This is a piece I wrote as a grad student. I never got the chance to try to publish it when it was a relevant piece, and the moment has kind of passed, but I want to put it on here anyway as the major ideas are still very timely and important.
“Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.” ~Albert Camus
Truth is blinding and falsehood is beautiful. The truth about much in this world depends upon who is in enough power to tell the story. Inaccuracies in history books, classrooms, government documents, and popular literature often go unnoticed, unspoken about, ignored. Does this mean that it doesn’t hurt or cause damage to those the inaccuracies are about, or just that the majority of society is too caught up in the beauty of the lies? What may appear beautiful to the storyteller can cause a great deal of pain and hardship for those whom the falsehoods are about. Such is the case with the popular Twilight series written by Stephenie Meyer. Meyer’s inaccurate depiction of the Quileute tribe reinforces un-truths about this and all Native American groups still holding to their sacred traditions. In her effort to make a beautiful fantasy, Meyer perpetuates falsehoods. What could have been a truly enlightening and educational opportunity for the millions of readers and viewers of the Twilight series instead continues a mutation of reality that works against the decolonizing efforts of America’s tribal people.
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison deals with the pain that a distorted truth such as the “white man’s” view of an African American can bring. She explains,
The literature of the United States, like its history, represents commentary on the transformations of biological, ideological, and metaphysical concepts of racial difference. But the literature has an additional concern and subject matter: the private imagination interacting with the external world it inhabits. Literature redistributes and mutates in figurative language the social conventions of Africanism. (65-66)
The truth lies in the mouth of the storyteller, and in the case of many groups of people, the truth told about them comes from an empirical group that deems them different, inferior, the other. Morrison makes the distinction that “Africanism” has to do with the “denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreading that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (6-7). When what is written about a group of people is not true in any way, it works to enforce rather than eradicate assumptions that others have on the said group. Her viewpoint on what occurs with African Americans relates to what happens to Native Americans, and what is continuing to happen the Quileute nation of La Push, Washington, as made popular through the wide selling Twilight series written by Stephenie Myer.
In this four-book series, the Quileute tribe serves Meyer’s purpose as she uses the “legends” of the tribe at first as a means to provide information to the main character Isabella Swan while she is trying to learn more about her pale, handsome, and suspiciously cold and gifted obsession, Edward Cullen, a vampire. Bella first learns of Jacob Black, the main Quileute character, and his ability to give her information when she is visiting the La Push reservation with a group of friends in the first book of the series, Twilight. Upon running into Jacob and a few of his friends from the reservation, it is suggested that Jacob keep Bella company while the group is surfing since her “date,” Edward Cullen, declined her invitation. One of the Quileute boys comments, “The Cullens don’t come here” (121), which rouses Bella’s insatiable curiosity. In order to learn more about the Cullens, Bella manages to get Jacob alone and persuades him to tell her about his tribe and the stories that Jacob himself doesn’t seem to believe. The idea of a teenage girl flirting with a teenage boy to get something she wants is nothing new, but there is an irony in the fact that her insatiable curiosity ends when the information is more focused on the tribe and Jacob than leading her toward her true interest, Edward Cullen. Bella’s lack of interest for the sanctity of the legends mirrors that of Stephenie Meyer. One interesting difference arises, however, between Meyer and her protagonist Bella: Bella recognizes that she is using someone to suit her own devices while Meyer does not.
According to Meyer’s official website, “Originally, Jacob was just a device. In Twilight, Bella needed a way to find out the truth about Edward, and the conveniently located Quileute Tribe, with all their fantastic legends, provided a cool option for that revelation. And so Jacob was born—born to tell Bella and Edward’s secret.” Is it any surprise that in today’s society, a group of Native Americans come across as just a “cool” option for a white person to use to make money at the expense and exploitation of the native’s tribe? There is an unfortunate American pattern of taking something sacred from a group of people, tweaking it to one’s liking, and using it as a means to mass produce a product generating an immense amount of profit for the maker without any regard for the sanctity of truth and accuracy. It probably doesn’t surprise many, for it has happened to groups such as the Native Americans, African Americans, and every other ethnic group possible throughout time, and it is still occurring in today’s society with the ever popular Twilight series in both film and book versions. Most people do not see what is not directly affecting them, especially when they find beauty in the falsehoods that hypnotize them into complicity. Since the Quileute Nation is only made up of about 700 members, their voice remains silent.
