August 15, 2008

Noble savages in Twilight

A Twilight reader named Mariana gives us further insight into the Quileutes in Stephenie Meyer's series:

Twilight, the “Next Harry Potter”?My reasons for having been offended by Meyer’s treatment of the Native American community differs somewhat from Schmidt’s. Victoria is probably right in thinking that he must not have read the books properly.

What irritated me most about Meyer’s attitude towards Native Americans is the way she perpetrates old stereotypes, stereotypes that are indicative of the general public’s complete ignorance of the reality of the Native American situation. How many books and films have portrayed Indians as wise and peaceful people with mystical powers and and a mysterious connection to the natural world? It irritates many Native Americans to no end, and I feel the same way.

In truth, the Native American situation is a sad one. Many live far below the poverty line, the quality of the education they receive is tragic, and the leading causes of death are generally alcohol related. They are a sad, sad people. Not only do they have to deal with extreme poverty and racism and identity crises of their own, but also with the white community telling them how Indians are supposed to behave. That is why it is such an insult to see all these New Age types assuming “Indian” names, claiming that they inherited “ancient Native American wisdom” and are now one with nature. (Sherman Alexie, a fantastic Native American writer, has a great deal to say on the subject.)

Unlike Schmidt, it really doesn’t bother me that the main character chose her white suitor over the Native American one, as I doubt this decision (while troubling) was based at all on race. What troubles me is how misinformed Meyer seems to be. Perhaps she does know the reality and has chosen to ignore it, which only adds to the offense. In any case, I simply don’t like it.
Comment:  Mariana may think that because I discussed the vampire/werewolf duality, I must consider Jacob Black a brute. If that's her belief, my response is no, not really.

A "wise and peaceful" Indian doesn't necessarily contradict the idea of a bestial werewolf. Consider the lion, for instance. The "best" animals are supposed to be pure and innocent, even if they're predators. They're "noble" until they have to kill out of necessity.

A good comparison would be with the denizens of the TV series Wolf Lake. The show offered a range of wolf-people: good, bad, and conflicted. But deep down, they were all wolves. Their instinct was to run in packs, not to soar like angels.

In other words, a noble savage is still a savage when you strip away his nobility. To coin a phrase, you can take the Indian out of the wolf, but you can't take the wolf out of the Indian.

Jacob not a typical werewolf?

One commenter in the above thread seemed to take offense when I said werewolves such as Jacob are "hairy, snarling, and savage." Is Jacob not a typical werewolf? Is he like Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London": "drinkin' a pina colada at Trader Vic's/And his hair was perfect"?

Apparently not. According to the TwilightSaga wiki:But when Jacob makes the change himself in response to a new vampire threat, he learns that Sam (leader of the pack) went through his own 'werewolf' hardships, including a rather bloody incident with his girlfriend (now fiancée) Emily. As werewolves are short-tempered, highly violent, and likely to explode into wolf form when provoked to anger, Jacob, prompted by his new pack, agrees that he should stay away from Bella.Whew! So much for the Quileutes as noble savages. These Indian werewolves sound like the usual beast-men to me. A "highly violent" species...who woulda thunk it?

Despite this description, perhaps Jacob is an exception. Perhaps he's like the Geico caveman: erudite and sophisticated beneath his rough exterior. I still haven't read the books, so if Jacob never bares his fangs or claws, I apologize for misunderstanding him.

Yes, I'm looking forward to reading about Jacob consuming tea and crumpets...perusing the Wall Street Journal or the Economist...expounding on commodity prices or the Mideast situation. Because it would be a stupid stereotype if he were merely a howling beast-boy with no depth or substance. Twilight readers, please show me that Jacob is an intellectual as well as a physical giant. Send me descriptions of the worldly wunderkind so I can correct my misapprehensions.

While we're waiting, read the thread for some critiques of my previous Twilight postings. The die-hard fans have dared to diss me. Will they get away with it?


Anonymous said...

First off let me say.. I just googled this and I haven't read much of the other entries..

I am an Oglala Lakota native from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I have read the complete Twilight series and am living the "Native American life." Here is some insight on the place where I live. I live on the second largest reservation, population 46,000+, income less than $10,000 a year, the poorest county in the United States. If anyone has it hard, talk to my people. But this just pisses me off how this person can say this about my people. We are a proud nation and we don't let the hardships get us down. I am not irritated by Stephenie Meyer's portrayal of Native Americans. If you actually read the books, it's main focus wasn't on the Quileute tribe, she uses a legend for a fictional story. What I liked best is that she actually used Native Americans in her story. It's something I wasn't expecting since the story wasn't about Native Americans. Maybe I don't really understand because I'm not part of that tribe, I don't know their legends or spirituality. But I am Native American, most Natives I know love the books and aren't offended. There's really nothing to be offended by. If anything, I'm offended by this blog and people who think they know how Native Americans live. In Twilight, she doesn't mention anything on how they live, and that's probably for the better, because then that would make her look ignorant.

Yes I am Native American, and I am Team Edward. I'm not going to choose Jacob because he's Native American. Sure that's cool, I have Native Pride, but I also read the book.

