Sleuthing revives lost film of First Nations life by Edward Curtis

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      Since 1915, nobody has seen the original cut of Edward Curtis’s feature film In the Land of the Head Hunters. Shot on the Pacific Northwest coast in the early 20th century by the famous “Indian” photographer, it starred Kwakwaka’wakw actors in a fictional take on precontact life. Targeted at novelty-hungry audiences in cities like Seattle and New York, the melodramatic result—cannibals! a love triangle!—flopped at the box office, but the movie nevertheless captured authentic cultural detail, including masterful handling of huge oceangoing canoes and dramatic ceremonial regalia and dances.

      Fragments of this hybrid artifact have been variously interpreted by museums over the decades—including a black-and-white edit from 1974 set to an ethnographic soundtrack and retitled In the Land of the War Canoes. Visitors may have seen one of its scenes, of a Thunderbird dancer in the prow of a huge canoe, playing in a loop at the Royal B.C. Museum. In time for a Sunday (June 22) screening at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts to celebrate National Aboriginal Day, the film has now been reconstructed as faithfully and completely as possible, with accurate colour tinting and original intertitles, from a few previously undiscovered nitrate reels that survived in North American vaults.

      “Our project is one of scholarly resuscitation,” said Aaron Glass in a meeting with the Straight before heading off to the premiere in Los Angeles in early June. A coproducer of the event and an anthropologist who did much of the academic sleuthing—he also unearthed sheet music of the film’s original score—Glass has spent years studying the cultural representation of the Kwakwaka’wakw. For him, it’s especially significant that a deep layer of contemporary First Nations context will frame the film’s presentation. In Vancouver, as they did in L.A., descendants of the actors will introduce it and members of the Gwa’wina Dancers will perform live versions of the dances featured in the movie.

      “I see this as real evidence of continuity in our culture,” said Andrea Sanborn, the executive director of the U’mista Cultural Society and another event coproducer, speaking from her Alert Bay office. Although the film reflects Curtis’s artistic vision, Sanborn believes that the local community had a relatively high level of input and chose to participate.

      “If I was one of the ancestors in those days, I would have been using that opportunity in the film to record our ceremonies [and] songs, because it was during the potlatch ban,” Sanborn added, referring to the federal government’s outlawing of the Native tradition from 1884 to 1951. “They did a good job of it, because we didn’t vanish, and we still conduct the ceremonies much like they were conducted in those days.”

      Stories of the shoot have filtered down, such as one about the time Curtis was so intent on getting a canoe shot that the vessel hit a rock and tossed the actors overboard, making everyone laugh uncontrollably—except Curtis, who angrily ripped the film out of his camera and tossed it in the sea. Then there’s the cannibal-dance scene (loosely based on the ceremonial Hamat’sa dance, in which a young man is possessed by a man-eating spirit) that provided the film’s sensationalist title and has discomfited western curators ever since.

      Asked how her community feels about the scene, Sanborn said: “They don’t really take objection to it. There was a period of cannibalism in our history. It might have been theatrical, but it was part of ceremonies, especially for the Hamat’sa dancer. We’re not headhunters anymore. Things evolve, things change.”

      For the Chan screening, Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble will play John Braham’s original score, which Glass described as “romantic, stereotypical western music of the era”. Following the event, the Museum of Anthropology will host a panel discussion about the screening, and the issues it raises, on June 24 at 7 p.m. The audience will also see a selection of Curtis photographs in the lobby, all turn-of-the-last-century Native subjects chosen and commented on by contemporary First Nations people. One of them is a profile photo of 17-year-old Margaret Frank, the Kwakwaka’wakw chief’s daughter who played a similar role, as the heroine Naida, in Curtis’s film. Hers is just one of the faces that survived history and, thanks to this joint cultural revival, can now be seen in a more nuanced light.



      Capt Colin Smith

      Sep 15, 2015 at 8:52am

      I have an old b&W clip from this film. I treasure it and would love to have a copy in the final colour version. Is it available. Please let me know who to ask for it.
      Many Thanks
      A BC MUSEUM victoria fan