A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves,” makes clear that the Quileutes’ creation story involves wolves transforming into people—but not into werewolves, as the Twilight series of books and movies would you have you believe. Artifacts also illuminate the group’s potlatches, secret societies and open-sea whaling. The exhibition relates the real story and culture of these people, who live on a 640-acre reservation at the mouth of the Quillayute River in La Push, Washington. The magazine’s Joseph Stromberg interviewed the tribe’s chairwoman, the honorable Bonita Cleveland by e-mail.
The Twilight books and films have brought a tremendous amount of interest in the Quileute people. How has this attention impacted the tribe?
The Quileute Tribal Council decided that we would take the global spotlight that we found ourselves thrust into and utilize it to share with the world the true story of the Quileute tribe by sharing our culture, traditions, food songs and stories. We have a weekly drum circle that was in place prior to the introduction of the Twilight franchise that we continue to share with our visitors. The Quileute tribe traces its ancestry back to the ice age and we have always been known as a welcoming tribe. We still welcome everyone to La Push, we just request that the visitors protect our land and respect our culture.
Was the tribe ever consulted during the publishing of the books or filming of the movies?
The author did not consult the tribe. Summit Entertainment’s production department came to the reservation prior to the filming of New Moon to consult on the daily lives of Quileute teens.
What has been the reaction among tribal members to being featured as werewolves in the series?
The reactions have been varied. We have many teenage girls who are definitely “Team Jacob” and other members and elders who have preferred that our creation story wasn’t altered, but by the time we were aware of it, it was already a phenomenon. We decided to embrace this opportunity as much as possible in a positive light. We are a multidimensional nation and we strive to be respectful of all opinions.
Are there any animals that are traditionally important to the tribe?
Yes, we are very connected with our kin, the whale, seal and salmon. These animals are deeply rooted in Quileute culture and used since the beginning of time for food, cultural and spiritual significance. We have an annual “Welcoming of the Whale” ceremony that is hosted by our children at the Quileute Tribal School. One of the photographs in the exhibit shows [the children] seeing the Orcas arrive at one of the ceremonies a few years ago. It was a very spiritual moment captured on film. The expressions ON their faces are priceless. Quileute people have always been ocean-going people, so we also enjoy those traditions associated with the water. Our ocean traditions include our annual “whale welcoming ceremony” and the annual “canoe journey.” Both empower our people. Our culture respects the ocean and all that it provides us.
The tribe has pending federal legislation on flooding issues. Is there any way to use the publicity from Twilight to direct attention to this and other real-world needs?
We have received support from [actors from the films including] Tinsel Korey, Chaske Spencer and Julia Jones regarding our legislative efforts. They have spoken publicly about the Quileute plight and solicited fan support for the tribe.
Has the tourism in Forks, Washington, and on the reservation benefited the tribe?
The increase in tourism has impacted the entire Olympic Peninsula. We mobilized Native professionals to assist us in ensuring that we were conveying a clear, concise and consistent message globally about our tribe, culture and traditions. It is important as an indigenous people that we not allow Hollywood to define who we are and I believe we have been very successful in that endeavor. We understand that we have an opportunity to educate the world about our position as a sovereign nation and the responsibility that comes when we have guests that need to know there are areas we consider “sacred” and are off limits, as well as educating on the importance of the balance of the ecosystem and not removing marine life, rocks and sand. We have links on our website to review prior to visiting that share insight regarding etiquette.