Twilight Profits and the Quileute People
In a recent post, Twilight Lexicon congratulated the new Quileute tribal council Chairwoman, writing “The staff of the Twilight Lexicon would like to congratulate Chairwoman Counsell-Geyer, and wishes the Quileute Nation continued blessings and prosperity.”
The word that stands out to me here is “prosperity.” Native American peoples do not (nor have they historically) shared in much of the prosperity of the USA – their land has been taken from them, they are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they have higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and serious illness. Wishing them “more prosperity” or “some prosperity” would have been more apt.
As Angela Riley noted in her New York Times op-ed, while the Twilight franchise has generated profits in the billion dollar range, the Quileute “remain largely excluded from the vampire series’ vast commercial empire.”
However, the comment thread from the Lexicon post suggests some fans refusal to recognize the vast profit differential of Twilight and related films/merchandise on the one hand and Quileute families on the other (half of whom, as Riley points out, live in poverty.) One such comment reads as follows:
“The Quileute Nation in recent years has been able to make a number of improvements in the lives of its members based on resort revenue, tourism, and crafting. This is on top of the income that most families earn as part of the fishing fleet.
By no means are the Quileute immune to problems that face many Native American nations; however, they are not experiencing the desperate times as others who rely upon yearly coat, blanket, and food drives.”
Another reads as follows:
“The Quileute Nation has been more prosperous than many Native American nations in recent years due to the sudden attention given to the tribe. Tourism has picked up, and the tiny tribe has something only a fraction of Native American tribes have: attention. Notice that a mere change of command was put on the biggest fan site for one of the most popular books series in the world. …
All the Lex did was congratulate the new Chair and extend good cheer. If you want to be the change that is needed, try doing something instead of nay-saying genuinely well-meaning people who aren’t hurting anybody.”
To the first comment, I agree that the books have brought some economic improvement. However, think of the HUGE disparity between how the books have benefitted Little Brown, Summit Entertainment, Stephenie Meyer and myriad actors (not to mention “twi celebrity bloggers.” I think it would be nice if some of this wealth was shared. Perhaps those who have economically benefited most (i.e. Meyer, Summit) worked in conjunction with the tribal council to find out what contributions would be most useful and then set up scholarships, grant opportunities, etc. As Riley’s article details, the Quileute “struggle to maintain adequate tribal housing and to support their tribal school, Elder Center and tribal court, all of which are integral to ensuring that their culture continues for future generations.”
As per the first commenter’s claim that the Quileute “are not experiencing the desperate times as others who rely upon yearly coat, blanket, and food drives,” I hardly find this cause for celebration. Again, the word choice, “rely,” renders the history of US colonization/genocide invisible. Why do many Native American peoples experience such hard times? These are questions neither the saga nor fandom sites tend to address.
To the second comment, I agree that attention has its benefits. But if that attention is only predatory it doesn’t do much good. What good will this post “on the biggest fan site for one of the most popular books series in the world” do for Quileute people in real life? Fan tourism may bring more jobs/revenue in the short haul, but how about in the long haul? This is where funding contributions from those who have made millions off Twilight would bring sustainable prosperity. As for the claim that I should “do something,” well, that was the point of my comment (and of this post). I am trying to raise awareness about the continuing disparity of poverty levels among Native Peoples generally and about how the representation and “celebrification” of the Quileute would benefit from critical analysis.
Though the Twilight phenomenon has brought some prosperity to Forks and La Push, it is apparent that most of the boon is going to hotel and retail proprietors in Forks rather than to La Push. As indigenous cultures have socio-historical traditions that are less overtly profit driven, it is hardly surprising that La Push has not jumped on the Twilight paraphernalia bandwagon. Further, it is free to visit First Beach (and would go against indigenous belief systems for it to be otherwise).
The NYPost piece “Vampire Vacation,” by Su-Jin Yim, details the differentials in profit between the (largely white Forks) and La Push. Noting that Forks has extensively capitalized on the saga (turning the town into a virtual Twilight-land), Yim notes that if you “drive seven miles west to La Push… the roar of the marketing machine turns to a dignified whisper.” He further documents that “ the economically depressed reservation is ambivalent about “Twilight” and how its 350 residents should capitalize on it.”
The article admits that business at the tribe-owned resort is up 30 percent, that there is now a charter boat tour package benefitting the tribe, and that the local shop stocks some Twilight souvenirs. But, as Yim notes, “It’s just not clear how much the Quileute people want to share their culture for profit.”
Ann Penn-Charles shares she has “felt judged by some tribal members because she knits the names of “Twilight” characters into traditional cowichin hats,” explaining “They’re resentful. They think we’re selling out…It’s not. It makes your car payment, or those braces your kids need.” As this quote reveals “prosperity” for this Quileute women is being able to pay the bills – it is not so much prosperity but sustainability. Being able to afford dental work is far from “prosperity” – and a world away from the prosperity Summit Entertainment, et al have reaped.
In the Lexicon post cited at the outset, the word “blessings” is also a bit problematic given the history of religious colonization. Western religion was forced on Native Peoples around the globe, usually by horrific practices such as boarding schools, splitting apart families, and via outlawing speaking indigenous languages and/or practicing indigenous belief systems.
The Twilight saga renders all of this history invisible, instead co-opting (and bastardizing) Quileute legend for its own purposes. Stephenie Meyer did not seek out the permission of the Quileute tribal council before doing so nor has she subsequently contacted the Quileute people to request permission to profit from their cultural propery. As Yim notes, Quileute members “fret about how their creation story is portrayed in the book…Meyer took literary liberty.”
It is true that the popularity of the series has benefitted the Quileute in some ways (and Quileute women I have interviewed agree.) But, they also note that very little of the profit comes their way. One woman noted that it is nice the world now knows they exist, but that it is too bad the saga once again represents Native Peoples as animalistic.
With the Twilight Convention machine in full throttle, people from the Quileute Nation are often featured at these events. However, if my experience at Twi-Con 2009 was any indication, conference attendees have little to no knowledge of the reality of Native American disenfranchisement let alone an awareness of indigenous belief systems/mythologies. At Twi-Con, Anita Wheeler, the only Quileute speaker at the convention, emphasized there are not vampires or werewolves or shape shifters in Quileute legend. She shared that many Quileute people are not happy with the books. Despite her erudite presentation, during which she shared real Quileute stories, the questions from the audience were of the “are you sure there are no werewolves” and “do you have a cute grandson” variety.
Once the panel concluded, the audience (who were visibly frustrated that Wheeler’s stories didn’t include vamps or weres) rushed to take their photos with her. The attitude and actions of some members of the audience pained me in so many ways – most did not care about the true history of Wheeler’s people, they only wanted a FREE souvenir photo to share with their Twi-friends so as to brag “look at me, I met a REAL Quileute.”
The Quileute people are not fodder for the Twilight machine and we should not be celebrating the fact the only reason we care about their history is due to a white Mormon woman appropriating their legends. I get that some good has come of this, but, as thinking fans, we need to ensure more good comes of it – that more people learn more TRUE history about Native Americans and their continuing disenfranchisement in mainstream American culture. Loving a hot Were-boy is one thing, becoming aware of a history built on genocide that has resulted in the decimation of Native Peoples is another. I fully agree with Angela Riley that the “Quileute should be able to have a say in, and benefit financially from, outsiders’ use of their cultural property.”