Williamson, Colin (2019)

The politics of vanishing celluloid: rediscovering Fort Rupert and the Kwakwaka’wakw in American ethnographic film. 

In Allysson Nadia Field and Marsha Gordon, eds., Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film. Duke University Press. 

Fort Rupert (1951) – [?] Robert Gardner and Sidney Peterson

A fishing skiff disguised as a traditional canoe arrives at the shore. ‘Fort Rupert’ (1951) frame grab.

16 mins. Colour, probably 16mm. Extra-diegetic unsubtitled Native chants on the soundtrack. Voice-over in English.

Production: Orbit Films, Seattle, for distribution by Dimensions, Inc. 

Source: This film is available via the American Indian Film Gallery here. A copy is also viewable on YouTube here. Other copies are reported to be available from the J. Fred MacDonald collection in the Library of Congress, Seattle Library, the Victoria Library and the National Film Board of Canada. 

Background: This film appears to have been cut from research footage shot in Fort Rupert (Tsaxis), on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, in May-June 1950, in association with the major fiction film that Robert Gardner (1925-2014) and the avant-garde film-maker Sidney Peterson (1905-2000) planned to make there through their production company, Orbit Films. (See the entry for Blunden Harbour for further details)

When the fiction film project was abandoned, this 16mm companion footage was edited into a free-standing film. It appears to be the same film referred to by Peterson under the title Potlatch.

The footage was shot by Hy Hirsh (1911-1961), an experimental film-maker and associate of Peterson’s from San Francisco. The sound, mostly consisting of Native chanting was recorded by Morris Dowd. The voice in the voice-over appears to be that of Gardner, though this is not indicated in the credits. 

Content: The film opens with a pan down the totem pole at Fort Rupert before joining a canoe approaching the shore. A man chants in the bow, others play clapsticks. The boat is a fishing skiff that has been decorated to look like a traditional canoe (see image above). 

The voice-over laments that the traditions practised by “one of the most vigorous aboriginal societies on the entire continent” are being progressively lost. The ‘Kwakiutl’ find themselves caught in a situation where totem poles are disappearing, but telephone poles have not yet arrived.

The men come ashore and dance briefly. This is followed by a lengthy series of establishing shots of the shore around the village, with children playing, and extensive racks of fish drying in the sun. An old woman  works on a string figure. There are more carved figures. 

Around 5:40, the film moves indoors to show a series of ‘potlatch’ dances. These are presented as if they were taking place in a Big House, but in fact it was a boathouse converted for the purposes of the film. 

The scene is very poorly lit and the shooting no more than minimally competent, but there are some fine masks on display. These may be the same ones that would appear in the other Orbit film productions, Blunden Harbour and Dances of the Kwakiutl. The same is true of the wall hangings, which are decorated with traditional designs but do not themselves look traditional. But as far as one can tell, the dancers do seem to be different, at least for the most part.

Text: Jacknis 2000: 109-110, Williamson 2019.

William Heick (1916-2012)

William Heick in 2007. Photograph by Christopher Flach. Wikimead Commons.

William Heick was a leading US documentary photographer, who worked in many different parts of the world, mostly in black-and-white. But he was also a cinematographer and in this capacity, he was involved in ethnographic film-making in two particular periods of his life.

In the early 1950s, while working with Orbit Films in Seattle in collaboration with Sidney Peterson and Robert Gardner, he shot and edited three films about the Kwakwaka’wakw: Blunden Harbour and two different films with the title Dances of the Kwakiutl. One of these is in colour and the other in black-and-white, but the content and also running times of the two films is quite different. All these films were produced in 1951.

Later, between 1961 and 1964, he shot and edited a number of films about Native American communities for the American Indian Films Project (AIFP), directed by the anthropologist Samuel A. Barrett (1879-1965) and sponsored by the University of California.

Text: Jacknis 2000.

Jacknis, Ira (2000)

Visualizing Kwakwaka’ wakw Tradition: The Films of William Heick, 1951-63.

BC Studies 125/126: 99-146.

A pdf of this article may be downloaded here.

Mountain Chant, The (1928) – Laura Adams Armer

Na-Nai, the Navajo healer known as ‘The Crawler’. Photograph by Laura Adams Armer (in Armer 1953, p.6)

Not viewed. Duration and other technical specifications unknown. 

Background: Laura Adams Armer (1874-1963) was a Californian artist and writer who began painting and taking photographs of the Navajo in the 1920s.

In February 1928, with no previous experience as a film-maker and with financial support from the brothers Lorenzo and Roman Hubbell, who ran the local trading post at Ganado, Arizona,  Armer made this film about the Mountainway chant, a ceremonial process performed by Navajo healers to relieve mental distress.

She later wrote an account of the making of this film, published in 1953. Here she describes how she came to film a widely respected healer, Na-Nai – known as ‘The Crawler’ since he had been born without feet – when he was asked to cure a man whose dreams were being disturbed by the presence of a child who had died some years before.

Armer directed the film but she was assisted by two cameramen. Before the ceremony began, she studied an account of the Mountainway chant written by Washington Matthews in 1884 so that she knew where the cameramen should position themselves.

Na-Nai diagnosed the man’s problem as deriving from the fact that before he was even born, his mother had seen a dead bear, which had been killed by lightning. The bear had been offended, Na-Nai concluded, and he undertook to resolve the problem by singing the Mountainway chant.

This took place in a pinewood lodge built specially for the purpose and involved an elaborate range of chants and dances, and the making of sandpaintings over a nine-day period. Armer briefly describes the ceremonial process and its symbolic significances, reporting that it was attended at its climax by 2000 people.

She comments that the Navajo subjects posed no obstacle to her filming and even removed some boards from around the smoke-hole of the lodge to let in more light and therefore make it easier for the cameramen to film the sandpainting, the first time that this had been permitted inside a ‘medicine-lodge’.

Armer initially hoped to interest a Hollywood producer in the material, but having failed to do so, she contented herself with showing the film in a number of more academic settings.

A copy of the film is said to have been deposited with the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and possibly also with the Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe.

Texts: Armer 1953, Lyon 1988: 266-267, Palmquist 1996

© 2018 Paul Henley