The Quileute tribe’s quandry

Every time it floods in New Orleans or a hurricane wipes out a mobile home park along the coast of Florida similar questions are asked: Why do people continue to put themselves in harm’s way by living in – and often rebuilding in — places clearly threatened by natural disaster?

A Native American community in the northwest corner of the country, popularized in the hit book and movie series Twilight, is attempting to get ahead of the curve by moving inland before tsunami waves trash their town.

Recent video of Japan’s coast as it was shaken and flooded by earthquake and tsunami waves has propelled a three-decades-long struggle by the tribe to move to higher ground.

Four hundred families of the Quileute tribe in northwest Washington state – concerned because the schoolyard where their kids play is constantly thrashed by storm waves from an often-wild Pacific Ocean – are pressing to reclaim ancestral lands from the federal government so they can move to inland. At risk are the Quileute Tribal School, homes, the tribe’s headquarters and its elder center.

“Our people live in danger daily knowing that we could hit by a tsunami,” says Bonita Cleveland, the tribe’s chairwoman. “It could be wiped out in a heartbeat.”While there hasn’t been a major earthquake in the area since 1700, computer models of the Cascadia subduction zone that parallels the Pacific coastline suggest the tribe would have 20 to 30 minutes to clear out if a Japan-sized earthquake struck nearby and it would likely rip the town to pieces in advance of a tsunami wave. In recent emergency drills, the tribe has quickly evacuated to higher ground. Warning sirens have proven difficult to hear and the feat has been managed with hours of advance notice and coordination.

In the good old days, the nomadic tribe of fisherman and whalers moved around the Olympic Peninsula with the seasons, spending winters safe inside the old-growth forest, away from the coastal storms and river flooding that have long haunted the region. Those good old days are long gone, of course, and locals are feeling trapped and at risk.

As John Dodge reports in the Daily World, tribal officials have been asking for freedom for its 750 members to roam for decades and last week traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on a bill that would designate 800 acres of Olympic National Park for the tribe’s use. The National Park Service backs the plan that would give the tribe roughly two square miles inside the park where they could move immediately. A sophisticated tribe website with press clips and videos makes its case.

The tribe is proposing to use part of the land to relocate homes, the school and several other facilities. It has an enrolled membership of more than 1,000, with roughly 400 of them living at the town site.

Chairwoman Cleveland makes this plea, accompanying a new video: “The introduction of the legislation is just the first step. We need the support of the American public to get this legislation passed. Please watch these videos and share them with your friends and family and then contact your legislators and ask them to support the Quileute Tsunami Protection legislation. The Quileute Tribe is grateful for your support.”

A very spiritual people, who have longed believed in their ability to obtain supernatural powers, Quileute folklore maintains they are descended from wolves and have the ability to transform into werewolves, which is why novelist Stephanie Meyers fictionalized the tribe in her popular Twilight series. In her books, members of the tribe are capable of shape shifting into wolves and are the enemies of vampires.

The popularity of Twilight has made the tribe’s hometown of La Push and its scenic beaches favorite tourist destinations and has allowed a small tribe largely dependent on fishing to improve its economic circumstances through tourism.

The tribe has not been shy about reaching out to Twilight fans for support in its fight to move. “The Quileute Nation has always been friendly and welcoming to Twilight fans, asking little aside from respect of the Nation’s photo policies in return. Now, here’s a chance to show support. Please consider aiding this effort if possible.”

[Flickr image via Thomas Cristopher]