The Quileute tribe embraces ‘Twilight’ tourism through its own culture

By Bryn Nelson
High Country News

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, Wash., a few modest homes and buildings strung along a road that winds down to the ocean. 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.


At the Quileute Community Center on a rainy evening in April, about a dozen tourists and I have been invited to eat dinner with some 70 tribal members. Over the course of the evening, we’ve watched the community celebrate two birthdays, collect money for a family in need, hold a bake sale for its Head Start program and introduce its elementary school-aged representatives for the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque. And I have danced, awkwardly, in three dances, and drummed for a fourth.


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.


Many tribes, particularly in the Southwest, have wrestled for decades over how to reap the economic benefits of tourism without falling prey to cultural exploitation. The very nature of tourism encourages the invasion of privacy. Yet many cultural traditions value secrecy. The Quileute could have responded to the werewolf-vampire brouhaha by limiting access to their reservation. “Many tribes have some amount of skepticism -- and for good reason,” says Ben Sherman, president of the Native Tourism Alliance in Louisville, Colo. “They have had their cultures and their lands exploited in the past by outsiders, by people who are not tribal members and who perhaps benefited from some manner of tourism.”


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 Ocean-side 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. The cabins, nestled in  groves of Douglas firs and Western hemlocks, range from basic one-bed studios to townhome models with knotty pine interiors and wood-burning stoves.


Before the drum circle begins, I follow a path from my small cabin through a strip of dense dune vegetation, marveling at the driftwood logs that litter the upper beach as if tossed by a surly giant. A solitary trunk angles up from the sand near the surf, its tangle of roots stretching more than 20 feet. Sea stacks jut out from Quateata Cape like a row of broken teeth, and James Island looms off the coast like a fortress -- a sacred land and burial ground known in Quileute as A-Ka-Lat or “Top of the Rock.”


The scenery is spectacular, but it comes at a cost. 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.

To be continued next week
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