Team Wolf

A new show at the National Museum of the American Indian gives the real story behind ‘Twilight’


A traditional Quileute headdress is one item on view in the National Museum of the American Indian's new show.

The “Twilight” franchise has perhaps had little impact on tourism within the vampire community. But the books and films have had a very real effect on the Quileute Indians living near the real-life town of Forks, Wash., where the series is set.

A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian called “Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves” aims to set the story straight about the tribe whose most famous member is Jacob, Bella’s lupine love interest. And while “Twilight” got some things right about the Quileute, the tribe’s culture is about much more than going shirtless and “imprinting” on infants.

Real-Life Wolf Society

Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, originally put together the exhibit for that museum in 2010. “I was hearing about the impact that the ‘Twilight’ movie mania was having on the Quileute Nation,” she says. “As a curator, my job is to give a space and a place for Native people to talk about who they are.” She approached the tribal council for the Quileute — about 300 of whom live on the 1-square-mile reservation in La Push, Wash. — and offered her assistance in setting up an exhibit to tell their real, sparkle-less story.

That story does include a lot of wolves. The animals are central to the Quileute mythology; their creation story tells of Q’waeti’, who created the Quileute people from wolves. That belief evolved into the “Wolf Society,” the tribe’s warrior faction. (There were several other societies, including the Fisherman’s Society, the Elk Society, the Whale Hunters and the Weatherman’s Society.) “All the societies were very hierarchically organized, so you were born into a station,” Brotherton says. This bit of history is represented in the films in that “it wasn’t exactly spelled out, but there was the sense that Jacob came from a family of leaders.”

Fantasy vs. Fact

Brotherton (who is staunchly Team Jacob, in case you were wondering) says her biggest problem with the “Twilight” movies is the cultural appropriation — fused with outlandish violence. “They take the whole idea of the Quileute and the wolves and mash it up into this fantastic scenario in which their young men morph into these large, aggressive wolves,” she says. “It takes their origin myth and changes it. Where you come from is your most sacred part of your oral history.”

But she also sees the benefits to the tribe’s sudden fame, particularly for the youths. “A lot of the Quileute kids are ‘Twilight’ fans,” Brotherton says, and it’s good for them to see positive role models on-screen. “There are still a lot of less-than-exemplary understandings about Native people, but [the publicity] has put a spotlight on who the Quileute really are,” she says. “We have used the film as a point of departure.”

Preserving a Culture

Brotherton and the Quileute tribe realized they couldn’t do a completely comprehensive exhibit: Such a show can take between three and five years to put together, and they wanted to move fast to capitalize on “Twilight” mania.

The exhibit does include a replica of the necklace that the (non-wolf) character Emily wears, given to actress Tinsley Korey by the tribe. There’s also a replica of the dream catcher Jacob gives to Bella to protect her from nightmares.

But Brotherton was careful to highlight only bits from the film that reflected actual Quileute culture. “We did not want to play into the spectacle of ‘Twilight,’” she says. “We did a youth workshop, and the kids said, ‘Get those cutouts of the wolf pack and we’ll pose!’ We said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”

“We decided the focus would be the wolf ritual,” she explains. “But there are some really beautiful artifacts [in the show] associated with some of the other societies,” including a rare whalebone club from the Whaler’s Society and some shamanic implements from the Weatherman’s Society.

Some of the items in the exhibit were actually loaned to the Seattle Art Museum from the National Museum of the American Indian. “It very much felt like they had come home,” Brotherton says.

More than half the Quileute village attended an opening celebration for the Seattle show and peformed a traditional masked dance for the occasion. “It was the first time they had done their sacred wolf dance off the reservation,” she says.

The exhibit’s focus on the Wolf Society may not give a complete look at the Quileute, but sometimes, Brotherton says, it seems like the wolves are all they have left. “They don’t do whaling anymore; they don’t do sealing,” she says. “But the wolf ritual is the one thing the young people are learning and practicing and doing.”

National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW; through May 9, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Katie Aberbach · January 26, 2012