LA PUSH, Wash. – Tucked into a 1-square-mile reservation along a stretch of northwest Washington’s rugged coastline, the Quileute Tribe holds several distinctions.
It is among Washington’s smallest tribes. It is arguably one of its most famous. It is also among its most endangered.
The first may have been true even when the White Drifting-House people, as the tribe called Caucasian settlers on ships, first showed up. The second is thanks to a 21st century media phenomenon – the “Twilight” series. The third seems about to change, possibly helped by that newfound fame and an act of Congress that could right what the tribe believes is a generations-old wrong.
Congress could soon expand the reservation, transferring about 1,300 acres from Olympic National Park to the tribe. With it, the tribe would move many reservation houses, offices and its school, which has 80 children in grades kindergarten through high school, out of a tsunami zone.
“This has been an ongoing struggle for decades,” Tribal Chairwoman Bonita Cleveland said recently. “We have never given up.”
Time to move to higher ground
For unknown generations, the Quileutes camped at the mouth of a river that empties into the Pacific at A-Ka-Lat or Top of the Rock, what maps now call James Island, where they laid their chiefs to rest in burial canoes. But the tribe ranged along the rivers and through the temperate rain forest up to the snows of Mount Olympus in the peninsula’s interior.
They spoke a language distinct from the Quinaults to the south and the Makahs to the north. When the first treaties were signed with the Washington territorial government, the Quileutes were to be resettled in Taholah with the Quinaults. But when Washington became a state, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order giving the tribe the 1-square-mile reservation at the mouth of the Quillayute River, which is pronounced the same but spelled differently. La Push, too, is spelling-challenged; it’s actually a corruption of la bouche, the French word for mouth.
In exchange, the tribe gave up some 800,000 acres of ancient timberlands, keeping only the hunting, fishing and gathering rights to their “usual and accustomed places.”
But while the tribe regularly camped at La Push, running out in their canoes every spring to call the whales, and traveling up and down the coast to trade with other tribes, they didn’t stay there year round.
“Our ancestors were able to move freely,” Cleveland said. “They knew when it was time to leave and time to move to higher ground.”
Higher ground is in short supply at La Push. The school, which was once the office for the U.S. Coast Guard station, is about 1 foot above sea level and so close to the shore that violent winter storms sometimes produce waves that throw driftwood logs onto the playground.
The river often overflows its banks, running across the street along the tribal marina and into frame houses. But of even bigger concern to the tribe is the prospect of a wall of water from a tsunami generated by a quake somewhere along the Pacific Rim.
Signs of quake and tsunami
The tribal legends tell of great floods and a great bird in the mountain that creates storms by flapping his giant wings. But floods aren’t just the stuff of legends for the Quileutes.
Councilmember DeAnna Hobson recalls when a construction crew was digging the foundation for the Tribal Senior Center, just up the hill from the school. They unearthed strange patterns in the sand and clay below the surface.
Geologists said it was evidence of the wall of water that hit the coast after the Cascadia subduction zone ruptured in 1700, creating a tsunami that traveled all the way across the Pacific to Japan.
The subduction zone, which stretches from British Columbia to Northern California, sits about a mile offshore of La Push. It averages a massive quake about every 500 years; the latest one was 311 years ago. (Editor’s note: An early version of this story incorrectly said the last tsunami was 411 years ago.)
“I think the clock is ticking,” said Cleveland, the tribal chairwoman.
After the Alaskan Quake of 1964, La Push wasn’t hit with a tsunami, but the tidal surge was so strong, she said, that it wiped out all the docks along the river.
The reservation has a tsunami siren on a pole near one boundary, a device that looks like it came straight from an episode of “The Jetsons.” When the siren goes off, tribal leaders believe they have about eight minutes to get everyone, including elders in their homes and children in the school, off the reservation and up La Push Road to State Highway 110 and higher ground.
“We have one way in and one way out,” Cleveland said. “We would be trapped here. We would be history.”
The tribe practices regularly, and late last month it managed a mock evacuation in the allotted time. But that was for a planned practice, and tribal leaders know a tsunami won’t come on an announced schedule.
