In the Land of the Head Hunters

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In the Land of the Head Hunters | historical, film | The first movie ever made in British Columbia. The 1914 silent moving picture was directed by Edward S. Curtis and cast entirely by members of the Kwakiutl First Nation. Though wholly fictional and more sensational melodrama than documentary, it nevertheless featured many accurate depictions of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and tradition, and was for many across North America the first representation of our little corner of the world. A copy of the original synopsis survives from New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where In the Land of the Head Hunters first screened in 1915. It reads as follows:

To gain power from the spirit forces, Motana, a great chief’s son, goes on a vigil-journey. But though the tribal law forbids the thought of woman during the fasting, his dreams are ever of Naida; her face appearing in the coilng smoke of the prayer-fire he builds high upon a mountain peak. To forfend the anger of the spirits he must pass a stronger ordeal. He sleeps upon the Island of the Dead, then hunts and kills the whale; and raids the clustered sea-lion rookeries, a whole day’s paddle out to sea.

Naida is wooed and won by Motana, and splendid is the wooing. But Naida, with her dowry, is coveted by the Sorcerer. He is evil, old and ugly. Waket, Naida’s father fears the baleful “medicine” of the Sorcerer, and also stands in dread of the Sorcerer’s brother, who is Yaklus, “the short life bringer,” and the head-hunting scourge of all the coast. Waket promises Naida to the Sorcerer. So ensues war between the two factions.

Motana and his father, Kenada, and their clan resolve to rid the region of the head hunters. In their great canoes they attack the village of the Sorcerer and Yaklus. The Sorcerer’s head they bring to prove his death to those who believed him “deathless.” But Yaklus escapes. After the wedding of Motana and Naida, with pomp of primitive pageantry, and dancing and feasting, in which the throngs of two great totem villages take part, Yaklus attacks and burns Motana’s village. Motana is left for dead. Naida is carried away into captivity. Wild is the reveling that follows at the village of Yaklus. The beauty of Naida’s dancing saves her life. Naida’s slave boy, a fellow captive, escapes. His message brings Motana, who rescues Naida by stealth. The raging Yaklus pursues. Motana, hard pressed, dares the waters of the surging gorge of Hyal. His canoe flies through, but Yaklus is overwhelmed and drowned.

Usage | “When I was a kid I was astonished by the canoe arrival clip looped from In the Land of the Head Hunters in the Royal BC Museum…”

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