Meyer does acknowledge and pay homage to the Quileute Nation on her official website by stating, “The Quileute (Quill-yoot) legends Jacob tells Bella in chapter six of Twilight are all genuine Quileute stories that I learned when I was researching the tribe (which is a real tribe with a truly fascinating and mystical history).” Angela Riley, the director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, who informally advises the Quileute Tribe as a volunteer, wrote an article entitled “Sucking the Quileute Dry” for the NY Times in February of 2010. Riley elaborates on how the infectious disrespect for the Quileute nation carries over to MSN.com when they feel it necessary to seek permission from the Chamber of Commerce in Forks, Washington, “But didn’t pay the same courtesy to the Quileute” when interested in using the land for videotaping a virtual tour. In fact, this group “trespassed onto a reservation cemetery and taped Quileute graves, including those of esteemed tribal leaders.” Had Stephenie Meyer educated her public about the Quileute tribe, perhaps MSN.com would have thought they deserved more respect and consideration before trespassing on their land to tape a “Twilight” virtual tour. Interestingly enough, this article also reveals that “The Quileute say they have never been contacted by Ms. Meyer or any of those who use the Quileute name for merchandising.” While portions of tribal history are in the entire four book series, it is finally in book three Eclipse, that Meyer chooses to include a glimpse into the Quileute culture and history when Bella attends a tribal council meeting. Jacob’s father, Billy Black, begins to tell the “histories we always thought were legends” (243) and introduces the idea of spirit warriors. Billy explains how the Quileute, with their tribe always being small in number were able to survive due to the “magic” in their blood. When a larger tribe attacked the Quileutes, the first remembered spirit warrior Kaheleha led the Quileutes to victory through the use of magic. Meyer writes, “He and all his warriors left the ship—not their bodies, but their spirits. … They could not physically touch the enemy tribe, but they had other ways. The stories tell us that they could blow fierce winds into their enemy’s camps… that the animals could see the spirit warriors and understand them; the animas would do their bidding” (245). Kaheleha used the large pack dogs that this invading tribe had against their enemies, along with a group of bats that came up from the cliff caverns and chased this invading tribe away. The Quileutes do not in fact turn into giant wolves as Meyers portrays in her novels and films, but the truth is hardly important. Afterwards, the spirit warriors returned to their bodies and “other nearby tribes, the Hohs and the Makahs, made treaties with the Quileutes. They wanted nothing to do with our magic” (246). The tribe enjoyed peace for many years until the last spirit chief, Chief Taha Aki and one of his warriors Utlapa.
As Meyer depicts it, Utlapa joined Chief Taha Aki in the spirit world one day, moved the Chief’s body from its hiding place and destroyed his own. Utlapa entered the Chief’s body with his own spirit and left the Chief in the spirit world with no escape. Utlapa, as Chief Taha Aki, banned everyone from entering the spirit world any longer, so that no one would find out what he had done and would not venture there himself for fear that the Chief would reclaim his body. In an attempt to save the tribe from the tyranny that Utlapa was causing as Chief, Taha Aki sent a wolf from the mountains to destroy his body, but destroyed an innocent man instead. This wolf followed Taha Aki’s spirit through the woods as he was overcome with grief at the killing and being unable to save his tribe from Utlapa. Taha Aki was jealous of this animal and its body but was inspired. Meyer writes, “He asked the great wolf to make room for him, to share. The wolf complied… As one, the man and the wolf returned to the village on the harbor” (249). At first people were afraid of this animal, but it did not attack the warriors. It became obvious this was no ordinary wolf, but one influenced by a spirit. Against the chief’s orders, one warrior, Yut, entered the spirit world and gathered the truth from Taha Aki. Yut ends up being killed by Utlapa, which causes Taha Aki to join with the wolf again. The rage that fills Taha Aki and the wolf caused “the greatest magic” to happen. Meyer explains, “Taha Aki’s anger was the anger of a man. The love he had for his people and the hatred he had for their oppressor were too vast for the wolf’s body, too human. The wolf shuddered, and—before the eyes of the shocked warriors… transformed into a man.” (250). Ultimately, Utlapa is defeated, but Taha Aki is never the same again. “He led the tribe for many, many years, for he did not age. When danger threatened, he would resume his wolf-self to fight or frighten the enemy…Taha Aki fathered many sons, and some of these found that, after they had reached the age of manhood, they, too, could transform into wolves”(251).
