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When one thinks of progressive movies, there are plenty that come to mind. Many are similar, with main characters challenging societal, religious, or social expectations and sticking it to the man. Normally, teen romance movies aren’t the prime example of progress. However, one movie series subverts the expectations of its own genre by being one of the forefront progressive films of the 21st century. Not surprisingly, most of the portrayals of Native Americans in film have had very little in the way of truth when it comes to conveying cultures and religious beliefs. Only very recently has there been significant progress in the film industry, in the form of Twilight. In the second film, werewolves are a significant portion of the story. Their origins are directly tied to the tribe they portray, the Quileute. The movie portrays Native American culture, with Native American actors, without mocking or belittling either of them. Their connections to the earth are heralded and sacred. The stories about the werewolves even have historical ties to the creation myths of the real-life Quileute tribe. Twilight has a somewhat accurate, modern interpretation of Native American culture and has made huge waves in pop culture because of its literary and box office success.
The Twilight movie has been mocked time and time again for its widespread appeal to preteens, teenage girls, and moms, and while it is not without its faults it does narrative justice to the Native American people it portrays. In the second installment of the saga, the main character, Bella, starts noticing something odd about her friend, Jacob. Through her investigations, she discovers that as a member of the Quileute tribe he has the gift of being able to shift into a wolf at will. Some people dislike the movie because they don’t enjoy the trope of the classic werewolf versus vampire fight. But those people refuse to see what lies beneath the fluffy exterior. They put legitimate Native actors in roles. Actors like Gil Birmingham and Julia Jones are important and even critical elements of the plot. Most notably, Chaske Spencer plays Sam Uley, the leader of the wolfpack, and is a member of the real life Quileute tribe. To have Native Americans being portrayed by actual Native Americans in a silly teen drama is a revolutionary idea. Even having a plotline with Native characters is a very rare occurrence.
The Quileute are a Native American tribe that primarily exists in La Push, Washington. While their territory used to cover hundreds of miles, it now only exists in less than one half-mile. There are only 850 members left, in contrast to the thousands that existed prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Like many other Native American tribes, they have many oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation. Among the tribes found in the Pacific Northwest, there are certain trends. They tend to believe in nature spirits and “animal people” and the Quileute are no exception. They have very animsitic beliefs that tie in to those trends and those beliefs heavily influence the folklore, characterizing the wind as the voice of a spirit. The spirits can be benevolent or malevolent, but they directly influence the lives of the people in the world below. There are many animals that have poignant roles in Quileute folklore. In Quileute legend, animals lived on the Earth before humans. There was indeed the Wolf, but there is also the Thunderbird, the Eagle, the Raven, and many others. Stephenie Meyer chose to highlight the wolf in her rendition of the traditional stories. The wolf in general has a stronger spiritual connection to the Quileute, whether they are descendants of it or can transform into one.
Media, and particularly film, has had a long history of cultural insensitivity, especially when concerning indigenous populations. They are generally bloodthirsty, less intelligent, warrior types, who are completely removed from modern society, giving them a more savage image. This is very harmful to the indigenous populations that on average are the poorest, most depressed demographic in the entire nation. After being decimated by disease and forced from their homes the indigenous populations of North America have had little, if any voice, in popular culture. The most influence they have maintained has been over the gambling market. Otherwise, they have been pigeonholed into very specific roles where they had no say in what they acted. There have been very few opportunities for them to display their ideals in an uncondescending way. Though not the main focus of the Twilight saga, those movies did allow for a more modern representation of indigenous peoples in a way that was far more respectful and progressive than in movies past.
In addition to the portrayal of Native Americans by Native Americans, there is also the stipulation of how the culture is portrayed. It would be very easy to reverse the effect of the representation by oversexualizing or stereotyping, belittling the significance of a society and disrespecting a way of life.
The part of the series that introduces the Quileute as more than the culture of a friend of Bella’s dad is in the second installment: Twilight: New Moon. You follow the journey of Bella as her friend Jacob undergoes the difficult process of transforming into a werewolf for the first time. At a tribal council meeting, Jacob’s dad tells the story of how the Quileutes came to have the so-called “Cold Ones” as enemies. He describes the terror that the vampires wreaked on their people and village, the courage of the leaders in the face of tragedy, and the continuing battle against the Cold Ones. Bella also learns that the reason they can become werewolves is that the Quileute used to have the ability to leave their bodies and wander as spirits. A great chief, Taha Aki, got trapped in the body of a wolf and in a moment of great rage transformed back to a man, thus beginning a line of wolf shapeshifters in his tribe. Every member that can transform in the present is a descendant of the original shapeshifter, Chief Taha.
