The tribally owned Quileute Ocean-side Resort, a significant local employer, recently refurbished its 44 cabins, 28 motel rooms, campground and RV park near the reservation's almost pristine First Beach. Televisions and phones have been excluded, emphasizing the sense of isolation. The cabins, nestled in groves of Douglas firs and Western hemlocks, range from basic one-bed studios to townhome models with knotty pine interiors and wood-burning stoves.
Before the drum circle begins, I follow a path from my small cabin through a strip of dense dune vegetation, marveling at the driftwood logs that litter the upper beach as if tossed by a surly giant. A solitary trunk angles up from the sand near the surf, its tangle of roots stretching more than 20 feet. Sea stacks jut out from Quateata Cape like a row of broken teeth, and James Island looms off the coast like a fortress -- a sacred land and burial ground known in Quileute as A-Ka-Lat or "Top of the Rock."
The scenery is spectacular, but it comes at a cost. Legends tell how the tribe rode out a great flood that washed the Chimakum, their closest kin, to the other side of the Olympic Peninsula. More than eight feet of rain falls here yearly, and a subduction zone just beyond the coastline has raised serious alarms: A catastrophic earthquake and tsunami could easily wipe out much of the reservation. There is only one road that leads to safety, and the tribe estimates it might have -- at most -- eight minutes to evacuate the lower village.
The Quileute have struggled for centuries to retain their land and culture amid outside threats. In 1889, the same year a treaty squeezed the tribe onto a fraction of its ancestral lands, a settler who'd fraudulently claimed the remaining plots burned all 26 houses to the ground. By 1920, the last of the peninsula's wolves had been poisoned, shot or trapped, severing another vital link to the past.
The road leading to La Push from Highway 101 is now lined with references to Twilight, from the Wolf Den and Jacob Black rental cabins to a sign reading: "No Vampires Beyond This Point. Treaty Line." The Internet is filled with Quileute charms, jewelry, T-shirts -- even bottles of sand allegedly gathered from First Beach. Almost none of this is sanctioned by the tribe.
In 2010, a volunteer advisor, Angela Riley, director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, wrote an editorial in The New York Times, "Sucking the Quileute Dry," which blasted the ongoing exploitation. In perhaps the worst instance, an MSN.com film crew working on a virtual Twilight tour filmed the reservation's cemetery without permission, pairing grainy images of the gravesites of respected elders with a creepy soundtrack. Deeply offended, the tribe secured a quick public apology and removal of the footage, but the incident prompted a new level of vigilance. Now, the Quileute Nation has an etiquette guide and photography policy, both prominently displayed on its website.
Tribes have used a variety of approaches to protect their private or sacred places, objects and events. The Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota positioned their Rosebud Casino just across the state line in Valentine, Neb., in part to target a wealthier demographic in northern Nebraska, but also to deflect attention from the heart of the reservation, says John Henry Glover, professor of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D.
Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, a national historic landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, counts tourism as its primary industry, but it deliberately sacrifices a significant chunk of revenue by closing for more than a month every year for community religious observances. The Havasupai Reservation, whose town of Supai in the Grand Canyon is among the most isolated in the Lower 48, strictly limits the number of hikers allowed in its campground. It also cordons off special areas like its cemetery, and protects a venerated water source by restricting hikers to a single designated trail to the reservation's spectacular waterfalls.
"When we talk to tribes across the United States about travel and tourism, we really want them to understand that they don't have to share everything with the visitor," says Leslie Kedelty, executive director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association in Albuquerque. "We as Indian people have traditional knowledge that we can keep to ourselves. We don't have to publicize those sacred sites that are very important to us."