In the Land of the Head Hunters
Most people, whether they know it or not, have seen an Edward Curtis photograph. So good are his images at capturing native North Americans that they are endlessly displayed. For more than thirty years he took thousands of pictures. Best known for his portraits, he also depicted many scenes and traditions of aboriginal lives. A large selection went into his monumental work “The North American Indian”. In twenty volumes he provided full ethnographies of the tribes he dealt with, accompanied by the famous photographs. He devoted his life to this, and preserved a vanished world.
There was some urgency to his work. Like many of the educated elite, he thought the native North Americans were disappearing. With their disappearance would go the possibility of ever understanding their culture. Living in Seattle in the 1890’s, he developed an interest in local native people. It was a casual interest, until an accident occurred. Curtis had become a mountaineer, and frequently climbed the local mountains. One day he had the luck to rescue several scientists on Mount Rainier. They included Clinton Merriam, a founder of the National Geographic Society, and George Bird Grinnell, an expert on the Plains Indians. After the climb Curtis showed them his photographic work. Impressed, they invited him to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer.
This expedition was assembled in 1899, to study the physical and human aspects of the Alaska coastline. On it were some of the best known scientists and natural history writers of the day. Curtis did very well, and made many important connections. In particular he became strong friends with Grinnell. In 1900 Grinnell took Curtis to the Sun Dance Ceremony in Montana. Curtis was stunned by what he saw. Thousands of natives had gathered for several days of ceremonies. Curtis took many photographs, and began making friends with the natives. When it was over, Curtis’ life was changed. He knew he must spend the rest of his life documenting native North America.
In the early 1900’s Curtis began his work. He started with the Apache, Navaho, and other tribes of the American Southwest. The project, as Curtis envisaged it, would require a lot of money. His work was thorough and uncompromising. The ethnographic information, in both the writing and the photographs, had to be scrupulously exact. This required many months of fieldwork for every book in the series, and paid assistants to help. And the end product had to be of a similar standard. The books had to be of the finest materials and workmanship. Thus Curtis was constantly fund-raising. Luckily he had friends in high places. President Roosevelt was a major supporter, and the financier J.P. Morgan underwrote his production costs for the first few years.
The first two volumes of “The North American Indian” came off the press in 1908. They were hailed for the masterpieces they were. But Curtis was running heavily into debt. The money from Morgan could not cover all his costs, and other wealthy patrons were hard to find. He did manage to get further money from Morgan, but he knew he must find other sources.
Curtis began to go on lecture tours, giving early versions of slide shows to admiring audiences. Although a critical success, these shows did not make much money. But his next idea was brilliant. Curtis had used the new medium of film to record aspects of native life. He could also see that early versions of “Indian” films were very popular, despite being badly made. The idea must have come to him: why not combine the best of both? Make a documentary film of true excellence, and build it around an exciting plot? If badly made films could make a lot of money, what about one that was truly excellent? So new was this concept that no terms adequately described it. Curtis called it a “documentary”, but our concept of a documentary today would not include a fictional plot. “Docudrama” is perhaps the best term.
Curtis began his work with the Kwakiutl (or Kwakwaka’wakw as they are known today) in 1910. He had already completed nine of his projected twenty volumes. The Kwakwaka’wakw proved to be the most fertile territory of all. For him they were a natural fit. His photographs have always been known for their dramatic quality. And of all the North American tribes the Kwakwaka’wakw had perhaps the richest and most dramatic ceremonial life. Moreover they had clung tenaciously to their rituals, more so than any other Northwest Coast tribe. So when the idea of film came to Curtis, the Kwakwaka’wakw were the obvious choice.
But to successfully make an entirely native film, Curtis needed more than artistry. He needed someone from the community who could be his right-hand man. He found him in George Hunt. Hunt, son of a Scottish trader and a Tlingit noblewoman, had grown up in the Kwakwaka’wakw town of Fort Rupert. He was a person of that culture, but had a good command of English and understood European values. He had worked with several museum researchers, most notably Franz Boas from the American Museum of Natural History [see the Tale “The Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine”]. So he could anticipate much of Curtis’ needs.
There were, in particular, several things Hunt could do for Curtis. The first, and perhaps most valuable, was to be a source for ethnographic information. He was able, for example, to take Curtis to remote locations to see dances performed, dances that had been outlawed by the Canadian government. Numerous of these dances were later incorporated into the film, much to the delight of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Hunt knew all the cultural intricacies, such as who had the right to wear certain masks, and who had the right to work together. Without such guidance Curtis could not have functioned.
Hunt was able to supply all the actors from the local community. His son, for example, was the leading male actor. Hunt supplied all the necessary masks and props, and even carved one of the poles himself. His wife made all the traditional costumes. He found suitable locations for the film, locations that had no trace of white culture. And finally, of course, he could speak the local language, Kwak’wala. That meant he could direct the actors while Curtis ran the camera.
We know a great deal of what Hunt did by way of an account book he kept. Between October 1912 and October 1913 Hunt recorded all the items he acquired for the film, along with the date, purchase price, and who was being paid. For example, on December 24, 1912 he paid Mrs. George Hunt thirty dollars for twenty blankets she made. He also had a list of days worked by sixteen actors in April and May of 1914. So not only do we know the importance of Hunt to the film, but we have an excellent record of its making.