This is only the beginning though, according to Eclipse. Meyer takes this already adapted story and goes a step further with the involvement of vampires coming into the area and how they became the ultimate enemy killing off many of the wolf warriors. The Quileutes did not know what they were up against in this new opponent and finally due to the self-sacrifice of Taha Aki’s human third wife they are able to defeat the cold one, but only after the third wife’s two, non-adult children are so filled with rage they prematurely transform into wolves and help their aged father Taha Aki destroy the “cold one”(258-9). It is in this final twist of the story where Meyer sets up how the Quileutes only change to wolves when there is the presence of “cold ones,” thereby making her story’s success possible. Meyer takes the myths of a group of people and twists them towards her own end without regard for the effects it will have.
Interestingly enough, after spending time with the Quileutes during this tribal council meeting, Meyer has Bella focusing on her own interests. Bella says, “My mind was a thousand years away. I was not thinking of Yaha Uta or the other wolves, or the beautiful Cold Woman…I was thinking of someone outside the magic altogether. I was trying to imagine the face of the unnamed woman who had saved the entire tribe, the third wife” (260). Rather than being struck by the beauty and tradition of this group of people she is surrounded by, Bella focuses her attention elsewhere. Bella is the representation of the typical white reaction to Native American culture: it is fascinating only on the whites’ terms or when enabling personal gain.
So, if that is Meyer’s adaptation of what happened, what is the truth? Paige Dickerson of the Peninsula Daily News asks the same question in her article “Twilight Fiction Doesn’t Always Jibe with Quileute Legend” and shares her experience speaking with Chris Morganroth III, a tribal elder. Morganroth’s grandmother told the traditional stories and kept up other traditional ways of living. This tribal elder explains the origin of the Quileutes and their relationship with the wolf, which Meyers draws upon in her fiction series. Dickerson retells this origin:
If you begin to look into the stories and how we got to be here, they go back to the beginning of time. Before that, Spirit beings could transform themselves into animals or people at will. There were even living beings in outer space, such as the sun. They called those people the fire sky people. After some time, the Spirit beings had to choose what they would be and were no longer able to transform.
These spirit beings are not werewolves. They do not transform from man to gigantic wolf with the stimulation of a predator in the area. The only similarities to what Meyer uses in the series is that there are beings who are not totally human, who are linked in a special way to the wolf species. In the tribal legends, the spirit beings are sacred to the Quileute nation and explain their creation and existence. Many Christians across the world get upset when someone says something inaccurate about stories from the Bible, which is not much different than how many Native Americans feel when their legends are altered. One spirit being of particular significance in the actual tribal legends is that of K’wati. He is not even mentioned in the Twilight series. Morganroth is quoted as explaining K’wati’s importance:
K’wati came into the area of LaPush and found that there were no humans. He went to the mouth of the river and there were wolves, timber wolves. Now these wolves always travel in pairs and they mate for life. K’wati saw that there were no people in this area near LaPush. So he transformed that pair of wolves into the Quileute people. K’wati is a supernatural figure in Quileute stories who transforms people or objects… ”He wasn’t really a god, but a transformer—he was put on Earth to make things better,” said Morganroth.
