Exhibit sets record straight on Quileutes

SATURDAY, JAN. 28, 2012

“Nuu-chah-nulth Wolf Headdress Early 20th century: Plywood, paint, string, thread spools, fabric, cedar twigs” on display at the Washington State Historical Society.
“Nuu-chah-nulth Wolf Headdress Early 20th century: Plywood, paint, string, thread spools, fabric, cedar twigs” on display at the Washington State Historical Society.

WASHINGTON – Elaborate headdresses, drawings of rituals and a basket, all with wolf themes, are part of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian trying to make a point: The Quileute tribe believes it is descended from wolves, not werewolves.

“Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves” opened this month at the National Museum of the American Indian with 23 objects that depict the tribe’s true cultural heritage. It’s a heritage that runs counter to an image depicted in the “Twilight” books and movies.

“The purpose (of the exhibit) is to show people the real nature and the real character of the Quileute people,” said Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum.

The exhibit was organized by the tribe and SAM, where it was on display for a year. After it closed last summer, it moved to the Smithsonian, where it will remain on display through May 9.

After the “Twilight” movies became popular, SAM received phone calls about the tribe and thousands of people flocked to the reservation at La Push, Wash. Brotherton and the Quileute Tribal Council cooperated on a project to tell the real story of the tribe.

The exhibit focuses on the wolf ritual, which is an important Quileute tradition.

A tribal legend says the Quileutes descended from wolves, said Chris Morganroth III, a tribal member and storyteller. According to legend, there was once a hero named Kwati, who could transform animals into humans. When he arrived on James Island, off the northwest coast of Washington, he found two beautiful timber wolves that he changed into people to begin the Quileute tribe.

As a result of that story, wolf imagery became dominant in Quileute art. Tribal members also honor the wolves by wearing headdresses and dancing.

The Smithsonian exhibit stars a wolf headdress that the tribal chiefs still dance with today. It’s made of plywood, string, thread spools, fabric and cedar twigs; it has a painting of the rising sun on the corona and stylized butterflies on the side.

Also on display are drawings from students of the Quileute Day School at Mora done between 1905 and 1908 that depict wolf ritual dances, a whaling canoe and its crew, and posts that once stood in the community’s potlatch hall.

There’s a timeline of Quileute history, a map of tribal territories and a video of tribal members recounting the effects of the “Twilight” books and movies.

During the exhibition’s opening weekend, Morganroth told traditional tribal stories as part of a Native Storytelling Festival, including the legend of Kwati, the origins of the Quileute people and how constellations were formed.

Storytelling is important because it helps the young people learn who they are, Morganroth said. He wanted to be able to tell the world the authentic story, which is not what “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer depicted in her books.

“I have no feeling whatsoever about werewolves or vampires. There are some things that I don’t believe exist in this world,” he said. He thinks Meyer should have consulted with the tribe before using the Quileutes in her books.

Many people who came to the Smithsonian had read the “Twilight” books, including Amanda Quirin, a 26-year-old Washington, D.C., resident. “I think it’s interesting to see the perspectives of the actual Indian tribe, after reading the books, especially to know the traditions behind it,” she said.

Marty Morton, a 77-year-old retired biologist from Oklahoma, hasn’t read the books, but knew something of the tribe’s rich culture. He lived in Washington state for 10 years and was once in La Push on an archaeological dig. Coastal tribes were much different from the inland ones because they had an abundance of food, he said.

“They didn’t have to scratch hard for a living, and they can dedicate most of their time to art,” he said. “Their art is fabulous. …It’s some of the most magnificent stuff you’ll ever see.”

Phoebe Zhang, a graduate student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, works as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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