In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

A potlatch is a gift-giving feast and is practised by many of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States and in 1885 was prohibited by the Canadian Government in what many people saw as a way of forcing European culture into aboriginal subjects.

So, there is a certain irony that when Edward S. Curtis approached the Kwakwaka'wakw people from the Pacific Northwest coast, to act in his film about their culture, they were expected to perform rituals that had been banned for over 25 years. To further compound the irony, Curtis widely known at the time for his views on the indigenous people being a "vanishing race".

Curtis requested the assistance of George Hunt, who was a renowned ethnologist and speaker of both English and Kwak'wala, having been born to an English father and a mixed race mother from the neighbouring Tlingit people. He married into, and became adopted by, the Kwakwaka'wakw people.

Hunt appears to be fairly instrumental in asking the Kwakwaka'wakw people to embrace the opportunity to share their culture, and perhaps took liberties with Curtis over how far he'd go to create an accurate representation. War canoes were repainted, ceremonial masks were carved, and totems were rebuilt. The Kwakwaka'wakw people went so far as to insist that only those who had earned certain masks could wear and act in them.

Hunt's youngest son, Stanley, plays Motana, the hero of film. Motana dreams of a beautiful girl called Naida, who is also coveted by the Sorcerer. Naida's father prefers Motana as a suitor, and Motana's father orders an attack against Sorcerer's clan. But, while their attack is successful, Sorcerer's brother Yaklus, a feared character, vows revenge.

While there are elements of the film that are considered fictionalised - Curtis included a scene of whale hunting, which was never part of Kwakwaka'wakw culture - such was the accuracy of the depiction, and the ambiguity by Curtis, that when it was released it was seen as both a documentary and a fictional reconstruction.

In the Land of the Head Hunters was also the first film shot in British Columbia, and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada. It was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999.

In the Land of the Head Hunters was restored and released on DVD (Milestone Films). A 40-minute version - down from the original 65 minutes - is available to watch below:

If you're here because of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge 2021, please stop by the theme reveal page which has a full list of all films used in the challenge.


  1. This sounds like an interesting film. Thanks for providing the contextual details. How sad that the Kwakwaka'wakw were stripped of their rituals. I hope the film had a positive effect on how people perceived their culture.


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