Performing Archive

Kotsuis and Hohhug

Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

Taken on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the models in “Kotsuis and Hohhug—Nakoaktok” pose wearing traditional ceremonial dress, crouching with long beaks pointed toward one anther. A fabric background hangs from the wall behind. In The North American Indian, Curtis writes, “The primitive garments shown in the illustrations were prepared by Kwakiult men and women for the author, and are correct in all respects. Such costumes, of course, are not now used.”

Curtis also gives credit for his exceptionally intimate glimpses into “primitive” life and thought to his Native American informant and interpreter, George Hunt for this volume. We are told that Hunt was the son of a Scotch employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a Tsimshian woman. Hunt was born and raised near Fort Rupert. The text is careful to acknowledge the “simplification” of the volume made possible by the previous work done by Dr. Franz Boas. This is also the first time in ten volumes that Curtis fully acknowledges Mr. W. E. Myers as a collaborator and not simply an assistant, and it has widely been acknowledged by scholars that Mr. Myers probably wrote and edited much of The North American Indian, from Vol. 1 – 18.

The use of the word “primitive” here is by no means passive, and in 1914, Curtis launched a new scheme to help further fund the publication. He decided to direct and produce a silent film entitled “In The Land of the Head-Hunters.” The film was created as a dramatization of the Northwest Coast Indians traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) and folklore and was the first film to include an all-Native cast. Elaborate costumes and sets were built for the film, at Curtis’ expense. The film was critically well received but was a financial disaster and after a muddle over various debts, Curtis ends up selling it for $1,500 dollars, and also completely gives up the copyright to the work. The film is nearly lost until the early 1970s when it is rediscovered by Bill Holm and George Quimby in The Field Museum in Chicago. A new and restored version was rescored and released under a new title, “In the Land of the War Canoes,” but short clips from the original black and white film can often still be found on In 2008 yet another new version brought together additional new materials, and combined it with the films original score.

Despite his great technical innovations and increased efforts to sell individual prints, create multi-media presentations, and ultimately a feature film, Curtis was always either trying to make subscription sales or was in the field shooting images and doing research. As a result he was often away from his family in Seattle for months at a time. The few times he did try to have his family come along, there were even greater complications and ultimately concern for the safety of his children. When he was in Seattle he was either working in the studio to refine the prints, or staying at the Rainer Club, a fashionable men’s club in Seattle. Few would be surprised to find with mounting debts and with no end in sight, it was all too much for Clara, his wife, and she filed for divorce in 1916, but due to his long absences, the divorce wouldn’t be finalized until 1919. Clara got the house and the studio in the settlement but in a bitter turn of events, Beth, one of Curtis daughters, who largely ran the studio while he was away, copied, and then destroyed hundreds of the original glass plate negatives, with her father’s approval, and presumably to keep Clare from selling the images on her own.

In 1920, with Beth’s help, Curtis moved what remained of his photographic practice from Seattle to Los Angeles. It was during these years that Curtis tried to supplement his income by working as a still photographer and even managed to land his first major gig, working on Cecile B. DeMille’s landmark production of The Ten Commandments. By 1925 the financial situation had gone from bad to worse and the Morgan Co. estimated that it had invested and loaned over a quarter of a million dollars to Curtis to date.

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