The movie differs from the true fable in why the men become wolves. The original tribe did not have vampires as their enemies, but other tribes and traitors. In the movie, the change from mere man to both man and wolf occurs as a result of proximity to vampires, and the actual relationship between man and wolf told in the traditional Quileute lore is that they are descendants of wolves, so their tribe has a connection to the spirit of the wolf, not the ability to become one.
There were expectedly mixed reactions by Native individuals to the Twilight rendition of Native culture. Some say the main role of Native Americans in movies is to be “noble, savage, or bloodthirsty”. Because the characters run around half-naked, attack vampires, and protect their pack and their town, author Ginny Whitehouse believes the Twilight wolves fulfill all of the stereotypes of typical Native movie roles. She also describes the worries of Quileute elders, that outsiders would think of them as violent and unpredictable. They are generally peaceful and feared that the exposure would cause further ostracization because people couldn’t separate dramatic movie versions from the lives of real life people. Critics acknowledge that casting indigenous people in indigenous roles is a definitive sign of progress, but they also take offense to what they see as belittlement of their culture or mockery of traditions.
One of the qualms people tend to have about the progressiveness of the movies is that the franchise does nothing for the real-life Quileute tribe. They get bombarded by tourists and people view them as characters, but nothing comes back from Stephenie Meyer or the franchise that profited from them to help reinvigorate their economy.
Adversely, there were many who saw the representation as an absolute win. There were dozens of articles written from the perspectives of Native Americans from other tribal nations. The wolf teens are obviously set apart from average kids because they aren’t normal kids. They are more in tune with the world around the in all it sights and smells. However, they are somewhat assimilated to typically “Western” culture. They wear normal clothes instead of loincloths, go to parties, and even take up hobbies like motorcycling. There is an obvious cultural difference between the white Americans and the Native tribe but the differences are celebrated.
The Quileute have used the massive popularity as a way to educate the people that come to gawk at their home and way of life. They value the opportunity that the movies have given them to expose a different set of values and beliefs to the masses. The Quileute express their hope that visiting the La Push area will enhance people’s appreciation for the beauty of nature and reverence for it. They even offer weekly drum circles for people to learn more about Quileute history in a more fun and engaging way. The money that tourism brings in has managed to enliven the community. There have been documentaries made about the tribe and they are becoming more well known. In turn, the young people have gotten exposed to a diverse range of cultures that they might not have otherwise. In contrast to what fear the popularity might arouse concerning the exposure to other cultures, the Quileute traditions are thriving. As a spotlight rests on the people, the younger members are only more motivated to learn more about their history. The dances, songs, and traditions are more emphasized to combat the false culture that Stephenie Meyer created from the Quileute people.
The directors knew the problems would arise because of the inclusion of these cultures without complete accuracy. In preparation, they partnered with a Native public relations company, hiring Jackie Jacobs as their Tribal Publicist. It is important when using diverse cultures because only people with a similar background are able to understand most, if not all, of the intricacies of respecting land and protecting a culture from popular culture sensationalism.
There is an interesting dichotomy between the way the vampires are portrayed and the way the werewolves are portrayed. Vampires tend to be more pagan in origin while werewolves are more indigenous. This can cause a lot of problems because while pagans have historically been persecuted for their beliefs, Native beliefs are still being disrespected and bastardized. The Cullens are admittedly a rich and sophisticated bunch. They have a very modern house,lots of nice cars and clothes, and they go to school for a laugh. However, the environment is cold and seemingly devoid of warmth. On the other hand, a majority of the time, the wolf shifters are running around outside, hanging out in a pack, sparring, or eating. Some claim that this representation is harmful, and feeds the narrative that indigenous populations are made up of savages. However, the way that the Quileute characters behave is actually more in line with how the average person behaves. Vampires, though tortured, are less relatable than wolves. Wolves aren’t immortal, solitary, brooding creatures. They need friendship, leaders, and fun to continue to function. What some critics call stereotypical and constricting actually portrays the way real people act and interact with each other and their environment, minus the transforming into a wolf bit.
Twilight is a fascinating topic of conversation. Over the course of writing this essay, many people have expressed disgust at the mention of the topic of this paper. Because of embedded cultural disdain for the main subject matter of the Twilight series, many ignore any merits the films may have. Intriguing that this franchise was so popular and yet many of its nuances and themes remain heavily under the radar. Most do not recognize the overtly spiritual presence of the vampires, or the accuracy of the nature spirituality displayed by the Quileute. The movie is progressive, even in one of the most progressive time periods ever.
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