An act of Congress
Expanding the Quileute Reservation is complicated in a way that only the federal government can complicate things.
The reservation is hemmed in by Olympic National Park, set up in 1938 after then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a stop at the Lake Quinault Lodge about 80 miles to the south.
FDR reportedly was so taken with the thick forests and jagged mountains that he agreed to set aside large portions of the peninsula in a park and a national forest. But Quileute tribal members note that Roosevelt never came near La Push before deciding to turn their ancestral lands into a park. And when the boundaries were drawn, the tribe says, the Park Service didn’t pay close attention to their lands.
The federal government laid claim to Thunder Field, an area along the river the tribe regards as sacred, and other areas the Quileutes believe are theirs.
“We’ve spent tons of money trying to get our land back from the park,” Cleveland said.
The Park Service has a different take. Although it agrees the boundaries have been in dispute for more than 40 years, the agency believes the park’s boundaries are properly drawn. “It’s a pretty complex history,” said Dave Reynolds, a spokesman for Olympic National Park.
In 2006, tribal leaders and the Park Service met with U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, a powerful Democrat whose district includes the peninsula. His staff suggested some language to work out the long-standing differences and provide land to move members of the tribe.
“I have always been concerned about the tribe relocating and getting to higher ground,” Dicks said recently. With new tribal leaders – Dicks describes them as more willing to negotiate, some tribal members describe them as “more aggressive” – the two sides finally agreed to a land swap and easement arrangement in 2010. “The Park Service is supportive of efforts to get the tribe to higher ground,” Reynolds said.
But transferring land from a national park requires an act of Congress. This year Dicks introduced a bill in the House, and Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray proposed identical legislation in the Senate, to provide the tribe with park land on higher ground adjacent to the reservation. Both bills received friendly hearings and await committee votes that would send them to their respective floors.
Dicks is optimistic: “This is a worthy cause. It’s a good bill, it’s got good support.”
It’s hard to get much farther from Washington, D.C., than La Push and still be in the continental United States. But when Quileute tribal leaders appeared before Congress in hearings this year, they may have been helped by the nation’s fascination with a series of modern-day gothic romances about vampires and werewolves.
The nearby town of Forks is the setting for the “Twilight” books and movies. The name Twilight is attached to almost any commercial enterprise imaginable, from restaurants to souvenir stores to area tours. For $4, a camper can buy a bundle of firewood from the Twilight wood stand just south of town.
The Quileutes, whose tradition says they are descended from wolves, are the tribe mentioned in the stories. Tourists who love the series come from across the country and around the globe to visit La Push as well as Forks. “Twilight” has brought thousands of visitors to the reservation, Cleveland estimates.
“Twilight” fan websites include a video prepared for the tribe that shows the devastating effects of a tsunami and urges fans to contact members of Congress to support the move.
“We have a lot of supporters from the movie,” Carol Hatch, a council member and chairwoman of the school board, said. Some members of Congress might not know where La Push is, but they’ve heard of the Quileutes because someone in their family is a fan of “Twilight,” she said.
Dicks agreed. “It doesn’t hurt that people know where Forks and La Push are” because of the books and movies. Another factor pushing the legislation may be the images from this spring’s tsunami in Japan, which was generated by a quake in an offshore subduction zone, the same type of geologic formation sitting off Washington’s coast.
The tribe’s video intersperses news footage of the tsunami wave washing over Japanese coastal areas with scenes of life on the reservation. The clear message: That could happen here.
When the tribal school was placed in the former Coast Guard station several decades ago, members of the tribe, and even the general public, “weren’t educated in tsunamis,” Hatch said. The images from Japan have changed that.
“I’m really worried. More so since Japan,” said Hatch. That extends beyond her role as school board chairwoman; her great-granddaughter is a student at the school.
But like other tribal leaders, Hatch sees a day not far off when the land swap will occur, the school will be moved and some sacred ground will once again be in tribal hands: “I feel that my heart is going to be filled with pride for my ancestors, that I will be here to see that.”