The goal of a new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum is simple: to set the record straight after the Quileute Tribe's international exposure in the vampire-themed "Twilight" books and films, in which tribal members are depicted as teen werewolves provoked into snarling fits of temper.
QUILEUTE RESERVATION, La Push, Clallam County
Wolves that once roamed the wild Olympics, the stories say, were the first Quileute ancestors, transfigured by Kwati, a shape shifter and transformer as old and familiar here as the mist that rolls in from the Pacific.
That creation story, and much more of the Quileute culture, will be shared in a new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum beginning Saturday.
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The goal of the exhibit is simple: It’s a chance for the tribe to set the record straight after its international exposure in the vampire-themed “Twilight” books and films, in which Quileute tribal members are depicted as teen werewolves provoked into snarling fits of temper.
The works are fiction, of course. And while some members of the tribe have taken their Hollywood persona mostly in good-humored stride, some elders at Quileute are not amused. At their urging, the tribal council passed a resolution authorizing Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at SAM, to work with the tribe to create the exhibit, to show the world a bit of the real Quileute culture.
“We are a lot different from Hollywood, I’ll tell you that,” said Christian Penn, 81, known as “Jiggs” on the reservation. With his carved wooden staff, he recently presided with a quiet pride over the tribe’s weekly Wednesday drum-circle gathering at the Quileute community center, where comfort food and traditional song and dance are on offer to anyone.
“We are from the wolf clan, we carry it down from generation to generation, it lifts our spirit up, and it’s been with us for years and years,” Penn said.
But what about werewolves? “Twilight”? He had a ready answer: “I’ve got mixed feelings about that,” Penn said. “They got that vampire thing all mixed up with the wolf clan. No way!” And with a rap of his cane on the floor for emphasis, that was simply that.
A runaway sensation in the wider world, the “Twilight” saga has had little impact on some here. When asked about the movies and books, David Hudson, the tribe’s traditional chief, wrinkles his brow as if at a faraway noise.
“We live our culture here,” Hudson said. “We have our ocean, clams, smelt. Halibut. The woods are at our back door, with elk, cedar, bear and deer for our carving and regalia and our food. Our songs are our identity, and we can sing for hours and hours.”
Fog cruises in from the vast Pacific as he talks; the sea stacks and James Island just offshore ease in and out of view. Songs and drums boom out the door of the community center. Over at the downtown dock, tribal fishermen brought in so much halibut, they are giving it away.
“That is what we mean by rich,” Hudson says.
A first for the tribe
Tribal elders, teens and council members spent more than a year working with Brotherton to produce the exhibit, which is a first of its kind. It includes many art objects never before seen in public, even by tribal members themselves. Wolf headdresses, rattles, drums, ceremonial objects, historical photographs, videos and more offer a rare glimpse inside Quileute culture.
Working side by side with tribal members, Brotherton learned the meaning of the tribe’s wolf dance and secret societies, and the stories behind baskets, rattles, drums, and even children’s drawings of a wolf dance under way at Quileute in 1907, with members of the wolf society circling the central fire in a ceremonial house.
Three of the dancers wear blankets around their bodies to look like wolf skins, while others are decorated with branches from salal bushes and, Brotherton writes in her description of the drawing, probably blowing whistles to represent the voice of the spirit.
The Quileutes have an ancient and deep association with wolves, an animal whose toothy visage appears over and again in Quileute baskets, rattles, masks and carvings in the exhibit.
“It’s awesome that people are wanting to know who we are, because we have been here since the beginning of time,” said Ann Penn-Charles, known as “Miss Ann,” a drug-and-alcohol counselor on the reservation, which is home to about half the tribe’s approximately 850 members.
“A lot of elders are hurt because we were portrayed as werewolves, and they didn’t want us portrayed as these wild Indians, they want people to know we are not these crazy Indians that change into werewolves when we get mad. We settle our differences peacefully.
“Our council was getting a lot of flak from our elders, saying ‘Show them the real Quileute, not this Hollywood Quileute.’ “
She is bemused by some of the “Twilight” tourists visiting the reservation.
“They didn’t think real Quileutes actually existed; they just thought somebody made it up. It’s, ‘Oh my God, we got to see real Quileutes and the guys could be in the movie, they are so buff, why did they even use actors?’ “
Fun with “Twilight”
To be sure, many on this reservation have had a lot of fun with the “Twilight” buzz.
“Oh, I loved the books, and I’ve seen all the movies,” said Beverly Loudon, a Quileute elder whose handle on the reservation is “Quileute Bella.”
She staffed the tribe’s table at a three-day “Twilight” convention in Seattle last January and says she loves all the attention the saga has brought the tribe: “It’s good to know our little tribe is known all over.”
Her brother Roger Jackson has carved several wolf masks and continues the practice of the wolf dance. He was glad to see more than a dozen wolf masks come out at a recent gathering, as the tribe’s culture revives.
He carries many wolf stories: of the orca whales, which will transform themselves as wolves to come visit the Quileute wolves ashore, then transform again back to orcas, the wolves of the sea. And he remembers his father telling him about lying down to rest once while hunting and awakening to find a wolf watching him.
“He said the wolf was there to protect him, and after that, whenever he went hunting he used to always see that wolf following him. He was his watcher.”
He knows of the early days in the 1800s of the wolf society, a secret society of tribal members with songs, dances and ceremonies earned through traditional practices and family inheritance.
“When it was really strong, it is before my time, during the early days,” he said. Back then, certain members of the society would throw rocks on the roofs of members’ homes on the reservation: their way of announcing the secret society’s meetings.
Jackson and other tribal members at Quileute are working to revive the wolf society. He was part of the group of advisers for the exhibit. While much of the tribe’s culture remains private, he hopes the exhibit will bring forth more stories and more sharing from his tribe and others, to deepen an ongoing cultural revival.
“We got the tail end of it; just like our language, it almost disappeared,” Jackson said.
“Bringing this out, for it to be displayed and showed, maybe the doors will be opened for the Quileute tribe,” Jackson said. “That is the way I see it. People will see that, and say, ‘I have important information for you Quileutes I have carried for a long time.’ “
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com