The Kwakwaka’wakw, Curtis, and the Making of Head Hunters

In the Land of the Head Hunters has always been known as “Curtis’s motion picture,” but as part of the impetus behind the current project is to reverse this narrative by putting the Kwakwaka’wakw back at the head of this story, it makes sense to start with them.

The Kwakwaka’wakw and their Film

Filming "In the Land of the Head Hunters"The Kwakwaka’wakw (then denoted by English writers as Kwakiutl) first began to accommodate Curtis and his photographic apparatus at Fort Rupert, British Columbia, sometime around 1910. By that time, they already had a substantial history with anthropologists, colonial agents, and early tourists coming to take their pictures.

Though the Hudson’s Bay Company operated a trading post in the area since the 1850s, reserves  (reservations) were set up in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in the 1880s, around the same time that missionaries and settlers began to arrive in significant numbers. Fort Rupert, the center of this activity, became a focal point for visiting ethnographers hoping to cash in on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s growing reputation for dramatic ceremonial culture and resistance to assimilation efforts. George Hunt, the son of the local trading post factor, played a key role in brokering a number of important anthropological endeavors, most famously through his work for Franz Boas. Hunt acted as guide, translator, and object and text collector for Boas (as well as numerous other museum ethnographers) for over 50 years. He also worked with Boas to coordinate a group of Kwakwaka’wakw (many of whom were his immediate and extended kin) that lived and performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. By the time Curtis arrived in Ft. Rupert in 1910, it was logical that he seek out Hunt.

Filming "In the Land of the Head Hunters"As Holm and Quimby (1980) have made clear, George Hunt and his relatives were absolutely essential to the production of Curtis’s film. Hunt himself acted as a production assistant, directing actors and working as a translator. He and his family produced many of the props, sets, and costumes. Many of his relatives acted in the film (see below). Though there are few archival records on the subject, it is clear that the featured selection of cultural practices in the film emerged through the collaboration between Curtis, Hunt, and the Kwakwaka’wakw actors. For instance, an early script included a scene with the highly prestigious Hamat’sa or “Cannibal” Dance, yet this was not included in the final film, likely due to Kwakwaka’wakw input in the matter (Motana occasionally dances like a Hamat’sa, but it is not presented as such). Also, the spectacular group dance featuring numerous costumed figures circling the fire together is a complete fabrication, likely invented on the spot by the actors in order to provide Curtis with a dramatic tableau while not transgressing any ceremonial protocol. One imagines Curtis presenting Hunt with his melodramatic script, and the two men then working together to determine the specific content of scenes.

Filming "In the Land of the Head Hunters"As we discuss elsewhere, it is highly significant that the film was made during the potlatch prohibition, when under ceremonial contexts the Kwakwaka’wakw would have been arrested for performing many of the dances pictured in the film. From both the Kwakwaka’wakw and local Indian Agents’ points of view, the film—a clearly non-ritual and “modern” endeavor—offered an opportunity for income during lean economic years. But for the Kwakwaka’wakw, an additional motivation must have been the opportunity to enact—and thus keep alive—ceremonial and artistic traditions that were otherwise threatened by the active assimilation policies of the Canadian government.


The Kwakwaka’wakw Cast

(This information is drawn from Holm and Quimby (1980), based on identifications made by Kwakwaka’wakw in the early 1970s) 


“Motana” = Stanley Hunt [George Hunt’s youngest son]

“Naida” = Strangely, three actresses portrayed Naida:

  1. Margaret Wilson (pictured in the character card at the film’s opening). [George Hunt’s granddaughter; the daughter of Charlie Wilson and Emily Hunt Wilson]
  2. Sarah (Abaya) Smith Martin [at the time, married to David Hunt, George’s eldest son; later married to Mungo Martin]
  3. Mrs. George Walkus (Gwikilaokwa; from Smith Inlet) [she also played the daughter of the sorcerer]

“Yaklus” and “Waket” = Bulóotsa (possibly a Brotchie?; from Blunden Harbour)

“Kenada” = Paddy Maleed (Kimgidi; from Blunden Harbour) [relative of Johnny Malidi]

“Sorcerer” = Kwa’kwaano or Haéytlulas, also known as “Long Harry” (a song composer; from Blunden Harbour and Ft. Rupert)

Others featured:

Francine Hunt (Tsukwani; George Hunt’s second wife; from Blunden Harbour) [she prepared many of the costumes; in the film, she dances, digs for clams, and is one of the captives]

Bob Wilson (son of Charlie Wilson; brother of Maggie Wilson and Helen Knox) [he worked on the set; in the film, he drops a paddle in a scene on the rocks]

Helen Knox [a young girl at the time]

Jonathan Hunt [an assistant on set]


Controversy Over the Curtis Photographs and Film

"At Piegan Lodge" - unedited image with alarm clock "At Piegan Lodge" - edited image without alarm clock

Curtis, today, is both a revered and controversial figure. His photographs of Native Americans remain extremely popular, as attested to by the ubiquity of his work in newly minted catalogues, coffee-table books, and picture post cards of the kind available in museum gift shops across the globe. But he has come under intense criticism, as well, for the manner in which he consciously erased all signs of modernity from his Indian pictures. A most telling example comes in his image “At Piegan Lodge,” where Curtis etched out an alarm clock sitting between two chiefs, effectively freezing them in a pre-modern, timeless past.

“Vanishing Race-Navaho”, photo by Edward S. CurtisSuch images give sense to the manner in which Curtis has sometimes been criticized as the most well-known promoter of false stereotypes about Indians. One of his most well known photographs is titled “Vanishing Race-Navaho,” which has come to stand for the larger misguided presumptions underlying that infamous phrase and the cultural salvage agenda that it implied.  But, as evidenced by the current vibrancy of indigenous life across North America, any news of “vanishing” was wildly premature if not implicitly racist in overtone.

In the Land of the Head Hunters is similarly vexed. On the one hand, its emphasis on “head hunting” was clearly sensationalistic, as was the implication that the film represented “primitive life on the northwest coast” as if that was still the life being lived in 1914. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. But on the other hand, the film was quite unlike the hundreds of other Indian pictures that had been made in the preceding twenty years (see next Film sections). Those films almost invariably used the conflict between whites and Indians as an easily recognizable plot device, so when Head Hunters took out all of the whites, it was charting unfamiliar terrain. Perhaps the boldest move was to entwine Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies into the fictional plot, making them a central part of the motion picture. While one might read this as Curtis’s shot at ethnographic pretension, it is also of great significance that Head Hunters presents such scenes at a time when agents of the Canadian government were actively trying to suppress ceremonies under the potlatch prohibition (in fact, arrests were made under this law in 1914, the same year that the prohibition was extended to even further limit ceremonial dancing). In choosing to stage themselves for Curtis’s camera, the Kwakwaka’wakw helped ensure that the resulting film would be more than a simple colonial document of stereotyped, celluloid “Indians.”

In the end, In the Land of the Head Hunters cannot be judged as simply another instance of Curtis’s efforts to document the “vanishing race.” The film was a joint project from the beginning, a meeting of Edward Curtis and the Kwakwaka’wakw in the shared enterprise of making a motion picture. As such, Head Hunters not only throws new light on the development of the motion picture industry. It also documents the extensive and complex engagement of the Kwakwaka’wakw—and by implication other First Nations—with the most modern of twentieth-century representational forms: the movies.