Meyer vs. the Quileute

Hop on over to the New York Times (while it’s still free online) and check out Angela R. Riley’s op-ed “Sucking the Quileute Dry.” In Riley’s account, vampirism becomes a metaphor for the exploitation of the tiny tribe’s cultural legacy by Meyer and the Twilight machine. (I’ve alluded elsewhere to the implicit racism in the representations of the Quileute boys in New Moon, so this latest callous wrinkle should come as no surprise.)

As Riley points out, there are many institutions that exploit Native American culture and identity without compensating the tribes involved (the Jeep Cherokee, is one example she gives). Meyer goes a step further, adapting (corrupting?) the Quileute creation myth for her fictional ends. This kind of (mis)appropriation has been a fixture of American fiction since Cooper and Sedgwick in the nineteenth century, and I know of not a single instance in which an author or his publisher has ever cut a check to the tribes mentioned in their novels.

But let’s push a little harder on Riley’s claims. Appropriating an indigenous people’s culture or mythology is kind of what Western literature has always done, going back to, well, Ovid and cruising forward to the present day. I’m not saying that tradition makes a thing right, but where else does literature come from but the imaginative appropriation and recycling of ideas, values, and mythologies? These may come from one’s own culture or another’s.  It is, of course, the job of literary scholars to point out when these appropriations are ideologically charged or morally suspect (and it should be clear by now that I think Meyer’s fiction is both), and it’s the responsibility of cultural advocates like Riley to point out when these appropriations are offensive or damaging to the people from whose culture the images and ideas are drawn. And even then I think there’s a lot of room for artistic license to excuse all but the most gratuitous representations of native people and other Others. But these are not royalties-bearing sorts of appropriation, like sampling a guitar riff from an old blues song for a hip-hop record. In that case there’s an obvious original artist and the provenance of the cultural artifact is clear.

But in the case of appropriating mythology for fictional purposes, this line is less distinct. To suggest that Meyer should buy off the Quileute for adapting their creation myth is absurd. One might as well suggest that Melissa Marr or Holly Black somehow owe the Irish for their use of Celtic faerie mythology. Nobody owns culture.

I don’t think that the Quileute shouldn’t have the opportunity to profit from Twilight mania. The tour companies who ferry busloads of pederastic Twilight Moms onto the reservation to ogle the lissome youths of the tribe for their wolfish fantasies, now they should be paying a hefty fee to the tribal government for access to sovereign tribal land. Likewise the film company, should they bother to shoot on location at La Push. And if the Quileute aren’t compelling the tour buses to stop on the rez so they can shill some authentic cultural artifacts of their own making to these vamp-tourists, then they’re sadly missing the boat. But Meyer shouldn’t have to make up the difference because she brought the tribe to the attention of the twenty-first century. It’s up to them to take advantage of the opportunity this attention offers, but not by crying victim and trying to put a price on myth.

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3 thoughts on “Meyer vs. the Quileute

  1. Thanks for picking up on this article, which I think is important. (It's also by my professor, so I have a pre-made interest).I think you're taking Riley's suggestions too far: I don't think she's calling for a payment-per-use-of-cutlure per se. She's arguing for active engagement with the Quileute about how their culture is engaged and mobilized in a non-Quileute arena; she raises profit-sharing as one way to assign value to this use, but the Quileute may opt for something else, even something non-monetary. Nor are the Quileute "crying victim." I think that verbiage is a convenient construction that minimizes legitimate concerns of indigenous communities, and one that is actually pretty offensive, but I'll set that aside to go to the point of your post.I think your main point is that you can't put a price on mythology (or religion, to afford Quileute beliefs a little more respect) because no one owns culture. But is this true? I think Stephenie Meyer would argue that she owns her contributions to culture, as would Madonna or James Cameron. Is it different for the Quileute because they're a group? Or is it different because their culture isn't a "product," but rather a set of beliefs?I think the case for providing the Quileute some compensation for the use of their culture is fundamentally different from Celtic or, say Roman mythology. The Quileute aren't a diffuse culture, nor are they a historical one. Like most indigenous peoples, they're a fairly small group — one that is relatively easy to engage. They have a defined territory and a tribal council to speak to.Further, the case for compensating them in some way is stronger in that Meyer isn't a member of that culture. Since she isn't, she's "reaching in" to their community, their culture, and their religion to benefit from what she finds compelling, or maybe profitable. As an outsider, the Quileute aren't able to influence her use of their culture or beliefs. She is not subject to the values the Quileute hold that guide Quileute artists in the mobilization of their own culture. Engaging the Quileute in negotiations about how to employ their culture seems fair, especially when you consider that it's Quileute culture, religion, and beliefs literally define who is Quileute and who isn't. Appropriating Quileute culture for outside use might harm the Quileute in that they can't control the employment of their value and beliefs. Quileutes will struggle to define themselves if they are being defined by the heaving masses lining up to ogle Edward.

  2. Neither Tolkien nor his heirs have ever had to pay Norway, Iceland, Sweden or Ireland for the use of Nordic cultural themes. Only a "culture" commercialized to the point of non-existence (such as that of the US) could think of charging commercially for use of a world view. Fiction is fiction and nothing more.

  3. Thanks so much for the well-considered comments. One point of clarification, when I use the term "myth" I mean the stories a culture tells itself about itself. It's not a denigration of those stories to describe them as myth.I appreciate y'all taking time to read and respond. And I really appreciate that scholars like Riley are taking a good hard look at the real-world impact of ideologically charged fiction like Meyer's work.

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