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

Edward Curtis’s 1914 silent film, In the Land of the Head Hunters,was a landmark of early cinema and provided a rare glimpse into Curtis’s encounter and collaboration with indigenous peoples, in this case the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia. Despite its historical significance, the film was a commercial failure and the film was lost soon after its debut. Scraps of the film would resurface decades later but, until now, it was never fully restored. Working with a team of collaborators—including members of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe and group of interdisciplinary scholars—Brad Evans and Aaron Glass have meticulously reassembled the film and its original orchestral score so that it closely resembles the movie as it would have been seen by audiences in 1914. In today’s guest post, Evans and Glass discuss the process of restoring the film and place it within the broader context of American film history.

In 1914, the American photographer Edward Curtis produced a melodramatic, silent feature film entitled In the Land of the Head Hunters. This was the first feature-length film to exclusively star Native North Americans, released eight years before Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. An epic story of love and war set before Europeans arrived on the North Pacific Coast, it featured non-professional actors from Kwakwaka’wakw communities in British Columbia, a people already famous then for spectacular visual art and dance, as well as resistance to assimilation. For gala openings in New York and Seattle, Head Hunters was accompanied by an original orchestral score composed for the film by John Braham, best known at the time for arranging Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. This score—claimed by Curtis to be based on Native source music—is now thought to be the earliest surviving score for a silent feature film. A critical success but a financial failure, Curtis’s film was soon lost and largely forgotten, as so many early silent films were.

Original advertising card depicting "The Bridal Party" from In the Land of the Head Hunters, ca. 1914.

Original advertising card depicting “The Bridal Party” from In the Land of the Head Hunters, ca. 1914.

It was thus a great stroke of luck that in the 1960s a badly damaged copy of the film was discovered at The Field Museum in Chicago—likely rescued from a movie house dumpster. The museum preserved it as a record of aboriginal life on the Northwest Coast, with no thought of its historical significance to the development of modern cinema.  Until now, the only version of the film available to scholars or the general public, was one produced at the University of Washington in 1973 from this fragmented copy. Retitled In the Land of the War Canoes, and synched to a new naturalistic soundtrack, this version was distributed as a “documentary film” even though this genre did not exist in 1914.

Based on recent archival discoveries, a collaborative team including many contributors to this book, working closely with the Kwakwaka’wakw, have overseen a new restoration of the film. The new version, available in late 2014 on DVD and BluRay from Milestone Films, has returned the original title and inter-title cards, added long-missing footage, and restored the original color tinting and publicity graphics. It is also accompanied by a marvelous performance of the original musical score by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble. Though still incomplete, it is now possible to get a sense of what audiences in 1914 would have seen and heard in theatres.

George Hunt (with megaphone), Edward S. Curtis, and actors filming In The Land of the Head Hunters, 1914. Photo by Edmund A. Schwinke. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, 1988-78/135.

George Hunt (with megaphone), Edward S. Curtis, and actors filming In The Land of the Head Hunters, 1914.

Our new edited volume, Return to the Land of the Head Hunters, brings together leading scholars and artists from a wide range of fields to reassess the film and its legacy, as well as the restoration project itself. The multiple authors offer accounts of the film’s production and circulation, Kwakwaka’wakw views on its depiction of cultural practice, and innovative theoretical perspectives on film genre, indigenous agency, and colonial modernity. Returning to the film with fresh eyes, our book also argues for a re-appraisal of Curtis’s larger body of work, and a way out of the critical deadlock that has limited analysis of his photographs and film, largely by ignoring the motivations of his Native subjects and partners.

Gwa'wina Dancers under the Moore Theatre marquis, Seattle, June 10, 2008.

Gwa’wina Dancers under the Moore Theatre marquis, Seattle, June 10, 2008.

Rather than documenting Native life in 1914, Head Hunters documents a moment of cultural encounter and creative collaboration between Curtis and the Kwakwaka’wakw actors and consultants who were performing his scripted version of their own historical past for the camera. Moreover, they were doing so at a time in Canadian history when the potlatch was outlawed by the federal government in an attempt to force their assimilation. By adapting traditional ceremonies for Curtis’s film while refusing to play stereotypical members of a “vanishing race,” the Kwakwaka’wakw retained embodied cultural knowledge despite the prohibition, and they made a vital contribution to the development of the most modern of commercial art forms—the motion picture.

For a century now, this film has constituted a lens through which to reframe and re-imagine the changing terms of colonial representation, cultural memory, and intercultural encounter. Return with us to the Land of the Head Hunters.

Brad Evans is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University. Aaron Glass is an assistant professor of anthropology at the Bard Graduate Center.

This book was published in Native Art of the Pacific Northwest: A Bill Holm Center Series.

Hear Brad Evans speak at Seattle Public Library on Saturday, March 22 at 2 p.m.

For more on the project, visit http://www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu

View the book trailer:

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

  1. Pingback: Review Roundup: Newly Restored Edward S. Curtis Film and Book | University of Washington Press Blog

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