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(image via hottopic.com)
Note: This piece assumes some limited knowledge of the Twilight series. If you need some background, look here. :)
I was so happy when I saw this fantastic OpEd in the NY Times about the relationship between the Twilight franchise and the Quileute tribe. The article was written by the Associate Director of American Indian Studies at UCLA, Angela Riley, who is an awesome scholar in Indigenous intellectual property, and it captures a lot of what I have been grappling with in regards to the whole Twilight phenomenon and its affect on Native communities, in particular the Quileute.
Admittedly, I read the entire Twilight series, and am un-apologetically Team Jacob (mostly because I want the Indian to win for once), but I still have a lot of issues with the portrayals of Natives in the books and movies. I’ll delve a little into the presented images of the Wolf Pack in my Part 2 post, but first I want to focus on the commercialization, and in many ways, explotation, of the Quileutes.

 Riley begins her piece discussing all the ways that Quileute name and community has been commercialized in conjunction with Twilight: 
“Twilight” has made all things Quileute wildly popular: Nordstrom.com sells items from Quileute hoodies to charms bearing a supposed Quileute werewolf tattoo. And a tour company hauls busloads of fans onto the Quileute reservation daily. Yet the tribe has received no payment for this commercial activity. Meanwhile, half of Quileute families still live in poverty.
Add to Nordstroms the incredible array of New Moon products at Hot Topic, which you can see here.
The entire Twilight franchise has revenues estimated in the billion dollar range, and Riley goes on to note that the tribe has not received any revenue from the books, movies, or merchandising, nor were they consulted in any of the portrayals of their community. The upsetting part is, there is no legal precedent for involving or reimbursing the tribe. She points out that,
…the outside uses of the Quileute name, from the “Twilight” books to the tattoo jewelry, are quite likely legal. American intellectual property laws, except in very specific circumstances, do not protect indigenous peoples’ collective cultural property.
The only laws in place protect tribes from products that claim to be “Native made”, but nothing protects tribal names from commercial use–think Jeep Cherokee, all the “Navajo” named items I’ve posted before, Apache helicopters, etc. Riley also notes that many tribes are able to market their own cultural property for profit, such as traditional weavers, silversmiths, and beaders from many communities. But what it truly boils down to is an issue of control–Native communities should have the right to determine how their community is portrayed, and this is closely related to sovereignty and self-determination. 
By not involving the tribe in decisions that directly affect their community, it serves as a direct affront to their status as a sovereign nation.

The Quileute’s Web site tells visitors about the tribal laws that govern Quileute territory. One of these laws specifies that burial grounds and religious ceremonies are “sacred and not to be entered.” Had MSN acknowledged the tribe as a sovereign government, it might not have broken that rule. The Quileute believe that respect for Indian tribal sovereignty could likewise bridge cultural gaps between other Indian communities and outsiders.

I agree with Riley that meeting with Quileute leaders and community members and involving them with the marketing process is an important first step. I see this community as setting the stage for Natives taking control of intellectual property and turning the tables of negative portrayals back into something that can ultimately benefit the community.

The Quileute are a small tribe on a small reservation that have been thrust into the national and international spotlight, and not by choice. However, I hope that with the help of scholars and lawyers like Angela Riley, the tribe can use the publicity to bring light to issues within their own community and perhaps these larger issues of cultural property and representation within Indian Country. 

Finally, the piece ends with a quote that I think encapsulates my entire thinking with this blog:

The ultimate choice, regarding not only the Quileute but all indigenous peoples, is not simply whether outsiders are free to appropriate tribal cultural property. For the sake of fairness as much as law, indigenous peoples must play a significant role in decisions regarding their cultural property.

It’s not just about the right to appropriate, it’s about control over portrayals of our people and our communities. Native people deserve a voice at table.

The whole OpEd (read it!): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/opinion/08riley.html

(Thanks Mollie and Marjorie for the link!)