November 18, 2011

A Kwakiutl House Post’s Journey

I personally have grown deeply appreciative of, and immensely fascinated by, Seattle-based photographer Edward S. Curtis’ photographic- and life- endeavors over the past few years in connection with my thesis work. Tucked away in the Burke’s Ethnology Archives is a little-known treasure trove of material related to Curtis’ 1914 ethnographic melodrama In the Land of the Head-Hunters—the first ethnographic “documentary” motion picture of its kind, depicting a romanticized pre-contact view of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) culture of British Columbia, Canada.

Figure 1 The hand-painted artist’s mock-up housed in the Burke’s Ethnology Archives displays the development of one of the promotional posters created to advertise Edward S. Curtis’ 1914 ethnographic melodrama In the Land of the Head-Hunters. (Image courtesy of The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, ‘In the Land of the War Canoes’ Collection, Ethnology Archives). 

Upon my first encounter with the Burke’s archival collection associated with the film, I was instantly struck by a vibrant hand-painted artist’s mock-up, or prototype, for a promotional poster to advertise Curtis’ film (Figure 1). Not only was this mock-up a visual spectacle—a poster child (pun intended) for the Arts and Crafts style with its simplified forms, bold abstraction of color and angular lines, but also an enigma. What was the history behind this poster, and particularly, what was the story of the polychrome carved cedar grizzly bear so boldly illustrated?

The Burke’s prototype, dating from early- to mid-1914, was eventually produced as an official lithography poster by the H. C. Minor Litho Co. advertising the December 7, 1914 premiere of Head-Hunters in New York at the Casino Theatre (Figure 2). The carved grizzly bear depicted holds a dynamic real-life social biography of its own right: metamorphosing from an element of a traditional and culturally-valuable potlatch symbol, to an idealized symbol of “nativeness” as a stage prop, to a constituent in an decontextualized tourist attraction, and finally to a hidden gem within a museum’s storage.

Figure 2  The official 1914 poster exhibiting the film’s iconic carved grizzly bear. While the official poster is markedly more simplistic in its final rendition than the mock-up, the final poster would have still appealed greatly to the middle- and upper-classes of America at the time who would have been spellbound by this vibrant and unbridled expression of the then-believed “vanishing” Native cultures of the Northwest coast.  (Image courtesy of Bill Utley Collection)

The grizzly is in fact part of a two-figured Thunderbird house post, one of set, carved initially between 1900 and 1910 by the renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Charlie James for Chief Tsa-wee-nok of Gway'i (Kingcome Inlet) as visual public displays of his family crests. According to a ledger record penned by George Hunt, Curtis’ invaluable Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw informant and assistant for the motion picture, it appears that the two poles were purchased in the summer of 1913 to be utilized extensively as stage props within the film (markedly the first appearance of totem poles in moving picture history!), each being transformed with physical augmentations to signal distinctive structures within the film (Figures 3 & 4). In 1927, the two house posts were erected within an educationally-intended outdoor totem park, purchased and erected by the Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver (AHSAV) in Stanley Park. While both posts were in subsequent decades replicated, the originals being placed in safekeeping within the Museum of Vancouver (an institution created by AHSAV), the house posts have become one of the most popular tourist attractions in British Columbia (Figure 5).

Figure 3  The thunderbird and grizzly house posts are shown here in a still from Curtis’ film, representing the house of Waket in the tale, the house of the heroine’s father. (Image from Edward Curtis’ 1915 book In the Land of the Head-Hunters). 

Figure 4  With the simple accessory of carved figures of Dzoonokwa, the man-eating giantess, over the grizzly bears’ bellies and the elimination of the thunderbirds’ expansive wings, the house posts are transformed into the setting of the ruthless villain, Yaklus’, house. (Image by Edmund S. Schwinke, originally housed in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture)

Figure 5  The Kwakwaka’wakw house posts as seen erected in Stanley Park, sans wings, via a tourist postcard from the late 1920s. Shortly after the poles were raised by the Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver, the organization’s promotional pamphlet for the park stated, “The proposed village, and the totems already erected, will represent the work of the Kwakiutl Indians in particular, and the Coast Indians in general. The totem is an indication of an old and wide culture. It points to the past. The past illuminates the present.” (Image courtesy of eBay member lusitania-postcard. Quote from John C. Goodfellow, The Totem Poles in Stanley Park (Vancouver, B.C.: The Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver, B.C., [unspecified date]), 15.)

Watch a brief clip from Curtis’ film yourself that showcases Kwakwaka’wakw performers involved in a dance festival. Notice the thunderbird and grizzly bear house posts prominently displayed in the background.

Posted By: Christy Hansen, Ethnology division

My deepest gratitude goes to Aaron Glass, Assistant Professor of Native Peoples of the Northwest Coast, Museums and Anthropology, at the Bard Graduate Center, for his informative personal correspondence regarding In the Land of the Head-Hunters and the poster art associated with the film.

Read more about the complicated history of the Curtis film in:
Holm, Bill and George I. Quimby. Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes. UW Press 1980.
See also:


Anonymous said...

did Hollywood take this any further? Were there other film directors who "borrowed" from the Haida, Coast Salish, Kwakiutl and other tribes?

Burke Museum said...

Edward Curtis’ 1914 film is notably the first ethnographic feature-length film to hit the ‘Hollywood’ scene and feature exclusively Native North Americans as the actors; nevertheless, despite rave reviews and praise from film critics, the chaos surrounding WWI coupled with inadequate advertisement drowned Curtis’ film into obscurity until its rediscovery and restoration by the Burke’s own Curator Emeritus Bill Holm and anthropologist George Quimby in the late 1960s. Another young man, Robert J. Flaherty—initially a guide in mapping explorations, has for many decades been credited as “the father of documentary filmmaking.” Flaherty released his motion picture film Nanook of the North in 1922 (watch a clip at—markedly eight years following Edward Curtis’ film—with a similar romantic, pre-contact “documentation” of Inuit life. Unlike Curtis’ film, however, Flaherty’s was a box-office financial success, and became chronicled early on as the first ethnological reconstruction of Native American culture on film.

It is interesting to note that while both Curtis and Flaherty intended their films to play into the public’s interest in the “exotic” and “vanishing” Native Americans, both men also sought to portray elements of Native life removed from the stereotypes (such as tomahawks, feathered war bonnets, and tipis) that had predominated in film since the turn of the 20th century. Curtis’ film received direct content input from Kwakwaka’wakw communities, and his picturesque depiction of this First Nations group is a visual presentation of their spirit and important ceremonial potlatch practices (which had been outlawed by the time of filming by the Canadian Indian Act of 1884).

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