The idea of the film was to make money; therefore the plot was pure melodrama. The hero, Motana, dreams of a girl during a spirit quest. He seeks out the girl, Naida, and wins her love. But her father has promised her to an old sorcerer. Motana and his father decide to defeat the sorcerer and his clan. They raid the village and kill the sorcerer. They go back to their village, and, with great celebrations, Motana and Naida marry. But the sorcerer’s brother, Yaklus, seeks revenge. He raids Motana’s village, kills Motana’s father, and captures Naida. Motana, who escaped the attack, sneaks over to Yaklus’ village and rescues Naida. Yaklus pursues them, but capsizes in treacherous water and drowns. Motana and Naida presumably live happily ever after.
Onto this framework Curtis was able to supply the real meat of the film. Numerous dances are featured, which allows us to see how masks and other ceremonial gear were used. This is especially necessary with the “power boards”, or “duntsik” in Kwak’wala. These are large, flat painted boards that stand lifelessly in museums. They need to be featured in a ceremony for their value and use to be understood. In Curtis’ film they come brilliantly alive. The skill of the dancers allow them to bob, weave and come together to tell their story.
Of the numerous dances featured, the most spectacular one occurs in the war canoes. The scene begins with three large canoes approaching the village where the marriage is to take place. In the prow of each boat is a standing, costumed dancer. They are representing three creatures: Grizzly Bear, Thunderbird and Wasp. As the canoes approach the shore they begin their dance. The dancing, the rhythmic paddling of the canoeists, and the strange looming presence of the carved canoes is an extraordinary sight, and deservedly famous. Many people who have never seen the film, or know its director, have seen this clip.
With a title like “In the Land of the Head Hunters” there of course had to be some heads in the film. And after various battles there are heads displayed. But here the emphasis is unduly sensational. Heads were indeed taken as war trophies. But head hunting was limited to that, and was not a part of Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial life. This led to a name change when the film was first restored. The new title, “In the Land of the War Canoes”, gives proper emphasis to an item that was central to the film and to the Kwakwaka’wakw way of life. But Curtis was not completely wrong. Head hunting did occur, and has a legitimate but minor role to play.
The film preserved many extraordinary sights, but it also recorded much more. Everyday actions that were common up to this point soon disappeared. Expert paddling of canoes is an example. In the early twentieth century there were still canoes in the villages, with people who could handle them. The film features a great deal of paddling. But soon after filming the canoes disappeared. Motor boats took over, and a whole way of life vanished.
In the summer of 1914 the film was finished. Curtis edited the film, and in December 1914 it had its premiere in New York. It received rave reviews. The poet Vachel Lindsay, for example, wrote that it was a “supreme art achievement”. But despite this it failed at the box office. War had broken out in Europe, and the movie houses were running newsreels of anti-German propaganda. Docudramas no longer held the public’s attention. Curtis took a terrible loss.
Curtis pushed on with his print volumes, publishing the one on the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) in 1915. But the film sank into obscurity, and then disappeared completely. Ironically, a man that Curtis tutored on film making, Robert Flaherty, went on to make his own docudrama. Titled “Nanook of the North”, it was set among the Eskimo (now known as Inuit), and came out to great acclaim in 1922. Subsequently many film historians have credited Flaherty with producing the first docudrama or ethnographic film. Curtis was completely forgotten.
A partial copy of the film turned up at the Field Museum in Chicago in the 1940’s. A curator, there, George Quimby, recognized its similiarity to the photographs of Edward Curtis. It sat in the museum, though, for many years. In the late 1960’s Quimby and Bill Holm began to restore it. Much had been lost, and the new film was about half the original length. They created a new, and more authentic soundtrack to the film, and renamed it “In the Land of the War Canoes”. It was released in 1973, and Curtis began to take his place in film history.
Subsequently more footage of the film was discovered. In the 2000’s three producers, Aaron Glass, Brad Evans, and Andrea Sandborn, began working on a new restoration. Sandborn, incidentally, is director of the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay. The Kwakwaka’wakw are now full participants in this restoration of their heritage. The Quimby/Holm version was improved, and new footage added. It is now perhaps two thirds the original length. They restored the original title, and added the music that Curtis had commissioned for the film. The result is a better copy, and truer to the original vision. It opened to great praise in Los Angeles and Vancouver in 2008.
Curtis himself never lived to see the revival of his work. Desperately short of money, he sold all rights to the film in 1923. Despite many difficulties he managed to finish his great series, “The North American Indian”. In later years he worked in Hollywood, but never made another film himself. He died in 1952.
Interviewed many years later, surviving Kwakwaka’wakw elders expressed pleasure at having worked with Curtis. It’s easy to see why. He enabled them to revive and practice old traditions, and ignore prohibitions on their ceremonies. The young were able to learn the old ways, and take pride in their traditions. Because of his obsession with authenticity, Curtis sometimes had very definite ideas about appearance and behaviour. He would not allow any trace of a beard, for example, and all hair had to be very long. The Kwakwaka’wakw were willing to concede on points like these. But on major points, such as caste rules, they would not budge. Curtis had to concede. This, of course, was very different from most other whites. But Curtis respected their culture as much as his own, and worked with them as full partners. And they, in turn, did a wonderful job for him. They enabled him to make a masterpiece.
For further reading and viewing:
Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes: A Pioneer Cinematographer in the Pacific Northwest by Bill Holm and George Irving Quimby.
Call number: 778.53 HOL
Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light by Anne Makepeace.
Call number: 927.7 CUR
Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race by Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen.
Call number: 779.997 GRA
In the Land of the War Canoes: A Drama of Kwakiutl Indian Life on the Northwest Coast [DVD]
Call number: 305.89790711 INT
Also, there were several articles on the Curtis film and the Kwakwaka’wakw in the Vancouver Sun. They were published in the period leading up to, and after, the screening of the restored version of “In the Land of the Head Hunters” on June 22, 2008. These are easily accessed on the Canadian Newsstand database the library subscribes to.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian