Author’s groundbreaking film captured First Nation

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Making of Modern Cinema

Edited by Brad Evans and Aaron Glass

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University of Washington Press, 420 pp., $50.


“Professor Curtis here,” said the headline in the Daily Colonist on May 8, 1914.

“Professor E.S. Curtis of New York, formerly of Seattle, whose photographs and historical studies of the Indians of Western America have won for him a unique reputation, was a visitor to the city yesterday,” the newspaper reported.

“He made calls upon the Premier, Sir Richard McBride, and the Provincial Archivist, E.O.S. Scholefield. Professor Curtis is about to publish what will be the most complete historical treatise extant of the Indian tribes of Western America, from Montana to the borders of Mexico and north to the frozen steppes of Alaska.”

The short news item did not mention an even bigger project by Curtis — the filming of a movie, In the Land of the Head Hunters, with the help of Kwakwaka’wakw people of northern Vancouver Island.

The movie was shown that December in Seattle and New York, billed as an “Indian epic drama.” One poster declared that the entire drama was “enacted by primitive Indians,” although no credit was given to the Kwakwaka’wakw actors. (For the record, they were known as Kwakiutl at the time, and Curtis usually referred to them as the Qagyukl people.)

The film was shown here and there across North America over the next year, in places such as Washington, D.C., Oakland, Fairbanks, Placerville, California, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. No record of it being shown in Vancouver or Victoria can be found.

In the Land of the Head Hunters was a first, in several ways. It was the first feature-length movie shot in Western Canada. It was the first movie to be made with the willing participation of a local First Nations community; it is considered to be the first narrative documentary.

The movie was a logical progression for Curtis, who at the time of its release was halfway through producing a 20-volume series of books, The North American Indian, which represented a compilation of his photographs.

A half-century after Curtis met with Ethelbert Scholefield, the provincial archivist, in Victoria, another provincial archivist had this to say about Curtis:

“He was a brilliant man who combined great artistry with an acute eye for detail,” Willard Ireland said.

The movie was supposed to be a recreation, taking the viewer back to a time before the First Nations on the coast had been in contact with whites from Europe. It would be wrong, however, to consider it a documentary, given that it includes fabrications of local culture and promotes stereotypes of Indians from elsewhere.

This year marks 100 years since the film was released. Return to the Land of the Head Hunters, published in recognition of that, is a collection of essays on the original movie, its impact, and the work that has been done to restore it.

The essays are by anthropologists, Native American authorities, artists, musicians, literary scholars, and film historians. The book includes Kwakwaka’wakw perspectives on the film, as well as information about how it was made and distributed.

The book was edited by Brad Evans, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, and Aaron Glass, an assistant professor of anthropology at the Bard Graduate Center.

This is an important work, dealing with the history of the Kwakwaka’wakw as well as the history of cinema and the use of sound in cinema. It explores the interpretation of First Nations culture through the years, and in doing so takes us well away from the Island.

Consider, for example, the two versions of a photograph showing two Piegan men in a lodge. In the original version, a clock can be seen; in the retouched version, the clock is gone.

Curtis had a goal, it seems, of showing First Nations the way they used to be, not the way they were when he photographed them. To that end, he modified reality as he saw fit, which means that his work, while important, should not be viewed as the absolute truth.

That is especially the case with In the Land of the Head Hunters, which by all accounts is a melodrama based on classic literature, mixed with contemporary white perceptions of Indians.

After its release, the film dropped out of sight for more than half a century. Part of it was rebuilt into a new movie, In the Land of the War Canoes, in the 1970s, with Kwakwaka’wakw singers and musicians providing new music. (The recording was done in the old Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.)

Clips have also been shown from time to time in museums.

An effort is being made to have the restored film shown in December in both Vancouver and Victoria, to mark the 100th anniversary of the original opening on Dec. 7, 1914.

In the meantime, we have this book, which tells the story of one of Vancouver Island’s most important contributions to film-making, and finally gives proper credit to the role of the Kwakwaka’wakw in making it.

The reviewer is editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.

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