Tapping Into Twilight Mania

9 02 2010

Werewolves are cool.  And by extension, now, Quileutes are cool also.  But it might be time for them to sharpen their claws a bit.  A recent article in the New York Times by Angela Riley exposes the fact that while many people are profiting from Quileute culture right now, the tribe is not.

For those of you who have somehow avoided the Twilight phenomenon, it is a series of four books about vampires and werewolves written by Stephanie Meyers.  The stories are set on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State in the U.S., in the small post-logging town of Forks and the nearby Quileute Indian Reservation town of La Push.

For some reason the books have struck a chord for women of all ages, and Twilight frenzy is at a fever pitch.  Between the books, the two movies that have already been released, and all of the related merchandise, the Twilight Empire is worth something in the neighborhood of a billion dollars.  The towns of Forks and La Push have been inundated by pilgrims, and some people are reaping the rewards by opening Twilight-related retail stores, building Twilight-themed hotel rooms, and leading tours of the main sites in the books.

But not everybody is reaping the rewards.  Riley’s article is titled Sucking the Quileute Dry (a not-so veiled reference to the vampire diet and, in my mind, a vote for Team Jacob).  She talks about the fact that the Quileute community, a small tribe of about 700 people living on an even smaller piece of land perched between the Olympic Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, has not benefitted financially from their newfound popularity.  One of the heroes of the story is Jacob, a young Quileute who turns into a werewolf to fight the “bad vampires” (as opposed to the “good vampires” who are the other heroes in the story) along with other members of his generation to fulfill a duty from their fictional (Stephanie-created) creation myth.  According to Riley, this has made all things Quileute very profitable.  Except to the Quileute.

Before Twilight existed, La Push was one of my family’s favorite vacation spots.  We would rent a cabin on the reservation near the beach and spend our days walking the shoreline and hiking in the forest.  We would eat at the one restaurant when it was open, and buy canned beans from the gas station when it wasn’t.  Basically, there wasn’t a whole lot of commerce in La Push, and many of the Quileute continue to struggle to support themselves.

Riley points out that the tribe should have a right to control of their cultural property and that they should be benefitting from this economic explosion while it lasts.  What surprised me are the suggestions she made as to how they should benefit.  She talked about “profit-sharing” with those who are using the Quileute name or designs.  She said they should “play a role in decisions regarding their cultural property.”  And in referring to the tours and merchandise, she stated that “The tribe has received no payment for this commercial activity.”

There was no mention of them opening up their own store with Quileute merchandise to sell so that they could keep all of the profits.  No mention of them running their own tours so that they could correct some of the misinformation about their tribe that comes out in the books and show the Olympic Peninsula from their view and their history.  No mention of them opening their own cultural heritage center that could genuinely educate visitors about their culture and generate revenue and jobs for the community.  They could even play off the brilliant marketing ploy of “Team Edward” vs. “Team Jacob” by advertising the fact that true members of Team Jacob would only take a tour that originates in La Push or buy from a Quileute-owned store.

Why should the Quileute be negotiating for the scraps of the huge profits that are being made off their culture?  And for that matter, they don’t even just need to focus on their culture – they can show Forks High School, where Bella and the Vampires met, just as well as any white tour guide.  Why shouldn’t they be tapping into this opportunity at every level?

Which brings me to another question:  Of the 700 members of the Quileute tribe, did none of them see the potential here?  Did any of them think to capitalize on this?  If they have, then it didn’t make it into Riley’s article.  If they haven’t, then why not?  Is it a problem with the tribal school?  I don’t believe it is an issue of not wanting to sell cultural items – the place where I used to rent the cabin had a small shop that sold sweatshirts, mugs, etc with Quileute designs on them.  Have they scaled up?  While I don’t think the Quileute should be negotiating for the scraps, I also don’t think they should be waiting for the scraps.

I am not a business person, and I don’t see business as the answer to every problem as some people do.  However, you have a very poor community here that has millions of dollars swirling around it, and it seems like a shame for them not to grab some of it.  Angela Riley, the author of the article, states that she “has informally advised the Quileute tribe on a voluntary basis.”  I hope that she has advised them to go beyond “profit sharing” with Nordstrom and to develop their own businesses to bring in much-needed income and jobs to their community.




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