The Quileute tribe linguistically belongs to the Chimakuan family of languages among Northwest Coast indigenous peoples. The Quileute language is one of a kind, as the only related aboriginal people to the Quileute, the Chemakum, were wiped out by Chief Seattle and the Suquamish people during the 1860s. The Quileute language is one of only five known languages to not have any nasal sounds (m, n).
Many modern Americans would be surprised to find out that in the Northwest Coast they had classes that were based on possession and property, which was very different from the rest of the continent. It is commonly taught and was commonly believed among many groups of native people that you couldn’t own land and that things were shared. In the Northwest Coast region, and within the Quileute tribe, there was a huge emphasis placed on possessions. In the Quileute culture it was possible for families to own dances, songs, and a range of other intangible items . An example of the focus on wealth is the Quileute word “?á·cit.” It has three meanings, the first is chief, and the other two are ‘head of the family’ and ‘wealthy.’ It was also possible to own the rights to fishing in certain places and the rights to tell people they couldn’t fish there. In addition to owning land, rights, songs, and dances, the Quileute also owned slaves. This was common in the region, there was even a slave trade in the Pacific Northwest, but the Quileute people weren’t directly connected. The Quileutes, and many of their neighboring tribes were a part of the Potlatch culture.
The Quileutes were very talented builders and craftsmen. Like many other tribes in the region, they were excellent boat makers. They could make canoes for whaling, which could hold tons of cargo and many men. They had cedar canoes ranging in size from small boats that could hold two people to giant vessels up to 58 meters long and capable of holding up to 6,000 pounds. The modern Clipper Ship’s hull uses a design very much like the canoes used by the Quileute’s.
The Quileute and other Northwest Tribes were dependent on the sea. The Quileutes, however were one of the only tribes that hunted whales. The only tribe that could out-do them was the Makah. In one first hand account from a Quileute whaler from The North American Indian, vol. 9 by Edward Curtis, the whaler describes the rituals that took place before the whaling could begin. He would have to bathe everyday from the beginning of winter until June. The time of day in which he did this would depend on the cycle of the moon. During these baths they would pray to Tsikáti, the universe, who was one of the supernatural beings in the Quileute world. The Quileute were also expert seal hunters.
The beliefs of the Quileute People changed over time. The originally were a very spiritual people. The boys would go on quests to find their supernatural power once they reached puberty, if they wanted to. They would perform the first salmon ceremony to ensure a good season. They had shamans and healers and many legends and monsters that they believed in. One example of a legend is their creation story. It says that a traveling shape shifter came upon a wolf and transformed him into a man, creating the first Quileute. They believed that each person had their own guardian and they would pray to it, along with the sun and Tsikáti (the universe). Much of their original religion was lost and forgotten after the Americans came. They developed the Indian “Shaker Religion” which was like Christianity. They believed in Jesus and the “Spirit of God.”
The Quileute tribe in fiction
The tribe features prominently in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. In the books, the Quileute tribe produces werewolves, the only enemy of vampires.
Spirit Quest by Susan Sharpe, written 1991
Eleven-year-old Aaron Singer spends part of his summer vacation on the Quileute Indian Reservation in Washington, where he becomes friends with Robert, a Quileutte boy. At the encouragement of his family, who no longer incorporate many of their traditions into daily life, Robert attends tribal school to learn Quileute language and culture. At Aaron's urging, the boys go together on their version of a "spirit quest," where Aaron finds and saves a trapped eagle. Though he admires and respects Robert's culture, Aaron wistfully realizes that he can never be a part of it the way Robert is. Aaron's initially romantic view is replaced by deeper understanding.
For more on the Quileute tribe, see The Chimakum and the Quilliute. For more on Twilight, see Quileute Werewolves in Twilight.