Five Quileute boys emerge from a phalanx of drummers. Barefoot and bare-chested, they wear black cloaks and wolf headdresses, and dance, crouch, and crawl within the center of a large circle. On the outskirts, women and girls move rhythmically to a chant and steady drumbeat, several of them sporting red and black capes emblazoned with orca or elk, thunderbird or hummingbird. Every generation is represented, from drumming elders to mothers teaching toddlers to follow their footwork.
No souvenir photos of this dance are allowed, only the chance to witness the traditional steps and songs that evoke the tribe’s spiritual kinship with wolves, whom K’wati the Transformer turned into the first Quileute people.
The Wolf Dance is at the core of the tribe’s identity, and marks the climax of a weekly drum and healing circle, held in the fishing village of La Push, Washington. This free event, a combination of religious ceremony, public exhibition, cultural exchange and communal catharsis, is remarkable not only for its community spirit but also for its openness to outsiders.
About 400 of the Quileute Nation’s approximately 750 enrolled members live in La Push, on a reservation that, until recently, measured only one square mile, surrounded by the Quillayute River, Olympic National Park, and the unpredictable waters of the Pacific Ocean. Historically, the tribe was known for its well-made cedar canoes and seal-hunting prowess. Small-scale commercial fishing is still a financial and cultural force, but with unemployment rates long exceeding 50 percent, tourism has become a new economic focus.
Five years ago, most tourists made the trek to La Push—a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle followed by a three-and-a-half-hour drive across the Olympic Peninsula—to fish, surf, kayak, bird-watch, or experience the epic winter storms slamming the rugged coastline. Then the blockbuster Twilight books and movies thrust the tiny reservation into the spotlight as the fictional home of werewolves battling vampires from the nearby off-reservation town of Forks. La Push doesn’t keep track, but the Forks Chamber of Commerce saw its visitors surge from less than 5,000 in 2004 to 19,000 in 2008 to 73,000 in 2010. Officials attribute most of the jump to Twilight, and say the trend is likely similar in La Push.
The Quileute tribe could have responded to the werewolf-vampire brouhaha by limiting access to their reservation. But La Push has a high regard for hospitality. “The Quileute have always been a welcoming tribe,” Tribal Council Chairman Tony Foster says. Despite a history of betrayals by non-Natives, the tribe has embraced the attention of today’s younger demographic, seizing the opportunity to showcase its surroundings and share its culture. The risk seems to be paying off.
The tribally owned Quileute Oceanside Resort, a significant local employer, recently refurbished its 44 cabins, 28 motel rooms, campground and RV park near the reservation’s almost pristine First Beach. Televisions and phones have been excluded, emphasizing the sense of isolation.
Legends tell how the tribe rode out a great flood that washed the Chimakum, their closest kin, to the other side of the Olympic Peninsula. More than eight feet of rain falls here yearly, and a subduction zone just beyond the coastline has raised serious alarms: A catastrophic earthquake and tsunami could easily wipe out much of the reservation. There is only one road that leads to safety, and the tribe estimates it might have—at most—eight minutes to evacuate the lower village.
The Quileute have struggled for centuries to retain their land and culture amid outside threats. In 1889, the same year a treaty squeezed the tribe onto a fraction of its ancestral lands, a settler who’d fraudulently claimed the remaining plots burned all 26 houses to the ground. By 1920, the last of the peninsula’s wolves had been poisoned, shot or trapped, severing another vital link to the past.
The road leading to La Push from Highway 101 is now lined with references to Twilight, from the Wolf Den and Jacob Black rental cabins to a sign reading: “No Vampires Beyond This Point. Treaty Line.” The Internet is filled with Quileute charms, jewelry, T-shirts—even bottles of sand allegedly gathered from First Beach. Almost none of this is sanctioned by the tribe.
In 2010, a volunteer advisor, Angela Riley, director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, wrote an editorial in The New York Times, “Sucking the Quileute Dry,” which blasted the ongoing exploitation. In perhaps the worst instance, an MSN.com film crew working on a virtual Twilight tour filmed the reservation’s cemetery without permission, pairing grainy images of the gravesites of respected elders with a creepy soundtrack. Deeply offended, the tribe secured a quick public apology and removal of the footage, but the incident prompted a new level of vigilance. Now, the Quileute Nation has an etiquette guide and photography policy, both prominently displayed on its website.
