Story from Living on the Peninsula magazine
Story and photos by Chris Cook
'Thousands of winters before the arrival of the White Drifting-House people, the Quileute Indians and the ghosts of their ancestors lived and hunted here.'
So begins the Quileute Tribe’s official account of their people and homeland. “Quileute” is the preferred tribal name for their aboriginal lands, which once encompassed about 900 square miles, from the coast at LaPush north to Ozette, inland to the base of the Olympic Mountains and far to the south of LaPush.
Today their homeland is a coastal area of one square mile commonly known as LaPush (the place name LaPush comes from the traders who once traveled the coast and derives from the French language-inspired Chinook trade jargon word “la bouche” or river mouth).
The Quileute are a Northwest tribe and known as a great seafaring people who traveled in seagoing canoes sometimes as far as hundreds of miles. Traditionally, the Quileute lived in great cedar-plank houses near the ocean, wore cedar bark clothing, roasted salmon and other fish over fires, hunted whales and seals, and hunted elk and other forest animals. The Quileute are known around the world as creating beautiful hand-woven baskets and wood carvings. A notable event was a potlatch, where chiefs presided over great gift giving and feasting.
In the 1850s, the Quileute Tribe was almost forced off the coastal lands it consider sacred but refused to leave. A treaty signed with the United States in 1889 recognized the Quileute claim to the lands and the Quileute Indian Reservation was established.
Among Native American tribes — and the languages of the world — the Quileute language is unique due to the lack of nasal sounds in their alphabet. Preservation of the Quileute language and perpetuating the Quileute culture are key goals at the Quileute Tribal School at LaPush. They shared the language with the Chimakum Tribe that unfortunately was massacred in 1850 and 1860 by Chief Seattle and his tribe, with the last Chemakum language speaker dying in the 1940s.
With this rich heritage as a sure foundation, the Quileute Tribal Council is leading the Quileute people into the future with plans and hopes that combine taking care of the needs of today and tomorrow while perpetuating their heritage.
A wide range of services are available at LaPush for the Quileute people including a Head Start program, medical services and a fisheries program. The Akalat Center near the entrance to LaPush hosts larger community gatherings such as school graduations and the annual Elders Week celebration. The Quileute Community Center near the Quileute Marina and Tribal Council offices comes alive on Wednesday evenings with a weekly potluck and drumming session to which visitors are invited and welcomed.
The Quileute Marina serves as home for a commercial fishing fleet and recreational boats. Catches easily can be moved to a fresh seafood processing plant located adjacent to the River’s Edge restaurant, which is open seasonally. The Army Corps of Engineers is assisting with improvements to the marina.
Quileute Executive Director Bill Peach is optimistic about the future of the Quileutes. “The Quileute Tribe is very proud of their culture and is in the planning phase of a project to construct a modest Cultural Resources Center during the next year,” he said from his office in the Quileute Tribal Council building at LaPush. “Grant funding has been secured and a tribal planning committee is coordinating the design using the services of architectural and engineering firms.”
Tourism also is a key to the economic future of the Quileute Nation. The stylish, low-key Oceanside Resort is open and expanding along the coast at LaPush.
“The Quileute Tribe continues to support economic development at LaPush and recently has completed construction of the 26-room Thunderbird Hotel and 24 new RV spaces in response to a significant number of people choosing to vacation at LaPush,” Peach said.
An unexpected boost has added an interesting addition to the Quileute’s milleniums-long story, as well as their resort plans, a trend known on the West End as the Twilight phenomenon.
Author Stephenie Meyer discovered the Quileute’s rich heritage when she chose the West End of Clallam County as the setting for her mega-selling “Twilight” saga books. Fictionalizing their wolf clan heritage, Meyer pictured the Quileute as heroic werewolves and made Jacob Black, a fictitious Quileute youth, a love interest and savior of “Twilight’s” leading lady Bella Swan.
This phenomenon is drawing thousands of visitors to LaPush. “New Moon,” the second film in Summit Entertainment’s Twilight film series, is scheduled to be released across the world beginning in November. The film focuses on LaPush and the Quileutes, just as nearby Forks was the focus of the first Twilight film.
Quileute Tribal Council Chairman Carol Hatch sees the Twilight attention as a plus: “Like the rest of the world, the Quileute could not have anticipated the phenomenon that Twilight has become and as a nation, we continue to welcome all visitors to LaPush as our ancestors have done for centuries. We are a nation of diverse members with a broad range of ideas and thoughts regarding the Twilight phenomenon and we respect and embrace all the views of our tribal members.”
“Twilight has brought many people to the peninsula and LaPush,” she added. “It is possible that 100,000 visitors each year will visit for the next few years. The tribal council has recently authorized a new position, events coordinator, to facilitate an enjoyable experience for our visitors.”
This new interest is being directed to year-round activities at LaPush, building upon the busy summer tourism season.
“The restaurant and resort are very popular and well worth visiting,” Hatch said. “Plans to increase their use during the winter include booking large tour groups. Activities for the tour groups have included a traditional salmon bake and storytelling.”
The No. 1 environmental danger the Quileutes face is the threat of a tsunami sweeping across its oceanfront village at LaPush. To lessen the danger, the Quileute Tribal Council is working with federal agencies and representatives to expand their plateau lands that border on Olympic National Park. Hatch calls this work the primary priority for the council.
Site work and infrastructure installation is under way for homes, which will create new neighborhoods on the plateau near the community’s Akalat Center.