Perhaps the Quileutes are wondering where K’wati is now to “make things better.” Very little of the sacred nature of this group of people and their traditions, customs, and beliefs is communicated through Meyer’s texts. The werewolf feature of the Twilight series is completely fictional and something that Myer adds to sensationalize the Quileute legends into what would be more marketable. Considering the fact that Meyer’s version of werewolves is nothing like most popular depictions relating to full moons, etc., what would have been the harm to stick closer to the tradition of the Quileutes and educate rather than misinform the public? Meyers takes the time to try to authenticate her adaptation of the werewolf for her texts, as evidenced through a conversation between Jacob and Bella in New Moon: Bella asks, “ ‘What would happen … if you got too mad?’ Jake responds, ‘I’d turn into a wolf,’ …“You don’t need a full moon?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Hollywood’s version doesn’t get much right.’” Well said Jacob. Perhaps if authors like Meyer took the time to “get it right,” there wouldn’t be so much confusion and misinterpretation. It is precisely as Toni Morrison states in her text Playing in the Dark; when the “private imagination” joins with the outside world, the literature “redistributes and mutates in figurative language” (65-66). While Meyer was applying her imaginative or poetic license to the legend of the Quileute tribe, she was contributing to a mutation of the truth about this group of people that she never attempts to rectify.
Both Bella and Meyer work together to contribute to, rather then help solve, ideas of Orientalism and ethnocentrism rampant in today’ society. Edward Said states, “Orientalism is… the manufacture of the other… for the purposes of domination.” Bella uses information given to her by the Quileute tribe during the council meeting for her own person benefit. She uses Jacob to find out about Edward. She uses Jacob to heal herself when she has been abandoned. She uses the stories told during the tribal council meeting she is privileged to take part in to create a personal role in the fight that ensues at the end of Eclipse. During this fight between wolf and vampire, Bella steals the idea of the third wife. The third wife in the Myer’s version of the legend purposely spills her own blood during a battle to distract the vampires. Bella takes this idea from to help save Edward later in the novel and never even gives credit to where she learns this stunt. Similarly, Meyer’s use of what is helpful about the Quileute tribe to further her success as a novelist without regard to the truth or education of her public also furthers the cause of Orientalism. While not directly dominating the Quileute tribe or Native Americans in general, further proliferation of anything less than the truth about a culture, adding to stereotypes rather then deconstructing them, is an Orientalist pattern.
This, of course, is nothing new. In 1879, in “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe made a statement about injustices that were done to his tribe, when a General Miles made false promises to him and his people about returning to their homes in Idaho. He states, “There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Too many misrepresentations have come up between the white men about the Indians” (12). It is now 2010 and the exact same issues are relevant for Native American peoples. They are misrepresented and no one stops to think about it, care, or attempt to rectify the situation. According to Carol Memmott and Mary Cadden of USA Today, Meyer has sold 40 million copies of her four books since their release in October 2005. Of those 40 million book purchasers, 70,000 interested fans have visited the Quileute Nation in 2009 to hear “traditional storytelling on special fan weekends” (Florio). While 70,000 visitors to the reservation appears to be a step in the right direction, it is nothing in comparison to the millions of people Meyer could have educated had she taken the time and consideration to include something of the truth about the Quileute nation in her novels – perhaps as a prologue or epilogue.
In Dickerson’s “Twilight Fiction Doesn’t Always Jibe…” she interviews tribal councilwoman Anna Rose Counsell who comments that “The Twilight phenomenon gives the Quileutes the opportunity to educate those about who we are by way of sharing our own stories, food, song and dance passed down from generation to generation.” As wonderful as this may be, there are too many readers who have not yet and will not get this chance to visit the reservation and learn for themselves about the atrocious misrepresentation they have assimilated as truth through their reading of the series. Waiting to correct the situation until the public comes to the reservation is not enough. Debbie Reese is a Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and a teacher at UIUC’s American Indian Studies program who keeps a blog and website, “American Indians in Children’s Literature.” Reese comments on a second article by Paige Dickerson for the Peninsula Daily News entitled, “What did Jacob Say to Bella?” In this article there is frenzy over the statement from Jacob Black to Bella Swan before their almost-kiss in New Moon. The frenzy is created because the statement is in the Quileute language and the tribe won’t tell what it means. The article also speaks of a group of Quileute teens that went to the New Moon premiere, accompanied by one of their fathers, who is on the tribal council. When this tribal council member, Tony Foster, shows a business card from the council, the daughter explains when retelling the event that, “They were so shocked that he was the real deal.” Reese comments on this in her blog stating, “The fans were shocked. A telling statement! A telling statement that should motivate you to do all you can to teach children and teens in your schools and libraries that the Indigenous Peoples of the United States are very much ’the real deal.’” Native peoples have been fighting the battle to keep their culture alive for so long, and just when a window of opportunity opens where an educational moment could have been created and shared with millions of fans through the Twilight series, ignorance is chosen once again to keep the truth from gaining any spotlight.
To make matters even more interesting, in an article by Joseph Branigan Lynch “Stephanie Meyer’s New ‘Twilight’ Book Introduces a Surprising New Heroine,” it is mentioned that Meyer plans to release a new novel based off a minor character of the third book Eclipse, which focuses on a new-born vampire. The “36-year-old multimillionaire author” will release the book online for free from “June 7 at noon until July 5” so that those who think “the wildly successful vampire-genre author is just trying to bleed her fans dry” can “rest easy.” To further the Good Samaritan act of Meyer, “The book will also be released in hardcover by Little, Brown on June 5. One dollar from the first 1.5 million copies sold in the U.S. will go to the American Red Cross International Response Fund to help ease crises like those in Chile and Haiti.” While a lofty contribution to a worthwhile cause, the question of what she is doing for people of her own country, particularly those she exploited to become a multi-millionaire author, arises as well as how much she could have done with opening the eyes of her audience to the truth had she chosen to do so. This point is also touched upon by Angela Riley in her article “Sucking the Quileute Dry” in the New York Times, when Riley states,
All the world, it seems, has been bitten by “Twilight.” Conservative estimates place revenue generated from Stephanie Meyer’s vampire chronicles —the books, movies and merchandise—in the billion –dollar range … To the nearly 700 remaining Quileute Indians, “Twilight” is the reason they are suddenly drawing extraordinary attention from the outside—while they themselves remain largely excluded from the vampire series’ vast commercial empire.
From the beginning of colonization on the American continent to the empire set in motion by Stephanie Meyer’s coven of vampires, the Quileute Tribe is getting the raw end of the deal. It is not enough that there has been a little more money coming into the historically poor reservation, or a growing interest in the Quileute ways. Without the truth being put forth with as great an emphasis as the creative perversions of it, the Quileute tribe will continue to be silenced and misrepresented. The twilight of falsehood is not beautiful for those the falsehoods are about. As Jacob, a member of the Quileute tribe writes to Bella in Eclipse, “Doesn’t change anything. Sorry” (4).
Camus, Albert. “Albert Camus Quotes.” Thinkexist.com. Web. 3 May 2010. <http://thinkexist.com>.
Dickerson, Paige. “Twilight Fiction Doesn’t Always Jibe with Quileute Legend.” Peninsula Daily News. 29 November, 2009. <www.peninsuladailynews.com>. Web. 13 January 2010.
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— “Yes, fans of Twilight and New Moon, Quileute Tribal Legend has wolves. But werewolves? Not so much.” The Buffalo Post. 30 November 2009. <http://buffalopost.net>. Web. 22 January 2010.
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Morrison, Toni. “Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks.” Playing in the Dark. Vintage Books: New York, 1992. 62-91. Print.
Morrison, Toni. “Black Matters.” Playing in the Dark. Vintage Books: New York, 1992. 2-28.
Reese, Debbie. “Quileute Elder on Quileute Stories.” American Indians in Children’s Literature. 6 December 2009.
<http://americanindiansinchildrendsliterature.blogspot.com>. Web. 22 January 2010. Web.
Riley, Angela R.. “Sucking the Quileute Dry.” The New York Times. 7 February 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com>. Web. 9 February 2010. Web.
Said, Edward. “Edward Said on Orientalism.” YouTube. 3 July 2006. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niKVdFL6Kw>. Web. 22 January 2010. Web.
I have lost some of the MLA formatting that was in the original version. Please excuse.