In the Land of the Head Hunters

Alex Jacobs

The name Edward S. Curtis immediately invokes spirited discussions amongst Native and non-Native artists, scholars and just plain folks who are attracted to the historic, romantic and nostalgic. From the beginning Curtis had critics, notably Franz Boas “the father of modern anthropology”, who complained about Curtis’ lack of objectivity. But Curtis was an artist, rather than an ethnographer, and relentlessly carried out his vision, spending other people’s wealth and ruining his own health. Edward S. Curtis worked 30 years on his project, “The North American Indian”, a 20 volume set that takes up 5 feet of shelf space for just one complete set. There are fewer than 300 complete volumes left and one sold recently for $1.44 million. Antiques Roadshow must deal with anxious people constantly bringing in Curtis reproductions hoping they are originals.

Critics aside, Curtis caught the imagination of the American public with his multi-media picture-shows, photography, and films. People wanted what he was peddling, unfortunately for him, he never really made money as his expenses continued to grow and he never sold enough tickets, photos, portfolios or books. Curtis’ arrangement with the financier, J.P. Morgan, resulted in the Morgan family ending up owning the rights to most of his work, then, it went to public domain. Curtis did talk other robber barons (whose wealth was acquired from eastern industry and western expansion through Indian lands) into investing into his project. They were probably paid back mostly with his books/portfolios.

Curtis also talked the many Native Americans he worked with into posing for him, some did it for a few dollars, which was better than a day’s labor, some did it to relive and recount the old tribal days, some did it because he was interested in them as few other white men were. But what do Native people think about him today? According to “Though the Lens – Edward S. Curtis” (a film by Heidi St. George) and Timothy Egan’s book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” , several Native tribes used Curtis photographs, films and wax cylinder music recordings to regain aspects of their culture and language. A Native woman in Through the Lens says, “The more you know about the culture, the more you appreciate the work he did.” George Horse Capture said of the idea that Curtis sometimes staged his Indian subjects: “My great grandfather wasn’t a stereotype, he was not staged, the determination in his eyes was not staged.”

The Kwakwaka’wakw were honored to be at the premiere of the restored version of In The Land of the Head Hunters this past February in Seattle just as the original premiered 100 years ago in 1914. Read ICTMN’S account of relatives of George Hunt, the Kwakiutl assistant director of the movie, who said they valued the film as it depicts their relatives, their art and designs, clothing, housing, canoes and oars. A famous tribal artist Charlie James also contributed to the work as the community had to make the entire set, masks and clothing. This occurred at a time when potlatch and other ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government. The Makah used his work to revitalize whaling and language, the Suquamish used photos to build a traditional longhouse, the Hopi use the photos of their ancestors for cultural exchanges, the Crow display the portraits of their warriors, the Piegan used documentation of the Sun Dance to revive it after 50 years.

We are comfortable in the 21st century and distanced from the nuances of our own cultures and knowing practically nothing of other Native cultures in these images, yet give arm-chair critiques of what “we now think is real”, just as Curtis was attempting to do 100 years ago. Think about that, what was happening to our ancestors 100 years ago? From a population low of 250,000 to the current estimate of 5.2 million, we are not the Vanishing People that Edward Curtis and the rest of the United States thought would be our inevitable destiny. The political correctness of our own people now decries every image, book, film or discussion that offends our modern sensibilities.

But the Kwakwaka’wakw were there at every step to help bring this film back because their relatives were in it and it was their community and it is actually a piece of modern history that could reach back even further. Native and non-Native critics will continue to debate the merits of “everything Curtis” and there will always be disclaimers attached to his work to remind people that what they are seeing is not quite exact yet, there is truth to be revealed. But Native people, elders and scholars should be the ones recounting the memories, stories and knowledge that the film and photos evoke.

“In The Land of the Head Hunters” is an amazing document of a film, but it is not a documentary, yet people believed it to be so. The Kwakiutl partnered with Curtis to make a “modern” film by recreating the settings and cultural lifestyles that the governments wanted abandoned. The spectacle about head hunting was for effect, supposedly taken from oral tradition, the Natives say it was fabricated. Boaz and other ethnographers refer of practices attributed to a Kwakiutl tribe, the Lewiltok, who raided up and down the Pacific Coast. The love story is archetypal from any number of ancient cultures. The film was “Hollywood-ized” as we would term it today, just as the film industry was beginning, so they could to promote the spectacle.

It could be a hoot of a viewing as you move from awe to bemusement and back again. The film is beautifully tinted and the original music soundtrack has been restored. It is thought to be the oldest original soundtrack for a silent movie and to contain Kwakwaka’wakw musical elements. Timothy Egan, in his book says, “Curtis… recorded more than 10,000 songs on primitive wax cylinders, and wrote down vocabularies and pronunciation guides for 75 languages.”

Remember it’s a movie to enjoy, or dislike, to debate and argue over. As for debates, family dance groups stage altered dances so they do not profane the original, artists have always been setting up and staging tableaus and people who travel will ask to take photographs of people in kilts, saris, robes or traditional wear. Every film made these days attempts to “authenticate” or they realize that is impossible and just go for effect. The popcorn has GMO’s, the butter is not butter. And so is any of it real or true?

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.

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