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Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, The Kwakwaka’wakw and the Making of Modern Cinema

By Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, Editors

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

By Timothy Egan

Review By Andrea Walsh

June 25, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 108-111

These two recent books deal in whole or in part with the photographic legacy of Edward S. Curtis, who in 1914 screened In the Land of the Head Hunters to packed theatres and before thrilled audiences and to much critical acclaim. Curtis’s feature film was driven by his need to fund the remainder of his epic photo documentation project, The North American Indian. It was heralded for its all-indigenous cast and what was described as an authentic depiction of the lives of people whose descendants today call themselves the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. In 2008 an elaborate six-city tour screened the restored and reconstructed film using newly-found original footage and musical scores.

The original film fell into obscurity after its release. Return to the Land of the Head Hunters, edited by Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, focuses on the impact of the two waves of rediscovery associated with the film in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Glass and Evans claim the book to be a sequel of sorts to Holm and Quimby’s Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes (1980), which concerns the first reconstruction of the Curtis film in 1972. Evans and Glass name over twenty people as contributors to this volume and provide approaches as Kwakwaka’wakw community members, Indigenous artists and intellectuals, anthropologists, filmmakers, poets, curators, composers, musicians, and film studies scholars. Scores of others are listed as collaborators. As such, the volume is interdisciplinary and multivocal in depth and in breadth. Return to the Land of the Head Hunters has two aims: (1) to provide a scholarly analysis of the recovery of original film footage, orchestral scores, and film ephemera; and (2) to demonstrate an indigenous reframing of the corpus of materials around In the Land of the Head Hunters. The scholarly contribution of this book lies in its accomplished critical engagement with the complicated and tumultuous nature of the place of the film in academia and in First Nations communities.

The recognition of indigenous knowledge presented in the book and in the film itself is made clear with the first words of the text, written in the Kwak’wala language by Chief William T. Cranmer, Chair of the U’Mista Cultural Society, which was an instrumental partner in the reconstruction of the film. As Chief Cranmer writes, “this film is part of our history” (xi). Distinguished scholar Bill Holm authors the foreword. He begins with a description of his and Bill Quimby’s experiences from the first wave of rediscovery of the Curtis film in the early 1970s. His words set the stage for a central argument of the book: that both the original Curtis film and the two reconstructed versions that circulate today are the result of various forms of collaboration between Kwakwaka’wakw members and their interlocutors. The afterword by Paul Chaat Smith concludes that, for better or worse and for reasons known and not yet known, Curtis and his collaborators made a film that has many legacies, all which are important to embrace critically.

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters is organized into three primary sections: the original film, its restoration, and its circulation today. This volume goes far beyond scholarly publications that focus solely on the film’s visual content by providing much information about the musical score and the experiences of those who participated in its reconstruction. Importantly, the reader will begin to appreciate the symphony of voices that are active in the contemporary life of the film. This book is a valuable resource for its plethora of visual images from the film itself and from contemporary screenings, and of historical visual imagery and artifacts: appendices depict images of film props in the Burke Museum collection and also twenty-three surviving pieces of film ephemera from a private collection. Some chapters stem directly from interviews with Kwakwaka’wakw members involved in the cultural performances at contemporary screenings, and the book includes two photo essays, one by Iroquoian photographer Jeffrey Thomas. Indigenous authors, artists, and community members whose words and thoughts appear in the book show how In the Land of the Head Hunters has always been integrated into and a part of modern Kwakwaka’wakw life, and that critical relationships continue to be formed, strengthened, and documented through it. The volume is also testimony to the fact that 100 years after the original production, the film can still capture the imaginations and minds of scholars and the broad public.

The second book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, is a biographic depiction of the life of Edward Curtis between 1896 and his death, aged 84, in 1952. Though not original in his account of Curtis’s life, Egan’s interpretation of the vast archive of Curtis material is notable for the liberty he takes in imagining the inner thoughts and feelings of the photographer. Egan expresses such affect by interspersing dialogue and soliloquy throughout. The result is an almost cinematic portrayal of thirty years of trials and triumphs as Curtis and others worked toward the completion of the twenty-volume set, The North American Indian.

Ordered chronologically, the chapters of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher follow the production of the successive volumes of The North American Indian. Each chapter details the challenges and experiences faced by Curtis and his collaborators as they traversed the continent photographing and recording information. Egan notes Curtis’s intimate relationship with his work: his lifelong method was to get as close to his subject as he could, be it a glacier or a human being (36). Ultimately the book is not about the photographs or vast ethnographic record produced in this epic collaborative effort, but the relationships between people and the risks they took to produce that body of work. A well-known narrative of anticipated cultural loss and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples during Curtis’s working career is the backdrop for a story of risk-taking and loss by Curtis as an individual. Egan weaves a parallel storyline of Curtis’s personal life by providing the history of his Seattle photography studio and the people who kept it going in his absence, as well as a narrative of his marriage, children, and ultimately his divorce and financial ruin. He shows that Curtis, while courting a powerful American elite that included President T. Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and C. H. Merriam, was most happy when he was in the field. Egan illuminates the complex network of relations that Curtis both created and became ensnared in financially, ethically, and personally. These relationships highlight the fact that The North American Indian was by no means a solo effort. Hinting at these complicated relationships, Egan notes that “Though he was alone at death, and friendless, not a single person in those books was a stranger to him” (314).

Curtis enlisted a varying crew of individuals, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous who, like him, were willing to sacrifice years of their personal lives, their safety, and their futures for the work they were committed to completing. William E. Myers, who joined Curtis as a fresh faced 28-year-old university graduate in 1906, stood by Curtis as a “brother” for almost twenty years and, like Curtis, “bled the project” (272). Another prominent figure in Curtis’s work was Crow Nation member Alexander Upshaw, a graduate of the Carlisle School of Pennsylvania, who was instrumental in Curtis’s reworking of Custer’s role in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

A scant chapter of ten pages focuses on the production of In the Land of the Head Hunters. The format of the book does not allow Egan to tackle directly the questions of ethics and representation that would challenge the corpus of Curtis’s work. Egan’s language is purposefully dramatic and sometimes jarring in its uncritical portrayal of contemporary stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The book closes with a description of how the entire Curtis archive fell into obscurity in the late 1930s, only to be revived into pervasive circulation in the 1970s. Egan also notes the current uptake of Curtis photographs and archival material by Indigenous peoples for their own historical research and cultural resurgence.

Together, these books provide useful and welcome assessments of Curtis’s photographic legacy, especially the recent critical resurgence of interest in this important photographer and the restoration of his most famous film, set on the coast of British Columbia in Kwakwaka’wakw territory.

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, The Kwakwaka’wakw and the Making of Modern Cinema
Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, editors
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. 392 pp. $50.00 cloth

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
Timothy Egan
Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2012. 384 pp. $28.00 cloth