Selling the North American Indian:
The Work of Edward Curtis

Created by Valerie Daniels, June 2002

In the Land of the Head-Hunters

From the beginning of his work on The North American Indian Curtis took motion picture footage along with his photographs. While touring with his picture opera in 1911 and 1912 he incorporated these motion pictures with his lectures and music-accompanied slide shows. This footage of the Yebichai ceremony of the Navaho Indians, is an example of Curtis's early ethnographic motion pictures (click on the image to view footage).

However, in 1914, Edward Curtis decided to release the motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters for a popular audience. In his foreword to the book of the same title that came out in 1915, Curtis explains that they both

"give a glimpse of the primitive Americans as they lived in the Stone Age and as they still were living when...explorers...touched the shores of the Pacific between 1774 and 1791."
The release of the film and the book corresponded with the completion of Volumes IX and X of The North American Indian, which also dealt with the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.


From The Shadow Catcher: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian

Edward Curtis working on the film In the Land of the Head-Hunters
In Makepeace, Coming to Light


Handbill from the 1914 release of the film at the Moore Theater in Seattle.
From The Shadow Catcher: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian
INDIANS IN MOVIE DRAMA*
"In the Land of the Head Hunters"
Vividly Shown at Casino

At the Casino Theatre yesterday afternoon a remarkable moving picture play received its first presentation here. The new movie is an epic drama made by Edward S. Curtis and called "In the Land of the Head Hunters," and the actors are all members of the little-known tribe of Indians of the North Pacific Coast. Mr. Curtis spent many years in studying the Indian tribes of North America and making photographic studies of them. The movie drama took several years to complete and represents a period in American history of the first exploration of the North Pacific coast.

Accompanying the pictures is interpretive music composed by John J. Braham from phonographic records made by Mr. Curtis of the tribal music.

While the picture shows the primitive Indian tribes in their native haunts, it also tells a dramatic love story with many adventurous incidents, including sea fights between crews in war canoes, the sacking and burning of Indian villages, and exciting hunting and sealing views. Mr. Curtis took the films along the Kwakiutl of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia. Those seafaring Indians are little known to most explorers. A large part of the film is shown in natural colors by a new photographic process invented by Dr. Hochsteter.

* This review of In the Land of the Head Hunters appeared in The New York Times on December 8, 1914

Unfortunately, due to a lack of promotion and bad timing, the motion picture was not a financial success. At the time of its release audiences were more interested in World War I propaganda films than Curtis's combination of ethnology and romance. Ironically, Curtis befriended Robert Flaherty, the creator of Nanook of the North, in 1915, and arranged a private viewing of In the Land of the Head-Hunters for him and his wife. When Nanook of the North was released in 1921 it not only met with financial success, but was touted as one of the first ethnological reconstructions of Native American life on film.

Click on the movie poster of Nanook of the North to view it at a higher resolution.

Click on each of the titles below to view In the Land of the Head Hunters scene by scene


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