In the Land of the Head Hunters

In the Land of the Head Hunters
R: Edward S. Curtis. B: Edward S. Curtis (story). K: Edmund August Schwinke. D: Stanley Hunt, Sarah Constance Smith Hunt, Mrs. George Walkus, Paddy ‘Malid, Balutsa, Kwagwanu, Francine Hunt, Bob Wilson. P: Seattle Film Co. USA 1914

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), American photographer and chronicler of Native American peoples whose work perpetuated an influential image of Indians as a ‘vanishing race.’ The monumental ‘The North American Indian’ (1907–30), published under his name, constitutes a major compendium of photographic and anthropological material about those indigenous peoples of the trans-Mississippi West who, as Curtis stated in his preface, ‘still retained to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions.’ (…) Curtis’s benefactor, the immensely powerful banker J. Pierpont Morgan, who had agreed to finance the fieldwork for the project, insisted that the lavish set of leather-bound volumes be sold on a subscription basis — and the subscription price had to be high. As a result, ‘The North American Indian’ entered the homes of only the very rich. (…)
The need to generate publicity in order to sell subscriptions led to the circulation of Curtis’s photographs and writings much more widely than ‘The North American Indian’ itself. Between 1906 and 1909, for example, Curtis produced for the popular Scribner’s Magazine a series of photographically illustrated essays devoted to what he called ‘Vanishing Indian Types,’ such as the traditionally nomadic Apaches of the Southwest, the sedentary Pueblo peoples of the same region, and the horse cultures of the northern Plains. (…)

Curtis engaged in a different genre of writing altogether when he produced the scripts for his Indian ‘musicale’ or ‘picture-opera’ in 1911–12. He was an admirer of Mary Austin, whose ‘Indianesque’ verse play ‘The Arrowmaker’ was produced on Broadway in 1911, but he was also indebted to other more explicitly ‘entertaining presentations of Indians, such as ‘Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.’ The musicale was an elaborate lantern-slide show narrated by Curtis himself to the accompaniment of orchestral music composed by Henry F.B. Gilbert that, in turn, had been derived from Native American music recorded on wax cylinders in the field by the Curtis team.(…) Although the musicale was lauded as a spectacle — it even had a huge tepee onstage, lit from within, plus a full orchestra — and was performed to enthusiastic audiences the length of the east coast, including Carnegie Hall, it was not a financial success, and plans for a full second season were abandoned.
Curtis nevertheless built on the show business aspect of the musicale in his next major venture, In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), a full-length feature movie. Like Robert Flaherty’s more-famous Nanook of the North (1922), which it partly inspired, Curtis’s film, centred on the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) people of British Columbia, transmitted documentary material — such as ceremonies, hunting customs, and even religious beliefs — via a linear fictitious narrative, a love story, set in a time before contact with whites. The film was spectacular, especially when projected with its original orchestral score, and garnered good reviews, but it also failed to make money.”
Mick Gidley
Encyclopaedia Britannica

Further reading:
In the Land of the Head Hunters

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