us portrayed as these wild Indians, they want people to
know we are not these crazy Indians that change into werewolves when
we get mad. We settle our differences peacefully.”
Last summer, the Tribe worked with curators on an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum to set the record straight on their real history and culture. It was the first exhibit of its kind. Indeed, in many ways the Quileute Tribe is benefiting from their turn in the spotlight.
In ancient times, as the tribes’ creation story goes, the Quileutes were transformed from wolves into humans. In the Twilight franchise, some of the fictionalized Quileutes are shapeshifting werewolves. And therein lies the problem — Twilight made the Tribe internationally famous, but it wasn’t on the terms of the Tribal members themselves. Their history and culture are fictionalized and glossed over by their wider culture. While Twilight does give them more of a means to define their history and culture by their terms on a scale they would never have been able to before, the Quileute are still fighting against a far more dominant narrative. Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, as Professor What If writes on her blog,
“… Carries on a long tradition of white authors who know little to nothing of indigenous peoples but nevertheless feel entitled to write about their cultures.
Further, Meyer carries on the tradition of using indigenous characters for “backdrop” and “color” and raises no real criticisms of the colonial project or current racial inequalities.
Similarly, it’s crucial to recognize the historical and political contexts that led the Quileute Tribe to ask the federal government for land on higher ground. After all, the contemporary size and population of its reservation is not something that happened in a vacuum. It’s not the result of innocuous circumstances; rather, it’s part of a larger pattern of brutal colonization and institutionalized discrimination of Native tribes across the Americas.
With that in mind, it’s crucial that we support the Quileute Tribe’s request for more land. Sign the petition here!