Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) footage (1930-1931) – Franz Boas

Mary Hunt Johnson performs the Women’s Cannibal Dance. In the background, a man beats time. Frame grab from the film viewable here.

Approx. 51 mins, b&w 16mm footage. Silent. Intertitles in English.

Source : In 1973, an edited version of this footage, prepared by the late art historian Bill Holm (1925-2020), of the Burke Museum, University of Washington, Seattle, was released in the from a 55 min. documentary entitledThe Kwakiutl of British Columbia. This was accompanied by an extensive explanatory text based on notes by the original film-maker, Franz Boas, and interviews with still-surviving participants. 

Some of this footage, approx. 15 mins,  is held by the NAFC (formerly HSFA) under catalogue entry NA-87.17.4: Northwest Coast Indian Dance.

Since 2018, the Bill Holm Center at the Burke Museum, University of Washington, has been developing a project in collaboration with  the Kwakwaka’wakw community to bring all Boas’s films and audio recordings together into a digital book to be published by Washington University Press. This is now nearing completion. For further details see here.

Background: This footage was shot by Franz Boas, a foundational figure in the history of US anthropology who spent many years researching the social and cultural life of the group whom he called the Kwakiutl but who are now more generally referred to as the Kwakwaka’wakw.

It was shot at Fort Rupert (Tsaxis), on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, on Boas’s last field trip to the Kwakwaka’wakw in the winter of 1930-1931. He also made recordings on a wax cylinder phonograph. 

Boas’s intention was not to produce a documentary with a narrative, but rather raw documentation footage that would allow him to explore the relationship between ‘motor behaviour’ (i.e. bodily movement) and dancing and singing among the Kwakwaka’wakw, one of his long-standing research interests.

All the material was performed at Boas’s request, out of its normal context, sometimes in the yard of a European-style house, at other times in open countryside with a palisade or iconic totem pole in the background.

Although the subjects often wear traditional dress, other figures in modern Euro-American dress are also sometimes plainly in shot (as in the case of the man beating time in the frame grab at the head of this entry). The phonograph is also visible  in some shots, as is Julia Averkieva, Boas’s field assistant, when she moves into one shot to wind it up.

As Boas’s  film-making skills were very limited – understandably since he appears to have had no prior training – the technical quality of the material is very poor: there are frequent jump cuts and the exposure level is often incorrect.

Both conceptually and technologically, this use of the moving image camera for ethnographic purposes was very old-fashioned by 1930 and not dissimilar to the “chronophotographic” project of Regnault and Comte when they filmed African locomotion in Paris in 1895.

In the event, Boas never used this footage to write up any conclusions, in part because he believed, erroneously, that it had been stolen.  What had been stolen, however, were the wax cylinder sound recordings.

Content: A substantial part of the footage consists of shots of dances – seventeen in total. The Hamatsa Cannibal Dance is demonstrated by men while women demonstrate a number of dances, including the Summer, Salmon, Paddle, Bird, and the Woman’s Cannibal dances.

The Salmon dance is demonstrated by Agnes Hunt, the daughter of Boas’s principal informant, George Hunt, while the Woman’s Cannibal Dance is demonstrated by his daughter Mary and is viewable here (see also the image at the head of this entry).

Also demonstrated were examples of chiefly competitive oratory, a healing ceremony,  some craft processes (including wood carving, basket weaving as well as fishing and gathering practices) and children’s games.

Texts: Ruby 1980, Jacknis 1987, Morris 1994: 55-66, Jacknis 2000: 103, Griffiths 2002: 304-309, Bunn-Marcuse 2005: 311-315, Henley 2020:66-67.

© 2018 Paul Henley