Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2016

In the Land of the Headhunters

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Catching up on some screeners that have been piling up on my shelves for at least two years, I watched “In the Land of the Headhunters” yesterday, a film that despite its lurid title is as important to film scholars and students of American Indian history—both professional and amateur (like me)—as “Nanook of the North”.

It was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, a famed photographer of American Indians, who recruited a cast of Kwakwaka’wakw Indians for a fictional film about love and war between rival clans set in the pre-contact era. If the name of the nation is unfamiliar to you, its handicrafts are likely not. These are the people who created the mammoth totem poles in their homeland in British Columbia as well as other striking works of art made of wood or feathers. The film is much more interesting as a display of Kwakwaka’wakw art and dance than as a narrative. While native peoples in the Pacific coast of Canada had been forcibly assimilated into white society by this point and had even adopted Anglo names like Stanley Hunt, who starred as the warrior Motana, the film is fairly scrupulous about depicting their early history authentically—mostly as a result of Curtis relying on co-director George Hunt, the brother of the star and a village elder.

Curtis is a fascinating character. At one point I had his The North American Indian on my bookshelf at home until I was forced to sell off a bunch of my books to focus on those that required immediate attention. In 1906 J.P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to document native peoples photographically, a sum that would be at least $1.5 million today. This is an example of his work, a Cherokee mother and her baby:

Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge as a research assistant. At the time Hodge was one of the country’s top anthropologists who developed close ties with Franz Boas, a fellow scholar at Columbia University with whom he shared a commitment to understanding “primitive” peoples in relative terms, rejecting stereotypes about one race being more “civilized” than another. Despite the title of Curtis’s film, it was clear that he had absorbed Hodge’s values. Like “Nanook of the North”, this is a loving tribute to a people that were truly free and in harmony with nature. Like Robert Flaherty, Curtis veers in the direction of “noble savage” romanticism but given the racist portrait of American Indians in Hollywood films back in 1914 and for the better part of the following century, such films were badly needed.

As it happens, Boas was also a student of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and played an important indirect role in the making of “In the Land of the Headhunters”. George Hunt, Curtis’s co-director, was a consultant to Boas when he was doing field work in British Columbia. He and his brother were members of the Tinglit nation, one that shares many of the cultural norms of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, especially the totem poles. Boas taught Hunt the Kwakwaka’wakw language and he then helped to collect artifacts for display at the 1893 World’s Fair where a replica of a native village was built and where 17 members reenacted daily life in the spirit of Curtis’s film.

Unfortunately, Boas being a product of his time insisted on the Kwakwaka’wakw maintaining an appearance that they had abandoned long before 1893. This meant requiring them to wear their hair long just as was the case in Curtis’s film. In an astute commentary on Boas’s flaws, Douglas Wax, a radical anthropologist and director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (!), pointed out how Boas ended up reinforcing social Darwinist ideology despite his “cultural relativism”:

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

None of this should dissuade you from watching “In the Land of the Headhunters” on Amazon streaming or a version sans musical background on Youtube. For only $3.99, the Amazon version is well worth it as a complete work of art as the trailer above would indicate.

 

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