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Twilight, Forks, and the Quileute – cultural identity theft?

Forks, the home of Twilight, welcomes youA visit to my old stomping grounds of Forks, WA this past summer made me realize how much things had changed since I lived in the area. It wasn’t an abundance of second homes and big box stores one might expect to come over time to a coastal community. One thing had changed and Forks will never be the same: Twilight.

Intricately linked to life in Forks, now and before, are the Quileute people, who live in the nearby town of LaPush where the Ho River meets the Pacific Ocean. Across from their square kilometer reservation is one of the most scenic views Olympic National Park has to offer.

For hundreds of years before I was there and what I thought would remain for hundreds more, the Quileute as well as the residents of Forks were rugged survivalists, subsisting off the land through an ever-evolving timber industry, fishing, and ecotourism in Olympic National Park. Community members learned from each other, supported each other, and relations between the Quileute people, the National Park Service, and residents of Forks were held in balance by a series of delicately crafted treaties protecting the cultural identity and well-being of each group.

Forks - not the Cullen house

my friend's tree house in Forks

Across the region, having a small subsistence farm is common and a freezer to store food for the winter even more common. With just a few acres, wild hunting and gathering can provide a small family with enough salmon, greens, and berries to stock the dinner table daily. Friends of mine living just outside central Forks lived off $2000 annually along with what they could hunt and gather. These families are often officially far below the poverty line, but they are happy. They’ve chosen life in Forks, LaPush, or in the wilderness because of the freedom and a deep appreciation and connection to the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, arguably one of America’s last frontiers.

The small formal economy of the area depends on money brought in by tourists to the Park in addition to forestry and fisheries. These are tourists, though, who historically shared values with the locals and are there to get a taste of the wilderness lifestyle on their vacation. The things they purchased were rented kayaks, backpacking supplies, park permits and maps, and local traditional art from woodworkers and from the many native groups in the area.

What Forks and the Quileute are known for

The view from Bella and Jacob's favorite tree - and what the area used to be best known for: Hole in the Wall, a natural rock formation

My most recent visit to Forks boasted a new group of people beyond the loggers and hikers usually encountered: Twilight fans. These were families following their teenage daughter’s desire to fill Bella’s shoes. They wanted to walk through the halls of Forks High School, find the clearing at the top of the hill where vampires fought werewolves, and own their very own pair of Twilight rain boots. It’s this last desire that has changed the face of Forks. Instead of visiting the area as so many national parks enthusiasts have, taking nothing but a picture, these tourists drive a multimillion dollar industry that has opened the doors to “Forks by Twilight” tours, Twilight gift shops, and unauthorized forays onto sovereign Quileute land. Locals haven’t reaped much benefit of these new enterprises, as the tours and souvenirs are neither authorized by or for the benefit of the community.

In fact, Stephanie Meyer probably never stopped to think about the impact of her hit book on the community about which she spun a tangled web of fiction. Arguably, nor could she anticipate the fallout of the Twilight franchise fast enough to put together a tasteful response such as offering the town of Forks and the Quileute Nation the chance to profit off her book. Nor did she feel compelled to give the community from which she’s created an empire any royalties or even credit.  For example, promoting already existing Quileute artists for those looking for an authentic bit of culture to take home? Or letting the Park Service create a “Twilight Trail” that hit the major attractions of the book that would be accessible to newbie hikers?

Quileute art

what should be on sale for the Quileute - traditional artwork

A recent New York Times article describes the problems faced by the Quileute, who would love to bring a bit more cash flow into their community but instead feel like their culture has been commodified and sold without their say. More than that, it’s a bastardized version of their culture that’s been sold, so to a certain degree all they want to do is set the record straight. They just want to let the world know that their people aren’t part werewolf nor are they linked to the white man’s or vampire world so intricately that their mere presence causes drastic transformations.

Quileute Reservation

LaPush, the Quileute Reservation

Though the Quileute have much more history and legend to their culture than other Forks residents, the same can be said about the culture of Forks and the Olympic Peninsula. Imagine going to high school where literally hundreds if not thousands of tourists walk through the halls each day just to see where Bella cried? Or imagine trying to keep hikers safe on the trails as a park ranger if the new cohort of tourists are as woefully unprepared for a foray in the woods as Bella? Their cultural identity and way of life has been stolen and sold and no one ever stopped to ask.