Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Land of the War Canoes

Feb 28, 2015

When I lived in Ottawa back in the day I used to take my kids to visit the old Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street. In those days (the early '80s) the museum shared its castle-like building with the Museum of Natural History but we were mainly interested in the First Nations exhibits in the history section. (Subsequently the museum moved to its impressive Douglas Cardinal-designed home in Gatineau and is now called the Canadian Museum of History.)

At the entrance to one of the galleries was a smallish television set where a grainy version of Edward Curtis's 1914 silent movie, In the Land of the Headhunters, was running on continuous loop. Or at least what was left of it. The original film had disappeared after its premier and a damaged, incomplete copy resurfaced in 1947 in a dumpster in Chicago, which is what I and the kids were watching. It was a mesmerizing few minutes of cinema history, with actual Kwakwaka'wakw actors enacting their own story, or so we thought. (You can see snippets of it on YouTube.)

Curtis, of course, was the American photographer whose life work, which was to record the cultures of the First Nations before they "disappeared," was preserved in the multi-volume set of books, The North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930. Needless to say he was wrong about the Aboriginals disappearing, but he took many memorable photographs.

A few years ago I met the Iroquois photographer Jeffrey Thomas who was on his way back from Kwakwaka'wakw territory where he had met some of the elders who actually appeared as actors in Curtis's film, a living link with this first documentary motion picture about indigenous North Americans.

Anyway, I see that the film, now titled In the Land of the War Canoes, has been restored and digitized along with the original musical score and is now available on DVD.