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Film / In the Land of the Head Hunters

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Kenada's triumphant return.
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In the Land of the Head Hunters is a 1914 film directed by Edward S. Curtis, about the Kwakwaka'wakw indigenous people of coastal British Columbia and Vancouver Island, starring an all-native cast.

The setting is sometime in the 18th century before the natives have made contact with white men. The protagonist of the story is Motana, a young brave who goes off on a "vision-journey" as part of his coming into manhood. In the flames of his campfire he has a vision of a woman. Shortly thereafter he sees her in real life: Naida, a lovely maiden. Unfortunately Naida is promised in marriage to an evil sorcerer. Motana and his tribe attack the sorcerer's tribe, kill him, and take Naida away. Motana and Naida are married, but Yaklus, the evil sorcerer's even more evil brother, is out for revenge.

Curtis was a photographer and ethnographer who at the time of production was several years into an epic 23-year project to photograph and document the lives and histories of the native tribes of North America. Curtis hit on the idea to make a feature film in order to make some side money while continuing his research. That failed, as while the film received rave reviews, arguments over distribution rights meant that it was never given a general release. It remains an invaluable record of the dress and life of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. The ceremonies depicted in this film had been banned by the government of Canada in 1884 and would not be made legal again until 1951.

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In the Land of the Head Hunters is the oldest surviving film made in Canada. It only survives in incomplete form, however, having been cobbled together from multiple damaged and fragmentary prints, with still frames used in several scenes to complete the story and fill out the 65-minute run time.


Tropes:

  • Arranged Marriage: Naida has been promised in marriage to the sorcerer, which is a problem for her and Motana.
  • Artistic License: Artistic License Ethnography. The Kwakwaka'wakw did not practice whaling, and they didn't shrink heads.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: A native crawls out of the mouth of a whale they have just caught, looks straight at the camera, and grins. (He might be grinning because the Kwakwaka'wakw people did not practice whaling and the whale was obtained by Curtis specifically for the shoot.)
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  • Decapitation Presentation: Motana's father Kenada displays the heads of the sorcerer, and a few of the sorcerer's buddies, after killing them and bringing Naida to Motana.
  • Guile Hero: Although Motana is certainly capable of fighting, he ultimately defeats Yaklus with a wily trick. He lures Yaklus and his men into a deadly gorge. Their boat overturns and they drown.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The sorcerer is not at all happy when he finds out his pledged bride now wants to marry another.
  • Indian Burial Ground: Averted. Motana does actually go to an Indian Burial Ground—the "Island of the Dead"—but it's just part of his Vision Quest ritual. After spending a cozy night sleeping amongst the scattered skulls, and next to a mummified corpse, he leaves, and suffers no further consequences.
  • Indian Maiden: Lovely Naida, who gets batted around by various bachelors.
  • Living MacGuffin: Pretty much the whole plot is driven by various people wanting Naida as a wife or a slave.
  • No Name Given: The sorcerer is never named, and neither is his daughter.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: A particularly unhinged one from Yaklus. Supposedly by custom a revenge party attacks everyone it finds on its way, "whether friend or foe". So they go to kill Motana, and when they find a party of fishermen on the way, they kill them. When they find some clam-diggers, they attack them, and capture the women as slaves.
  • Sex Slave: The film specifically states that Yaklus, having become enchanted by Naida's beauty, decides to keep her as a slave.
  • Shrunken Head: A common keepsake of the Kwakwaka'wakw; one character is shown in the opening montage holding up his heads for the camera.
  • Tipis and Totem Poles: Curtis was a professional ethnographer and studier of Native Americans, and much of the film is an accurate portrayal of Kwakwaka'wakw society, which did have totem poles, as well as elaborate dances in which people wore animal costumes. The head-hunting and whaling, however, were Curtis's idea for the story.
  • Vision Quest: Motana goes on one as part of his manhood ritual, and has a vision of Naida.
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