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In the Land of the Head Hunters

Hugo Zeiter was an eccentric character. A lifelong learner, his fascinations lay in nature, film and the lifestyles of American Indigenous peoples. He was an ardent collector, accumulating a great deal of circus memorabilia and was even credited with the discovery of particular German circus wagons. He was a boy scout leader, a World War II veteran and a linguist, speaking English, German, Japanese and Okinawan. Following the end of the war, Zeiter would return from England to his home state of Illinois and in 1947, in a dumpster in Danville, would salvage a piece of Canadian cinematic history.

In The Land of the Head Hunters is a silent film shot in 1914 on Deer Island near Vancouver Island’s Fort Rupert. Today, the work is thought to be part documentary, part fiction, though American writer and director Edward S. Curtis never offered clarification. Still, it is considered to be an extremely important piece of Canadian cinema. Not only was it the first feature length film made in British Columbia and the oldest surviving in the country, it was also the first whose cast was made up entirely of North American Indigenous people.

The film features Kwakwaka’wakw actors. Alternatively known as the Kwakiutl, the Kwakwaka’wakw are an Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their oral history explains that their ancestors came via the sea, land and underground as animals--the Thunderbird, the seagull and the grizzly among others--before shedding their animal appearances and becoming human. Some ancestors were said to be humans who came from far-off places.

The film’s plot follows Motana, a chief’s son, who ultimately wins over and marries Naida. The pair face the wrath of the Sorcerer, who covets Naida, and his brother, Yaklus. It is understood that In the Land of the Head Hunters undoubtedly falsifies and dramatizes pieces of its story, either drawing on long abandoned practices of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, borrowing from other Indigenous groups or through sheer invention. Still, the film portrays certain cultural aspects with accuracy, including ceremonial dances, architecture and the potlatch.

To this day, potlatches serve as important pillars of Indigenous cultures, including those of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the Interior of the province. Often held during major events, such as weddings or births or coming-of-age rituals, potlatches may feature storytelling or dancing or the recounting of oral histories. They are an important practice which serve to demonstrate wealth and power and also highlight the significance of connection, both to people and to the supernatural world.

Under Canada’s Indian Act, a Potlatch ban was enacted in 1884, barring Indigenous peoples from practicing the rituals associated with the potlatch, systematically stripping them of their traditions, birthright and identity. Any individual caught breaking the ban would face legal punishment. The harsh and inhumane law was ultimately repealed in 1951.

In the Land of the Head Hunters’ depiction of such important practices solidifies its value in cinematic history. Furthermore, some of the Kwakwaka’wakw people assisted with costume design and the construction of sets, evidently having a real role in the making and direction of the film--something significant in a time when Indigenous peoples’ culture was actively being exterminated.

Unfortunately, the film was a commercial flop, earning just over $3000 against Curtis’ $75,000 investment. Upset with its performance, he would sell the rights of the film to the New York Museum of Natural History only a few years later. The Museum would go on to misplace the film and it would be considered lost until Hugo Zeiter’s 1947 dumpster discovery. While what he found was only an incomplete print, his salvage would spark several decades of individuals piecing together fragments of the film until it was complete.

In 1999, the American Library of Congress designated the work for preservation, noting its significance. And though the film also boasts the aforementioned points of first feature film in B.C, oldest surviving in Canada and the first all-Indigenous cast, its collaborative spirit seems to be what is vitally important. In a time when the rights and identities of Indigenous Canadians were especially threatened, In the Land of the Head Hunters offered a flawed, but real opportunity for the Kwakwaka’wakw to express and celebrate their culture with some agency and artistry.


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