by Jack Nilan            EMail :

In The Land of The War Canoes (1914)

Jack   A-

IMDB    6.3

Tribe(s) : Kwakiutl

Language : Silent



   Edward S. Curtis, the famous photographer of Native Americans needed to make some money to continue putting together his twenty volume book of photographs of the American Indian tribes. He made this movie hoping to raise some badly needed cash. It was originally called In the Land of the Head Hunters. It was a fictionalized account of the world of the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was written and directed by Edward S. Curtis and the acting was done entirely by Kwakwaka'wakw natives. Robert Flaherty, who would go on to make Nanook of the North eight years later, came to see Curtis to get some ideas after seeing this.

Wikipedia discusses the movie as a "Documentary or melodrama"?
"In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka'wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka'wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. Curtis appears never to have specifically presented the film as a documentary, but he also never specifically called it a work of fiction.
Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka'wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka'wakw's orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka'wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada's potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951."

Motana, the son a great chief, Kenada seeks supernatural powers. In a vision-sleep the face of Naida, the daughter of a chief appears to him. Motana goes to see Naida, who has been promised to the old Sorcerer. Motana then continues his spirit quest at the Island of the Dead. He dances and then he harpoons a sea lion and then a whale.

The jealous Sorcerer wants to destroy Motana and sends his daughter to get a lock of his hair. The Sorceror's daughter tries to win him over but he brushes her off, so she returns to her father with some of his hair. Naida's father fears the Sorceror and his head hunter brother, Yaklus, so he promises his daughter to the Sorcerer.

Motana and his father, Kenada, and their clan hope get rid of the head hunters. In their war canoes they attack the village of the head hunters where the Sorcerer and Yaklus are. Motana and his warriors kill the Sorcerer and bring his head to Waket, Naida's father. Motana then asks for Naida in marriage and Waket accepts.

There is a great scene of three Kwakiutl war canoes sweeping across the water with men in the front dressed in animal and bird costumes leading the chanting and dancing. The wedding takes place with great ceremony. Plenty of dancing, singing and drinking.

Yaklus learns of his brother's death and goes to war. He attacks everyone he meets and then he then attacks Motana's village, kills his father and carries Naida away. Motana escapes with some of his tribesmen.

Back at Yaklus' village a great celebration takes place. The heads of the Kwakiutl are proudly displayed and then the Masked Dancing Ceremony begins. Drums are beaten as costumed characters dance and chant. The costumes are beautiful as the Bear, Wolf, Mountain Goat, Wasp, Dog and Deer perform. Naida's wounded slave escapes back and tells Motana about Naida. Motana and his warriors then paddle to her rescue.

Motana rescues his wife but Yaklus pursues him in his canoe. When they hit a big wave his canoe capsizes and he and his men drown.

The movie has some great scenes of native life. The scenes were staged but there were still Kwakiutls living who remembered how things were in the "olden" days. Curtis, like he did in his famous photos, tried to get things to be as representative as he could of the actual Native lifestyle that had been lived several decades before.

The movie isn't really a documentary like it is listed, although it does adapt that style. It is probably the only movie that has ever been made that has an all Native cast of the tribe being portrayed. Overall, it was well done and is well worth seeing.