In the Land of the Head Hunters (also called In the Land of the War Canoes) is a 1914 silent film fictionalizing the world of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, written and directed by Edward S. Curtis and acted entirely by Kwakwaka’wakw native people.
The film was selected in 1999 for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” It was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans; the second, eight years later, was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It was the first feature film made in British Columbia, and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada.
The following plot synopsis was published in conjunction with a 1915 showing of the film at Carnegie Hall:
To gain power from the spirit forces, Motana, a great chief’s son, goes on a vigil-journey. But though the tribal law forbids the thought of woman during the fasting, his dreams are ever of Naida; her face appearing in the coilng smoke of the prayer-fire he builds high upon a mountain peak. To forfend the anger of the spirits he must pass a stronger ordeal. He sleeps upon the Island of the Dead, then hunts and kills the whale; and raids the clustered sea-lion rookeries, a whole day’s paddle out to sea.
Naida is wooed and won by Motana, and splendid is the wooing. But Naida, with her dowry, is coveted by the Sorcerer. He is evil, old and ugly. Waket, Naida’s father fears the baleful “medicine” of the Sorcerer, and also stands in dread of the Sorcerer’s brother, who is Yaklus, “the short life bringer,” and the head-hunting scourge of all the coast. Waket promises Naida to the Sorcerer. So then begins the Indian Trojan war.
Motana and his father, Kenada, and their clan resolve to rid the region of the head hunters. In their great canoes they attack the village of the Sorcerer and Yaklus. The Sorcerer’s head they bring to prove his death to those who believed him “deathless.” But Yaklus escapes. After the wedding of Motana and Naida, with pomp of primitive pageantry, and dancing and feasting, in which the throngs of two great totem villages take part, Yaklus attacks and burns Motana’s village. Motana is left for dead. Naida is carried away into captivity. Wild is the reveling that follows at the village of Yaklus. The beauty of Naida’s dancing saves her life. Naida’s slave boy, a fellow captive, escapes. His message brings Motana, who rescues Naida by stealth. The raging Yaklus pursues. Motana, hard pressed, dares the waters of the surging gorge of Hyal. His canoe flies through, but Yaklus is overwhelmed and drowned.
Edward S. Curtis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons