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.
The Quileute have struggled for centuries to retain their land and culture amid outside threats. In 1889, the same year a treaty squeezed the tribe onto a fraction of its ancestral lands, a settler who'd fraudulently claimed the remaining plots burned all 26 houses to the ground. By 1920, the last of the peninsula's wolves had been poisoned, shot or trapped, severing another vital link to the past.
The road leading to La Push from Highway 101 is now lined with references to Twilight, from the Wolf Den and Jacob Black rental cabins to a sign reading: "No Vampires Beyond This Point. Treaty Line." The Internet is filled with Quileute charms, jewelry, T-shirts — even bottles of sand allegedly gathered from First Beach. Almost none of this is sanctioned by the tribe.
In 2010, a volunteer advisor, Angela Riley, director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, wrote an editorial in The New York Times, "Sucking the Quileute Dry," which blasted the ongoing exploitation. In perhaps the worst instance, an MSN.com film crew working on a virtual Twilight tour filmed the reservation's cemetery without permission, pairing grainy images of the gravesites of respected elders with a creepy soundtrack. Deeply offended, the tribe secured a quick public apology and removal of the footage, but the incident prompted a new level of vigilance. Now, the Quileute Nation has an etiquette guide and photography policy, both prominently displayed on its website.
Tribes have used a variety of approaches to protect their private or sacred places, objects and events. The Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota positioned their Rosebud Casino just across the state line in Valentine, Neb., in part to target a wealthier demographic in northern Nebraska, but also to deflect attention from the heart of the reservation, says John Henry Glover, professor of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D.
Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, a national historic landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, counts tourism as its primary industry, but it deliberately sacrifices a significant chunk of revenue by closing for more than a month every year for community religious observances. The Havasupai Reservation, whose town of Supai in the Grand Canyon is among the most isolated in the Lower 48, strictly limits the number of hikers allowed in its campground. It also cordons off special areas like its cemetery, and protects a venerated water source by restricting hikers to a single designated trail to the reservation's spectacular waterfalls.
"When we talk to tribes across the United States about travel and tourism, we really want them to understand that they don't have to share everything with the visitor," says Leslie Kedelty, executive director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association in Albuquerque. "We as Indian people have traditional knowledge that we can keep to ourselves. We don't have to publicize those sacred sites that are very important to us."
Glover says some tribes have chosen to remain relatively cloistered, much like some Hutterite, Mennonite, monastic and other religious communities in the U.S. Others are isolated by geography and circumstance. In 2008, a severe flood destroyed the Havasupai-owned campground and shuttered the tribe's tourism industry for more than nine months. For the first time in years, the reservation was left alone. "In a way, it gave the area a time to breathe," says Billy Jack, the tourism manager at the time. Ultimately, however, the tribe realized an economy without tourists was unsustainable, and it again welcomed hikers the following spring.
Religious and cultural tourism can be done in a respectful way, Glover says; the Vatican, for example, has welcomed visitors for centuries while restricting access to particular spots and special ceremonies. The difference, he says, is that Native religions are often tied to specific locations and objects that are outdoors and therefore more vulnerable to ignorant outsiders. And most Indians have no interest in winning converts or even speaking much to outsiders about their beliefs.
That doesn't mean that tribes always agree on how to proceed. Surveys by Glover and a research collaborator have found widely varying attitudes toward tourism and casinos among neighboring Sioux tribes. And controversy has flared over two Navajo-backed development proposals on the Grand Canyon's southern and eastern rims. The Havasupai fear the southern plan's potential impacts on their water source, while the Hopi say the eastern proposal is too close to a sacred site at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
When the Twilight craze first erupted, the Quileute lacked a public relations contact and events coordinator. Ann Penn-Charles, a community leader who helps run the weekly drum and healing circle, says producers of the first movie randomly called villagers in hopes of securing permission to film a scene on First Beach. (It was ultimately shot on the Oregon coast instead.) The producers eventually visited La Push to get a better sense of the community. Tribal Secretary Naomi Jacobson says their ideas of Quileute kids were upended when they visited her cousin's home. "They didn't expect them to be modernized teenagers with iPods and Wii," she says.
Five years have passed since then, though, and the village has adjusted. Jackie Jacobs, the tribal publicist since 2009, has recruited several Twilight actors to visit the school and appear at the annual Quileute Days celebration in July. This festival has become the reservation's biggest tourist draw, and summer stays at the resort now require booking months in advance. When Jacobs asked some kids about how La Push has changed, she got a matter-of-fact response. "You definitely have to look now when you're crossing the street," they told her.
In the resort's main office, handcrafted basket earrings, drums, and decorative canoe paddles share display space with autographed pictures of movie stars. Centuries ago, the Quileute and other coastal tribes bred fluffy dogs for woven dog-hair blankets. Both the breed and art form are lost, though Penn-Charles and her mother knit woolen hats adorned with animals and geometric shapes. They too have adapted to the Twilight fans; one girl commissioned four purple-and-white "Team Edward" yarn hats last summer.
"The economic factor is big for our people who still do their arts and crafts," says Penn-Charles. In the summer, some of the tribe's youngsters sell handmade charm bracelets, rocks painted with wolf paw prints, and "La Push" and "Quileute" stickers, earning enough money to buy back-to-school clothing and supplies.
Group tours offer traditional meals served at the beach — crunchy biscuit-like "buckskin bread" and salmon cooked on sticks — along with the chance to sit around a bonfire and hear traditional stories. The outings — usually arranged through a new events coordinator — have generated much-needed income, and provided new ways for traditions and tales to be passed down to the next generation.
No one talks much about what might happen when the Twilight phenomenon fades, as it inevitably will. Perhaps, like Supai, the town will get a chance just to catch its breath. But people will still want to escape the "concrete jungle," says Tribal Chairman Foster, and those originally drawn by the books and movies may like the place so much they'll keep coming back.
The recent attention may have helped inspire other, more lasting changes. For decades, the tribe has fought to win back some higher ground. This February, Congress finally passed the Quileute Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection Act, which transfers 785 acres of national park property and an additional 184 acres of non-federal tribal land into a trust for the tribe — more than doubling the reservation's size. In addition to the culturally significant floodplain known as Thunder Field, an upland parcel to the south will allow the reservation to move its school, tribal offices, elder center and other crucial infrastructure to safer locations.
Tribal members believe that their welcoming attitude helped make the difference by inspiring Twilight fans to launch social media campaigns on their behalf.
The drum and healing circle offers one of the clearest displays of Quileute hospitality and culture. For one dance, a guest drummer-in-residence from Vancouver Island asks me to mirror his movements. We swoop like eagles around the circle, dipping low first to one side, and then the other. As the tourists snack on cupcakes left over from the Head Start bake sale, women and girls play the part of elk in another dance, tapping ribbon-adorned sticks on the floor. A teenage hunter symbolically spears two of them, slinging them over his shoulder before depositing them gently outside the circle.
Four hours later, after the event, Tribal Vice-Chairperson DeAnna Hobson and I linger under the community center's covered porch. She tells me stories of her youth, worries about the aftereffects of the Japanese tsunami, and describes the tribe's reinvigorated determination to protect itself from a similar disaster. Then she gives me a hug before heading home for the night.
Perhaps the welcome I've received is more effusive than usual; I am, after all, a reporter scribbling furiously in a notebook. Visiting the Quileute may be different for tourists in the crush of midsummer. But I haven't been the only guest welcomed tonight like a long-lost friend, invited to participate in a unique celebration that began with a communal meal and ended with the sacred dance of the wolves.
For more information, a primer on Indian Country etiquette and accommodations at the Quileute Oceanside Resort, visit www.quileutenation.org.
This story originally appeared in the June 25, 2012 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).