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Difficult Dialogues at the NWSA: The Colonial Gaze of Stephenie Meyer and the Resulting Representation of Indigenous Peoples as Monstrous

November 18, 2010

The following post examines how what Sherman Alexie calls a “colonial gaze” informs the Twilight texts, a gaze that silences and delegitimizes indigenous culture and theory. It is an abridged version of a talk I delivered at the NWSA conference on November 12, 2010 and is cross-posted at Womanist Musings. (Re-cap of NWSA and this week of the Twilight: The Texts and the Fandom course coming soon!)

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Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga romanticizes white privilege and the continuing rule of whites over “the Other” – which, in Twilight’s case, is the Quileute. Further, while the series has been complimented for depicting Native Americans in the modern day rather than in some mythic past, the saga nevertheless ignores present realities and injustices

Read as a racial allegory, a white, working class woman chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.
The franchising of the phenomenon has capitalized on the Native American angle in a way that is culturally and morally dubious, much like the way we might question Meyer’s inclusion of Quileute legend for her own purposes – an inclusion that was done without extensive research or scholarly inquiry, let alone (it seems) with permission from the Quileute people.

We can thus read the story of Twilight as grounded in older tales of conquest and imperialism – and in the tradition of white authors appropriating native stories and voices – though instead of the whites and Native Americans that populated the Western films that re-enacted this conquest, we now have vampires and werewolves vying over land as well as women.

Yet, if we examine Twilight in relation to the decimation of indigenous people, and with an awareness of how Christianity generally and Mormonism more specifically are related to larger colonial and missionary projects, it is no stretch to see that to ignore race in the saga is a glaring omission.

This history cannot be ignored if one is to offer a full analysis of Twilight and the cultural work it is doing. Literature historically played a huge role in the framing of Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Meyer’s texts carry on this project.

The saga’s failure to re-work damaging representations of indigenous peoples places it within a long line of white-penned narratives that variously appropriate and/or misrepresent Native culture and legend.

As noted in the introduction to Ward Churchill’s Fantasies of the Master Race, “Literature crafted by a dominating culture can be an insidious political force, disinforming people who might otherwise develop a clearer understanding of the struggles for survival faced by an indigenous population.”

The texts indeed “disinform” people about the Quileute, leading them to believe on the one hand that their legends include werewolves and, on the other, rendering the indigenous struggle for survival invisible.

Twilight produces a modern myth that equates whiteness with goodness and frames indigenous people as less evolved beasts. It thus allies with Ward Churchill’s claim that “literature in America is and always has been part and parcel of the colonial process”.

While Meyer explains her inclusion of the Quileute as coming about due to her visit to Forks and discovery of their legends, it cannot be denied that representing a real indigenous people as wolves is in accordance with a colonialist viewpoint.

Meyer readily admits that she had concerns about her depiction of the Quileute. When asked by a fan if she had “any negative recourse for the fictional portrayal of their tribal members as werewolves?”, Meyer answered:

I was pretty worried about this myself. However, to this point I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from Native Americans, both Quileute and otherwise. I actually got a letter on MySpace from a girl who is the daughter of one of the council members… and she loved the werewolf thing.

Here, Meyer’s comments reveal that she had some sense she was taking liberty with another culture’s legends and history.

Further, by obliquely referring to positive feedback about her focus on ethnicity, she averts the question of portraying tribal members AS werewolves.

In another question and answer session, when asked why she chose certain settings, Meyer shared “I was nervous about what the real life citizens of Forks would think, and more especially what the real life people of La Push would think—I’d taken some rather big liberties with their fictional history, and I wasn’t sure if they would find it amusing or irritating.”

Again, Meyer reveals an awareness that her “liberties” might be taken as an affront. What she does not seem aware of though, is how said liberties build upon a history of appropriation in the name of white, colonial interests.

Whether or not Meyer is intentionally writing from such a colonial view is not the point, – more pertinent is that her socio-historical positioning cannot help but shape her depiction of Native culture.

Or, as Sherman Alexie argues, “when non-Indians write about us, it’s colonial literature. And unless it’s seen that way, there’s a problem.”

As far as my research reveals, Meyer did not correspond with any Quileute peoples nor seek out the Tribal Council to enquire whether it was okay to depict their legends in the series, let alone to determine whether her Google research was correct.

In contrast, she did reach out to the owners of Bella Italia restaurant in Port Angeles to find out if it was okay for her to feature the restaurant in a scene. So, she got permission to write about mushroom ravioli but not an entire people (as revealed in the Twilight in Forks DVD).

