#11) In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

SUN0604 Headhunters

#11) In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

OR “O Native Canada!”

Written & Directed by Edward S. Curtis

Class of 1999

Here’s the whole thing!

NOTE: One of the great things about the registry is the diversity of people and culture on both sides of the camera. Of course this means that, as a straight white male, I start any film this diverse with three strikes against me already. I approach these posts as a discussion of the film, not the cultures depicted. At no point do I mean to offend with my obvious and fully admitted ignorance. I do as much research as I can while writing these, and I am open to any constructive and well-researched corrections.

The Plot: Conceived by photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis, this film is a fictional story set among the real-life Kwakwaka’wakw (or sometimes Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia. The film tells the story of Motana, son of the chief, who falls for Naida after seeing her in a vision. She is engaged to an evil sorcerer (like you do), so Motana and his men go to fight him. They succeed in killing the sorcerer and Motana and Naida are free to marry. But then comes along the sorcerer’s vengeful brother Yaklus and, well, you can fill out the rest from here.

Why It Matters: The NFR points to the film’s accurate depiction of many Kwakwaka’wakw traditions, but also openly admits that some of it was inaccurate or downright fictionalized. Also included is a more detailed essay by Professors Brad Evans and Aaron Glass.

But Does It Really?: This is one of those movies that was originally viewed as narrative fiction but then got preserved as a documentary. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the customs (real or fabricated) depicted in this film. As a narrative it’s pretty standard and as a documentary it’s a bit of a head scratcher. This film blurs the line and doesn’t quite succeed in either camp. That being said, I hope that anyone who comes to this film to learn more about the Kwakiutl finds what they are looking for.

Take a Shot: No mention of the title (this being a silent film and all) but you do get some headhunting (via title card) about 13 minutes in.

Other notes

  • I would really like to see a movie about the making of this film. How did Curtis find these people? Why would they agree to let him film this, especially as a piece of fiction? How did everyone get along during filming? Was it catered?
  • By 1914 standards, that’s a really impressive effect at the beginning when Naida shows up in the smoke.
  • I have yet to find the actual term the Kwakwaka’wakw would use, but “sorcerer” cannot be the correct term.
  • During the celebration of Yaklus’ overthrow of Motana’s village, there’s an extended shot of someone in bird regalia that is obviously filmed on a set some time later. Did they honestly think no one would notice?
  • The print that I saw ran about 40 minutes, but all information I can find says it runs 65 minutes. Is there more footage out there? Or, like some silent films, is this just played at a faster frame-rate?
  • Please enjoy this film for what it’s worth, because we’re not getting another film with a fully Native American cast for a long time. You may have to wait until 1998’s “Smoke Signals”.
  • And for your further education, this film has a whole website devoted to it, including information on the film’s 100th anniversary restoration.


  • One really important thing about this film I forgot to mention; the celebration of Motana and Naida’s wedding is depicted here as a potlatch. At the time of filming, potlatch practice was banned in Canada (as well as in the United States) because Christian missionaries with influence thought it was uncivilized. The fact that this film went ahead and filmed one anyway is pretty astounding. From what I understand this film’s depiction of a potlatch is accurate, and may be the only surviving film of the custom during the ban.

Listen to This: Speaking of the above, many continued the practice of potlatch during the ban anyway, and Kwakwaka’wakw chief Dan Cranmer was one of many jailed for practicing in 1921. In 1938, anthropologists Franz Boas and George Herzog recorded several hours of Cranmer speaking the words, songs, and traditions of the Kwakiutl. These recordings were preserved by the National Recording Registry in 2013, and a small snippet can be heard on their website.

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