In Breaking Dawn—Part 2, the big-screen finale for the “Twilight” series, fans must bid goodbye to a cast of characters that includes an Indian tribe full of werewolves. Even devotees of the saga might not be aware that the Quileute tribe actually exists.
The real-life Quileute Nation faces more risk from flooding and tsunamis than from vampires—rising sea levels threaten the single square mile that comprises the tribe’s reservation, located alongside the Pacific Ocean in La Push, Washington. Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, joined the Quileute community on Oct. 25 in celebrating new legislation, introduced nearly two years ago and signed Feb. 27, to return 785 acres of higher, safer land to the Quileute from nearby Olympic National Park.
Brotherton, who is not Quileute, brought an exhibit on the tribe to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., earlier this year: “Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves.” Pop Omnivore spoke with her and learned a few things about the tribe.
The tribe really does have a wolf connection.
“Wolves are central to their identity,” says Brotherton. The Quileute origin story tells of a “changer” called Kwati who turned a pair of wolves into humans on First Beach—the same beach where, in the “Twilight” story, the Quileute make a pact with the Cullen clan of vampires.
Quileute warriors traditionally belonged to a secret society called the Wolf Society. “They wore elaborate headdresses and had days-long initiations, and their most important cultural ceremonies have to do with being given power by wolves,” says Brotherton. Though other Quileute secret societies used to exist, the Wolf Society is the only one that has endured. New initiates—generally high-school-age, like “Twilight” ’s Jacob Black—learn the rhythmic wolf dance and eventually wear the society’s headdress, shaped like a wolf’s head.
The Quileute do believe in supernatural creatures—just not vampires.
“There are lots of legends about the creation of the landscape and the other supernatural creatures who inhabit it,” says Brotherton. Thunderbird, said to be big enough to carry a whale, lives in the Olympic Mountains, and Dask’iya, a child-eating ogress with kelp for hair, lives in the rivers.
The Quileute speak an endangered language
Jacob briefly says some words in the Quileute language in the “New Moon” installment of the Twilight series. In real life, he’d have a hard time finding a conversation partner. According to Brotherton, there is only one fluent speaker alive. But with help from linguists, the Quileute are doing their best to keep their language from dying out: “The elders started a school in 1970, and since then they’ve had language learning,” says Brotherton. Quileute is unrelated to any other living language—and the tribe has made it a priority to hold onto this singular aspect of its culture.
Reactions to the “Twilight” series have been mixed
In recent years, the Quileute’s La Push reservation has been seeing an influx in Twi-tourists. Many tribe members have welcomed the visiting fans, introducing them to Quileute customs, and the reservation’s small resort has hosted them. But the Quileute community’s feelings about the series vary. “Some of the elders we worked with said, ‘Well, we know it’s fiction, we know who we are,’ ” says Brotherton. Other tribe members were offended by the transformation of their origin story and Wolf Society into a fantasy werewolf connection.
Brotherton suspects “Twilight” helped the Quileute cause in this year’s land legislation. “There were several vocal lawmakers who worked closely with the Quileute and were aware of their notoriety” from the films, she says, “and then because of this, aware of some of their issues.” -Sharon Jacobs