When the Twilight craze first erupted, the Quileute lacked a public relations contact and events coordinator. Ann Penn-Charles, a community leader who helps run the weekly drum and healing circle, says producers of the first movie randomly called villagers in hopes of securing permission to film a scene on First Beach. (It was ultimately shot on the Oregon coast instead.) The producers eventually visited La Push to get a better sense of the community. Tribal Secretary Naomi Jacobson says their ideas of Quileute kids were upended when they visited her cousin’s home. “They didn’t expect them to be modernized teenagers with iPods and Wii,” she says.
Five years have passed since then, though, and the village has adjusted. Jackie Jacobs, the tribal publicist since 2009, has recruited several Twilight actors to visit the school and appear at the annual Quileute Days celebration in July. This festival has become the reservation’s biggest tourist draw, and summer stays at the resort now require booking months in advance. When Jacobs asked some kids about how La Push has changed, she got a matter-of-fact response. “You definitely have to look now when you’re crossing the street,” they told her.
In the resort’s main office, hand-crafted basket earrings, drums, and decorative canoe paddles share display space with autographed pictures of movie stars. Centuries ago, the Quileute tribe and other coastal tribes bred fluffy dogs for woven dog-hair blankets. Both the breed and art form are lost, though Penn-Charles and her mother knit woolen hats adorned with animals and geometric shapes. They too have adapted to the Twilight fans; one girl commissioned four purple-and-white “Team Edward” yarn hats last summer.
“The economic factor is big for our people who still do their arts and crafts,” says Penn-Charles. In the summer, some of the tribe’s youngsters sell handmade charm bracelets, rocks painted with wolf paw prints, and “La Push” and “Quileute” stickers, earning enough money to buy back-to-school clothing and supplies.
Group tours offer traditional meals served at the beach—crunchy biscuit-like “buckskin bread” and salmon cooked on sticks—along with the chance to sit around a bonfire and hear traditional stories. The outings—usually arranged through a new events coordinator—have generated much-needed income, and provided new ways for traditions and tales to be passed down to the next generation.
The recent attention may have helped inspire other, more lasting changes. For decades, the tribe has fought to win back some higher ground. This February, Congress finally passed the Quileute Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection Act, which transfers 785 acres of national park property and an additional 184 acres of non-federal tribal land into a trust for the tribe—more than doubling the reservation’s size. In addition to the culturally significant floodplain known as Thunder Field, an upland parcel to the south will allow the reservation to move its school, tribal offices, elder center and other crucial infrastructure to safer locations.
Tribal members believe that their welcoming attitude helped make the difference by inspiring Twilight fans to launch social media campaigns on their behalf.
The drum and healing circle offers one of the clearest displays of Quileute hospitality and culture. For one dance, a guest drummer-in-residence from Vancouver Island asks me to mirror his movements. We swoop like eagles around the circle, dipping low first to one side, and then the other.
After the event, Tribal Vice-Chairperson DeAnna Hobson and I linger under the community center’s covered porch. She tells me stories of her youth, worries about the aftereffects of the Japanese tsunami, and describes the tribe’s reinvigorated determination to protect itself from a similar disaster. Then she gives me a hug before heading home for the night.
Perhaps the welcome I’ve received is more effusive than usual; I am, after all, a reporter scribbling furiously in a notebook. Visiting the Quileute may be different for tourists in the crush of midsummer. But I haven’t been the only guest welcomed tonight like a long-lost friend, invited to participate in a unique celebration that began with a communal meal and ended with the sacred dance of the wolves.
For more information, a primer on Indian Country etiquette, and accommodations at the Quileute Oceanside Resort, visit the Quileute Nation website.
Bryn Nelson is a freelance science writer and editor with a special interest in biomedicine, green tech, ecology, and the environment. Excerpted from High Country News, (June 25, 2012), an award-winning, twice-monthly magazine focused on the environmental news of the American West.