The qualities of the werewolves have nothing to do with Native Americans... anyone WHO READ THE BOOKS could understand that.

I'm also a fan of Supernatural... Would you like to discuss how they use Native American legends in some of their storylines and how it's offensive?

Rob said...

Meyer used a made-up Quileute legend for her story, maybe. See Twilight vs. Quileute Legends for more on the subject.

I don't think I've said much about how Natives live--especially not in my Twilight postings. What I've done is criticize the portrayal of Indians as animals (wolves). These are two different and unrelated subjects.

The woman I quoted, Mariana, said stereotypes such as those in Twilight have irritated "many Native Americans to no end." If you think most Natives like Twilight, okay, but I haven't seen the evidence for your claim.

I mentioned the problem of creators using too many Wendigos in TV shows such as Supernatural. I don't have time to critique episodes of a show I haven't watched.

Finally, if Newspaper Rock offends you, the solution is simple. Don't read it.

Anonymous said...

I don't like negative comments on her books. We have to remember just like Anne Rice she created a fictional book with mythical creatures that do not exist nor ever existed. As far as getting a legend correct or down to its roots is not the importance of the story. It's a fictional story about two combatting foes and a romance between a girl and a vampire. She made up her own story and that is all that matters. She probably did not want to take the time to go over every last detail of a Native american legend. Because the story is not aimed totally on this myth. The story she is aiming at is the vampires and the love story. She probably just used the native american just add to more appeal to the story. After all why create a vampire story that has no foes in it or obstacles. That was her aim to create chaos and order. Not just a flat vampire romance where the the good guy gets the girl with no interfernce. That would pan out to a plain flat story with no suspence. if that was the case why write it. So give the writer a break. I think she was very creative just to do something different with a vampire/werewolf tale. It is obvious that the native american's do not take offense to this movie or the few that played in it would not have offered a facial appearance. I myself am decended from the native american race and I took not offense to it.

Rob said...

For my response to your comments, Anonymous, see Twilight Fan Dislikes Negative Comments.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rob,
I'm glad you tackled this. Just today, out of an itch that needed to be scratched, I googled the key words 'Native Americans are not werewolves' and this came up on the first page. As a Native American of mixed heritage who already has to deal with a lot (there sure are a lot) of misconceptions about my folklore and my identity in general (for one, I'm not an alcoholic, thank you, and I don't lie, cheat, or steal!) I can't tell you enough how much it frazzles me that every myth of ours is Europeanized in the media. Wendigo aren't werewolves. The raven mockers of my people sure as hell aren't gorram werewolves. And we are human beings, not creatures from the Island of Doctor Moreau!
So, yeah; thank you for starting a very necessary argument, or joining in on it. (P.S. I'd love to be the fly on the wall if Sherman Alexie met Meyer at a YA book award thing.)

Anonymous said...

I live in Washington fairly close to Forks and go to school near a Native American reserve, and while I myself am not Native American, I can see how it can be offensive.

Meyer did not even bother to actually research the Quiluete legends. And if she is going to be using this tribe, should she not actually get their legends accurate?

I don't care if the actual legends match up with her plot or not. Twilight is set in the real world with real tribes and real people that need to be respected.

I feel she should have sat down at the computer and taken 5 minutes to google the legends. It would have shown respect to those whose tribe was referenced in the books and true respect to the legends that have been passed down for centuries.

I realize she used 'real' legends, though she left out huge parts. And while it may seem like a small omission, she should have tied it all together and worked her story to fit the legends, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

First, I´m not a native english speaker, or writer, so - sorry, for mistakes and errors - or enjoy it, however ;-).

I googled "native americans vs twilight" very early in the morning and was very surprised: what is so wrong to use only a part of legends? I serged and googled: no original native americans as the "Wolfpack". Okay, I thought: that’s not nice, but this should´nt be a problem, as long they look alike?
And then I found many entries about this and thought about it: it woud´nt be a problem, when this world were perfect. If never people were killed for beeing what they are, if never racism colored everithing the most white people know about, think is right about Native American. And now: actors, who are not native americans, color the way, people all other the world will think, native americans look!!!! Horrible!!!!
So, yes it isn´t ridicoulus to camplain about. It is very necessary to camplain and to protest. It´s the only chance to get human rights and equity for all people, no matter which ancestors color your skin.
Sorry for the "dramatic writing" ;-)

Unknown said...

I am Native American. I am a member of the Yakama Nation (Washington State). When I read all of Stephenie's books my first thought was GREAT. This books isn't about the poor, opressed, feel sorry for Indians. I thought it was humorous that the vampires were gorgeous and wealthy while the Native Americans were wolves. Offended? Not one bit. A little bit proud of her portrayal. "You're on my Rez. remember?" So cute!

I am a tad offended that when it comes time to cast the Native American parts that the casting directors don't make a real attempt to find our beautiful and talented Native American people. I don't like when non-Native Americans are cast for Native American parts, even if they do a spectacular job. It feels like a slap in the face, like Hollywood is saying, "there aren't any talented Natives!"

But offended by Stephenie's portrayal? Not at all. On the contrary, I'm impressed.