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On Dec. 7, 1914, the feature film “In the Land of the Head Hunters” premiered simultaneously in Seattle (at the newly opened Moore Theatre) and in New York.

The film, made by Seattle-based photographer/ethnologist Edward S. Curtis, has been the subject of volatile debate ever since.

As Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, editors of a new book about the film, remark, “[Curtis] has been alternately valorized and vilified, celebrated for contributing an invaluable record of traditional Native lifeways and castigated for staging scenes and denying the lived reality of Native life.”

Their book, “Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Making of Modern Cinema” (Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum, in association with University of Washington Press, 420 pp., $50), is a generously illustrated anthology of essays — some decidedly academic, others more personal and anecdotal. Together they address the film from every angle while also placing Curtis (1868-1952) and his First Nations collaborators on the film in their historical context.

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Curtis is best known for his 20-volume epic project, “The North American Indian” (1907-1930), famous for its photographs of Native Americans in traditional tribal garb.

Curtis saw himself as a recorder of indigenous cultures that were about to vanish. But financing his project was a continual challenge. His aim in making the movie was blatantly commercial. He hoped to earn a fortune, then plow the profits back into “The North American Indian.”

It didn’t work out that way. While the film was well received in New York and Seattle (The Seattle Times called it “a vital, virile smashing big dramatic production worthy of ranking with the photo marvels of the decade”), it was poorly distributed, did little business and soon vanished.

The commercial motivations behind it explain some of its compromised character. Curtis believed that, in order to have a hit, he needed a Hollywood-style plot about a thwarted romance and tribal warfare. What he hoped would distinguish his project from other movies of the day about American Indians was that it would be shot on location (near Fort Rupert, at the northern tip of Vancover Island) instead of in Los Angeles and it would feature an all-indigenous cast rather than miscellaneous actors for hire.

“Head Hunters” was intended as a historical picture, depicting the Kwakwaka’wakw’s world before European contact. While it aimed to be as authentic as possible in its rendering of dances, ceremonies and living circumstances of the Kwakwaka’wakw, it was never intended to be a documentary of how the tribe was living in 1914. Still, that was how some audiences saw it.

When fragments of “Head Hunters” were rediscovered in the archives of Chicago’s Field Museum in the late 1960s, Field Museum curator George Quimby and Seattle’s Bill Holm (curator at the Burke Museum from 1968-1985) edited a new version of it, “In the Land of the War Canoes,” downplaying the melodrama and highlighting the ceremonial footage, thus further confusing the issue of whether the film was a documentary or a work of the imagination. A 2008 reconstruction, marrying the Field Museum footage with other sources, was truer to Curtis’ original.

Some critics have problems with the 1914 version’s inventions — notably the inclusion of a whale-hunting scene, even though the Kwakwaka’wakw never hunted whale. But most descendants of the performers in the film believe its virtues outweigh its faults. One crucial point they make is that Curtis invited their elders to perform traditional dances and ceremonies on film at a time when these were outlawed in Canada.

Kwakwaka’wakw anthropologist Gloria Cranmer Webster sums up their attitude: “This white guy is going to pay them to do these dances they would otherwise go to jail for? This, in the middle of potlatch prohibition?” She also notes what a pleasure it is to have the film’s record of “giant war canoes and elaborate ceremonial regalia in action rather than resting dormant in museums.”

Essayist Kate Flint points out the Kwakwaka’wakw’s deep involvement behind the scenes. Curtis paid local artists and weavers to make film props — wooden masks, “cedar-bark regalia,” ladles, hats, etc. — that are now preserved in the collection of Seattle’s Burke Museum.

Colin Browne cites the belief of William Wasden Jr. (leader of British Columbia’s Gwa’wina Dancers) that the Kwakwaka’wakw took part in the movie “to transmit their dances, laws, and practices to future generations.” The dancing, Wasden feels, is “classic Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial drama at its best” — although the original score for the film (advertised as “Native Music Symphonized”) has no connection to Kwakwaka’wakw music that he can hear.

Wherever you stand on the Curtis debate, the book should whet appetites for the 100th-anniversary DVD/Blu-ray release of the film coming in December. Milestone Film and Video is promising small digital improvements to the 2008 reconstruction, plus bonus features including contributions from Evans and Glass and Holm/Quimby’s edited version, “In the Land of the War Canoes,” in its entirety, for comparison with the original.

Michael Upchurch:

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