In the Land of the War Canoes  (1914)

This remarkable ethnographic documentary records a reenactment of a legend by Kwakiutl Indians in the area of Vancouver, British Colombia. Made by Edward S. Curtis, it predates Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North by eight years. Both of these films took criticism for the intervention of the filmmaker in the representation of a native culture. My feeling is that both films answer the question: what would result if a determined filmmaker got together with a group of indigenous people to authentically and enthusiastically re-create a legend from that culture? The most memorable scenes from the Curtis film involve large dugout war canoes, masked ritual figures, along with totem poles and other artifacts that are unique to this culture. Originally released as In the Land of the Head Hunters, a damaged print of this film was discovered in a dumpster in 1947. It was restored in 1974 and again in 2008.

The Silent Enemy  (1930)

I have found three movies that feature North American Indians enacting the rituals and daily customs of their lives, and each of them was filmed in northern Canada.  They each have a rudimentary storyline, but are primarily documentaries on the ways of a vanishing race.  This film, with sound, opens with the elderly Chief Yellow Robe (a descendant of Sitting Bull) facing the camera and thanking the filmmakers for making this record of Indian people who will soon be erased from the face of the earth.  The featured tribe is the Ojibwa, a woodlands culture in Quebec.  There is a series of dramatized scenes featuring a heroic young warrior, a pretty maiden, and a very personable boy who is the son of the chief.  Anticipating starvation (the silent enemy) in the coming winter, the hero leads a party far from camp.  The boy tries to follow with his two pet bear cubs, but is turned back.

The expedition fails and the tribe faces a crisis.  It is decided in council that they will migrate north in search of caribou herds, traveling on dogsleds.  In an overnight camp, a mountain lion attacks their food supply, but is driven off by one of the bear cubs.  A young bull moose is swarmed by a pack of wolves, but the hero intervenes and kills the animal to feed his people.  The trek is long and brutal.  The hero has a rival for the chief’s daughter and there is trouble.  The chief, wrapped in fur, goes to a mountaintop to await a sign from the Great Spirit.  Eventually, he is carried back nearly dead.  A spirit canoe comes to take him away and he dies.  The hero is made chief and plans to marry his love.  The rival incites the people against their new leader, demanding his death.  He elects to die by fire.  Just as the flames are rising around him, word comes that the migrating caribou are approaching.  The nearly dead hero is rescued from the fire.  The caribou arrive in a swirling stampede, and the people take all the game they can kill.  In a new village of tepees made with caribou skins, there is feasting and merry-making.  The villainous rival is exiled to face the frozen tundra alone.  All is well with the tribe, for now.  This tale is told by a deep-voiced narrator while the Indians are silent.  TCM says this a companion piece to Nanook of the North.

Black Robe  (1991)

This is another film that contemplates in depth the confrontation of Native American peoples and European colonizers operating under a religious banner.  Made by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, it opens in Quebec of 1634.  A Jesuit priest is sent on an arduous and solitary mission to convert the Huron Indians to Catholicism.  What is most immediately worthy of note in this film is the spectacular scenery of northern Canada, and the realistic depiction of life among the native people.  This film seems to provoke comparisons with the idealized depictions in Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans.  It also calls to mind similar confrontations with missionaries in The Mission (1986) and Shogun (1980 – edited from the TV miniseries).  There is a grim strain of violence in this picture, but it does not seem out of place.

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