In the Land of the Head Hunters was the first feature-length film to be made in British Columbia, and the first to exclusively star Native North Americans (eight years before Flaherty's Nanook of the North). It is highly significant that both of these films—considered the first ethnographic “documentaries”—were made in Canada with Indigenous peoples; in fact, Flaherty had seen “Head Hunters,” which clearly informed (positively or otherwise) his own approach, and both films directly influenced John Grierson and his vision for the National Film Board of Canada. In BC, Curtis worked with non-professional actors and models from Kwakwaka’wakw communities between 1910 and 1914. The Kwakwaka’wakw were already famous then for spectacular visual culture and dramatic dance performances, and Curtis produced both Volume 10 of his North American Indian book series as well as this landmark—but often overlooked—film based on his experience with them.
Curtis took considerable artistic license in representing Kwakwaka’wakw culture. However, unlike many of the Hollywood Westerns and "Indian pictures" of the day, the film he crafted with First Nations collaboration eschewed the already stale representational convention seen in motion pictures since the 1890s. At the same time, the participants told stories of enjoying the film’s production, especially since they were being paid to do dances that colonial agents were otherwise arresting them for (as the ceremonial potlatch was prohibited under the Canadian Indian Act from 1884-1951). Moreover, they had input into the cultural content selected for filming. Strict hereditary protocols limit public display in Kwakwaka’wakw communities, and Curtis could only have staged his scenes with the cooperation and input of his Native cast and crew. Presenting the film today with current Kwakwaka’wakw performers reframes the film from being a document of the “vanishing races” to being visual evidence of First Nations cultural survival during the potlatch prohibition.