First published in 2005, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels quickly became a cultural phenomenon — creating an extraordinarily passionate fandom worldwide, and soon being followed up with five movies. Its story essentially revolves around an average teenage girl who, having moved in with her father in Forks, Washington (a real town), becomes involved in a love-triangle with a vampire and a werewolf. But while this scenario initially seems just a harmless concept typical of young adult fiction, many of its wider elements are complicated through the result of one major creative decision: the losing man is Indigenous.
In writing Twilight, Meyer ensured that behind every glittering vampire was a deep and fantastical backstory: Edward Cullen might appear seventeen years old, but he’s actually a survivor of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. But while a good amount of the Twilight storyline is an obvious product of fiction, vital pieces of the story world are lifted straight from our reality — most of those pertaining to the land and the Indigenous people in the region that this entire story takes place. Just as Forks is an actual location, so too is the nearby La Push, where local boy Jacob Black comes from. A member of the Quileute Tribe — a federally recognized Native American tribe that exists in the United States — the fictional Jacob attends school on the real-world reservation. Authors have always used real-life cultures as inspiration for their stories, but Meyers’ use of the Quileute people is made different through Jacob’s eventual loss.
Bella is completely infatuated with Edward, towards whom the love triangle is unfairly weighted. Edward is powerful, mysterious, and ridiculously white; in fact, the entire Cullen clan is made up of white vampires, so my guess is that Carlisle only felt like saving the desperate and dying souls that happened to look just like him. Edward’s physical traits matter only because of how pale he is as a love interest compared to the brown Indigenous man with a crush — furthering the possible tension that’s already present in the possibility of an interracial relationship with Bella.
Their differences in personality are just as significant. Edward was born in 1901, and his stoic emotions — along with his insistence on chastity until marriage — are a reinforcement of Christian morals that came to this land during the times of colonization. Edward and the entire Cullen family have sworn to control their desire for human blood, as they actively work to control their urges. Compare that to Jacob, who is much more emotionally off-the-wall — constantly appearing without a shirt, and unable to fully control his wolfishness.
These differences play into extremely harmful characterizations of Native people that are not far off from the Western films of the 1950s, especially through the consistent and pointed comparisons to the ‘la-di-dah’ Edwardian vampire representing the perfect gentleman. To some, the mention of Indigenous is synonymous with ‘primitive’ — acting more on bodily instincts than on rational decisions. Isn’t this how Jacob Black is personified? A man that runs around with his wolfpack, nearly naked and highly emotional?
Meyer’s narrative use of a treaty between the Cullens and the Quileutes is a device that had so much potential for good, but instead only furthers the harmful Indigenous representation. Treaties are a major part of Indigenous law that are commonly misunderstood by a majority of lawmakers, politicians, judges, and non-Natives. (In fact, a majority of the treaties signed by governments are currently being disregarded.) But instead of utilizing a treaty between a group of pale bloodsuckers and a federally recognized tribe to educate on the realities of Indigenous people, it becomes instead a superfluous plot device — presumed, instead, as fiction by readers and viewers across the world.
All of this is not just to critique the source material, though, as the same disregard for Indigenous people is evident across all five films. While there were admittedly some Indigenous actors cast in supporting roles, the big kicker comes in the casting of the main man himself: Jacob Black. Taylor Lautner, a non-Native man, was cast as Jacob. At the time, Lautner was not aware of any Indigenous biology or ancestry, and he definitely was not culturally tied to any group or tribe.
Such racebending is not exactly uncommon in the 100-plus-year history of cinema, and so this aspect of Lautner’s casting didn’t get much mainstream attention in 2007. Conveniently, in 2008, Lautner began to state in interviews that he did have some Native American heritage — later telling MTV that his mother had ethnic ties to the Potawatomi and Ottawa people — but this still does not solve the lack of personal ties that create community within Indigenous cultures. It will never be surprising for a citizen of a country that is based on the complete oppression and genocide of Indigenous people to find out they are “genetically 0.02% Native American.” But if you do not have ties to a specific community who will claim you when you claim them, then you are not Native.
The convenience in Lautner’s casting indicates that the higher powers-that-be (those behind the public relations and marketing of the Twilight films) knew that the source material they were adapting was anti-Indigenous. Rather than fixing that, or finding an original story created by an actual Indigenous person, they continued in the same oppressive vein until they got caught — attempting to remedy their purposeful decision by having Lautner then claim a sacred culture that will not claim him back.
Lastly, one more show of ignorance. As of 2010, Meyer had failed to financially compensate the Quileute Nation, and even failed to ask their permission to use their culture as part of the series’ marketing. And while this may well have been remedied in the 10 years since, Twilight in 2010 was at its cultural peak. The popularity of both its books and movies had been influencing fashion trends and merchandise in huge retail chains, making financial gain easy for everyone except the Quileutes. Of course, the fandom did create a good amount of tourism to La Push — ultimately stimulating areas of the local economy through some Twilight enthusiasts also advocating for Quileute issues — but the overarching message of the narrative seems to go unnoticed.
Harmful power structures like these can exist behind even the most seemingly innocent young adult novels. And the possibility remains that the anti-Indigenous attitudes from the world of Bella Swan will be resurrected with the upcoming release of Midnight Sun, which tells the story from Edward’s point-of-view. But will this come as any surprise? Indigenous cultures have long been ripped apart, appropriated, used as a product, and then forgotten about. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is just another example.
For further reading, Joanna Luz Siegel’s journal article “Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Humans: Learning from Participatory Responses to the Representation of Native Americans in Twilight” provides insightful research into the criticisms raised in this piece.