In the most powerful scene of the movie, the Kwakwaka’wakw dance in animal masks and apparel on the war canoes.

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: 100 Years Later, Edward Curtis' Movie Plays Again

Christina Rose
2/18/15

Photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) is primarily known for his 20-volume photographic work The North American Indian, a document published between 1907-1930 that captured images of what he called the "Disappearing Race." The North American Indian defined—and, lamentably, continues to define—the image of Turtle Island's Indigenous people in the age of photography. Curtis' other major work was a feature-length silent film, In The Land of The Head Hunters, which he created with the team who assisted him in collecting his songs and images. Curtis had hoped Head Hunters would save him from financial ruin. But the film, which had reportedly cost $20,000 to make, only grossed $3,269 when it premiered in 1914.

Critics loved it, though -- reviewer Stephen Bush could scarcely contain himself in Motion Picture World:

If I were asked to point to some particular film illustrating the educational value of the motion picture I would unhesitatingly mention this production. As a drama it may be a mere curiosity though even as a drama it has a singularly compelling charm. As a gem of the motion picture art it has never been surpassed. As I saw it at the Casino, New York City, with suitable music the picture is overwhelmingly beautiful and impressive. You get the impression of having feasted one of the world’s great picture galleries and there follows that most delightful of sensations, a new perception of pleasure in which the eye and the brain take special shares.

Poster for 'In the Land of the Head Hunters' by the World Film Corporation.

Until recently, In the Land of the Head Hunters was all but lost. Experts would say that the film hadn't been viewed in its entirety since the 1940s. But dogged preservationists have pieced together a narratively coherent—if not totally complete—version of the film, which went on sale through Milestone Films on February 14, 2015

In the Land of the Head Hunters was never a documentary—it was conceived as a fictional melodrama of the Kwakwaka’wakw people and set in the mid-1700s. Filmmaker Barbara Cranmer, a descendent of the film’s assistant director, George Hunt, himself a Kwakwaka’wakw Indian, said the more macabre headhunting aspects of the film were fictional, and played upon the propaganda of the time -- this was an era, after all, when when the Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonies had been outlawed.  Filmed in beautiful Northeast corner of Vancouver Island, Canada, the film contains accurate depictions of  Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies and dances performed decades, and even a century, earlier. As such, despite its fictional narrative, it's an important document of culture that may have otherwise have been lost.

A still from the film shows tribal members entering the house through the Raven’s mouth. The decoration of the homes has enabled the Kwakwaka’wakw to see how their ancestors lived as far back as the mid 1700s.

According to William Cranmer, hereditary chief and chairman of the U'mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay, Canada, “Many of our old relatives were part of the film and when we saw them as teenagers, that was great for us. We appreciated that the story was told in the way things happened in those early days. We saw the canoes as they were expertly paddled by the people of the day. We saw the way they used the designs on the house fronts and the history of those designs. There is a lot of information that is useful for us today. If Mr. Curtis hadn’t made that film, we wouldn’t see it.”

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