Instead, Meyer read about the Quileute on the internet, just as Bella does in the series. Meyer freely admits this when discussing how she decided on the Forks setting and the inclusion of the Quileute, noting “I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs.”

A modern James Fenimore Cooper, Meyer 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.

Like Westerns, which rarely show the real diversity of Native Americans, Twilight presents the Quileute people as “russet-colored” outsiders who are romanticized as noble, exotic, and mysterious on the one hand, and dehumanized as beastly, childlike, and sexually violent on the other.

Historically, this construction resulted in native peoples being viewed quite literally as animals. In an example documented by Andrea Smith,  a California newspaper reported in 1853, “We can never rest in security until the redskins are treated like the other wild beasts of the forest.”
This line could fit quite well within Twilight with the white privileged vampires unable to rest until the “russet colored” wolves, and Jacob in particular, are “civilized.”

In the final book of the series, this colonization of the wolf is promoted when the Cullens introduce “culture” to Jacob. Sleeping and eating outside at first, in various states of undress, J is gradually “civilized” and moves inside the Cullen house, or into the white world.

While Meyer’s texts themselves largely ally with the white construction of “the Indian,” the casting choice of Lautner also falls in line with a long history of non-native actors being cast to play indigenous parts.

However, after the ruckus over Lautner’s casting, Native actors were cast to play various roles for the second film, though none of them are Quileute. Alex Meraz, who plays Paul, was mindful of the weightiness of his casting, sharing

In essence, even though we’re taking some of their mythology, their creation story and it’s mixed in a fantasy, still we’re taking from the culture. Being Native, we needed to be conscious of that and ask permission to the people of the past, present and of the future … Native Americans…have a right to be protective of their stories.

Putting a rather positive spin on the saga’s depiction of the Quileute, Meraz further explains:

I think it’s time for us to kind of rewrite what Hollywood’s take on Native Americans was, which was long hair blowing, noble kind of people, leather and feather period pieces. So now you see something in a contemporary setting, and you see us to be humans. It’s great.

While it’s true the saga avoids the usual tendency to depict Natives as only living in (or stuck in) the past, Meraz’s claim that the saga shows them as humans glosses over the fact that the texts (and the film adaptations) focus on the wolf identity of the Quileute – on their animality more than their humanity.

Moreover, not only does Twilight frame America as the new frontier for vampires (with Forks being the Western resting place of these good pioneers), it constructs La Push (and non-white society) as “outside,” Other, and poverty-stricken.

Meyer’s depiction of a “treaty” between the Cullen vampires and the Quileute wolves also problematically echoes earlier historical treaties between Native Americans and the Federal Government.  However, Meyer’s fictional treaty differs dramatically from the real life Treaty of Olympia, signed between the Quileute nation and the US in 1856. While the historical treaty resulted in the loss of Quileute land and sovereignty, the treaty in Twilight offers a relatively peaceful means of co-existence.

Meanwhile, for the real Quileute people of La Push, land issues remain a concern and boundary disputes with Washington State continue.  For them, the “treaty line” signs that have been put up on the road that leads from Forks to La Push likely have a much different significance than for the fans who regularly pose by the signs, taking home photo shots that celebrate the fictionalization of a real people and once again render indigenous culture tourism fodder.

To conclude, though the stereotypical depiction of Quileute as noble-savages morphed into werewolves can be brushed off via the claim this the series is meant to be a fantasy, we cannot pretend that such depictions do not contribute to dominant notions of race shaping US culture.

The fact that the series depicts a real group of indigenous people, one that, like most indigenous groups, has been decimated by colonization, torn apart by practices such as Indian Boarding Schools, and forced to assimilate into white culture and belief systems, is problematic. The series does not touch on such history let alone address the lasting legacy of colonialism.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2010 3:21 am

    Brilliant! I would’ve loved to have heard you present this to the conference attendees.

    I do have a question. What do you think about the fact that the Quileutes only turn into werewolves in the presence of vampires–the epitome of white privilege? I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Second law of Thermodynamics applied here, this is a reaction to an equal and opposite action. How can an unchangeable force induce a changeable one? Are the vampires so pure that their proximity transforms others into their true selves?

    That’s what has been ruminating in my mind, but I wanted to hear other input, as well. There’s something I’m missing and it’s bugging me. Thanks.

    Btw, welcome back! It’s been too quiet in this forum. :)

  2. November 20, 2010 2:07 am

    When reading twilight, never once did I read it as white vs native or even vampires vs werewolves(shapeshiters). More as a choice being made between two different life paths.

    I agree that if Meyer insisted on using the Quilietes as her werewolf basis then she should have spoken to the tribe etc instead of relying on google. (Read Diana Gabaldon or Philippa Gregory, hours of research info and bibliography’s are included with each book they write in regards to history although the books are fiction). However, would the debate be there if she just made up a tribe that doesn’t exist?

    Now in regards to using the werewolf legend. I don’t see anything wrong with the legend and never once did I perceive the tribe as being portrayed as “dehumanized as beastly, childlike, and sexually violent on the other.” Yes, I can see how some would see the incident between Sam and Emily being viewed as beastly and I agree it was a little much. It can also be argued that Sam losing his temper on Emily and injuring her in wolf form is no different that domestic violence and the victim being caught in the pattern of not leaving. But for me, is not representative of the tribe. As well, several times in New Moon and Eclipse Jacob is described as being Bella’s sun, her light and warmth during her dark days both before and after he turned wold. As well Sam, Jared and Paul were dispatched to find Bella in the forest when Edward left her and were called the protectors by other members of the tribe. In New Moon, they are referenced as having chanced a drug dealer off the reservation. These things don’t sound beastly, sexually violent or childlike.

    I found how the Werewolf legend was portrayed as yes a burden but also a great pride to the tribe. I never viewed it as derogatory but I think that Meyer should have been more responsible when writing about an existing tribe. But again as I stated at the beginning of my comment, I think the book was more about options and life choices and consequences, not us vs them.

    • November 20, 2010 2:10 am

      her light and warmth during her dark days both before and after he turned wold.

      Should be : her light and warmth during her dark days both before and after he turned WOLF. (oops)

  3. Tiferet permalink
    December 9, 2010 5:57 pm

    :( I never googled the Quileutes–I assumed she made them up because how could anyone do that to a real tribe composed of real people? Now I am all *sadface* but if Native Americans are loving it, I’m glad for that at least.

  4. Young Scholar permalink
    May 17, 2011 8:13 am

    I found your discourse on Twilight very well-needed! There is always something about dances with wolves, john ford, or smoke signals which are dated as recent as the 90′s. It’s very hard to find critiques on the current movies.
    However I find that you find ways to demonize the Twilight saga. What about the way the cullens are seen as savages? They have shark-like uncontrolable reactions to the fainest amounts of blood. ALice is practically an insane person, Rosalie is a murder, Esmee tried to commit suicide?? The Cullen’s are quite savage as well.
    Also that this depiction is opening doors for more Natives in the Media, and able to stat dialoguing about Native American representation in filmmaking. People are now able to talk about these issues we are today, and could spur more interest and awareness of othe Native Film, accurate portrayals, and issues that Natives don’t always get attention for.
    Also what about Sherman Alexie captilizing off of Native Stories that give us a far worse portrayal then Jacob and that doesn’t really include women in. Like seymour in business of fancing dancing?
    (Although it would be nice to know if the Twilight saga gives to the Quilete Tribe)

    I appreciate your view and what you have to say because it needs to be said. But I also appreciate Twilight for at least including Natives and allowing us to come back on screen. It’s not a decolonizing approach, and it is not a perfect portrayal. But it is a step up from past Hollywood images because our voices are now being heard and are relevant again. This is an opportunity to fix misconceptions and have Native voices be heard and maybe even be taken more serious in cinema. Not just actors but Native filmakers, Native muscians, Native artists-Native people.

    • Natalie Wilson permalink*
      May 23, 2011 11:27 pm

      Young Scholar,
      Thank you for your comment and please accept my apologies for the delayed reply.
      It is not my aim to demonize the saga, but to offer critiques that promote deeper analysis and engagement.
      I don’t agree that the Cullens are presented as savages. Yes, they do react like sharks to blood, but this is framed as something most have them have been able to overcome – esp our heroes, Edward and Carlisle. The Quileute, on the other hand, can’t control their anger (Sam) or their desires (Jacob).
      And I do think doors being opened in the media is a positive thing and that it has sparked discussion about accurate portrayals. This is all good.
      I am not sure which Sherman Alexie works you refer to, but he is a Native Author and I think that makes the matter somewhat different…
      As far as all my research indicates, the Twilight franchise does not give to the Q tribe. They have made some profit from the popularity of the saga from increase in tourism, etc but they are not rolling in the profits like Meyer and Summit Entertainment, that is for sure.
      And I hope along with you that the saga promotes more opportuniities for Native peoples and more awareness of the cultural genocide they are still encountering.

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