In Alaska, the historical interactions between Native and non-Native cultures, particularly the long-term suppression of Native traditions beginning in the late 1880s, is a fertile topic for many artists. Some of the most striking examples focus on how those interactions continue to affect identity, such as in Sitka artist Nicholas Galanin’s “What Have We Become?” a body of work that includes masks carved from scholarly books on Alaska Native culture, or in the work of Alaska artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner, who explores his half-Native and half-white background through altered photographs and sculpture.
An alternate and less familiar view of the effects of cultural interaction on artistic identity is presented in a new work by local writer Dave Hunsaker. The project, a graphic novel called “The North End of the World,” is based on the real-life story of photographer Edward Curtis, a non-Native, whose admiration for Native Americans and First Nations tribes and attempts to capture what he believed to be their “vanishing world” became an artistic and personal obsession.
Hunsaker, who is white but is an adopted Tlingit of the Lukaaxadi clan, said Curtis’ history intrigues him in part because he feels he can identify with him, as someone who has great admiration for Native culture, and is inspired by it in his work, but who is approaching it from the outside. The graphic novel explores what can happen when that admiration is taken to an extreme level, where lines of personal identity become obscured. This position is in some ways on the opposite end of the spectrum from large-scale cultural suppression, but both have their dark side, Hunsaker said.
“It seems like a very important thing to look at wherever you find it,” Hunsaker said. “You’ve got people saying ‘You have to speak our language and worship our god,’ and you’ve got somebody else who has a sort of unfettered admiration for the culture saying ‘I want to preserve you forever and hold you up to the world, in fact I want to BE you.’ It leads to lots of dark questions. I felt like doing a dark story about it — it is a pretty dark story. But it actually has a happy ending.”
Beautifully illustrated by Christopher Shy, Hunsaker’s new book traces the making of Curtis’ silent film “In the Land of the Headhunters” in the early 1900s. The film is based on Curtis’ view of the lives and traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians in British Columbia, and though sometimes described as a documentary, is a work of fiction.
Hunsaker and Shy’s graphic novel, while rooted in real life events, is also fiction, as Hunsaker envisions what Curtis’ experiences might have been like as he made the film, becoming deeply involved with the Kwakwaka’wakw and their traditional dances and rituals. Certain passages are fantastical, with the narration and illustrations working together to lead the reader to a dream-like place where the line between imagination and reality is far from clear, especially as Curtis begins to lose his way.
Hunsaker is well suited to tell Curtis’ story. An Alaska resident since 1972, he makes his living writing screenplays for big-wig directors in Hollywood and elsewhere, but his local work has largely been based on his involvement with Tlingit and other Alaska Native communities. Beginning in the late 1980s, he spent 10 years as artistic director of Sealaska Heritage Foundation’s (now Sealaska Heritage Institute) Naa Kahidi Theater, where he worked with Tlingit elders to present traditional stories to modern audiences. His 2009 Perseverance Theatre play “Battles of Fire and Water,” inspired by the book “Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America” by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer and Lydia Black, told the story of the battles between Tlingit and Russians in 1802 and 1804 from both perspectives (in three languages). And his “Yup’ik Antigone,” created in collaboration with residents of Toksook Bay on Nelson Island and presented entirely in Yup’ik in the early 1980s, combined elements of ancient Greek theater and traditional Yup’ik performance.
An ability to identify with Curtis’ intense admiration for Native culture is something Hunsaker believes all three of the main players in the graphic novel project had in common.
Illustrator Shy, whose company Blackwatch Comics published the book, has always been fascinated by Curtis, and has explored Native American themes in other works, such as the graphic novel “Pathfinder.” And the third major team member, David Skinner, head of ShadowCatcher Entertainment, the Seattle-based company that produced the project, owns an entire set of Curtis’ famed (and incredibly rare) photography books, “The North American Indian” (1907-1930). The 20-volume set documents many North American tribes and contains some of the most well-known and iconic images of Native Americans ever recorded. (Alaska Native tribes are covered in volume 20, which Curtis completed in his 60s.) The name of Skinner’s production company, ShadowCatcher, is itself a reference to Curtis, as it was the nickname given to him by some of the Native American tribes he worked with. Hunsaker brought the project to Skinner in part because he knew of his interest in the photographer.
“I think in a way all of us who were working on this ... (Shy) and Skinner and I ... I think we all kind of identified with Curtis in a strange way. It’s this strange combination (where) you really admire a culture and sort of immerse yourself in the culture, and at the same time you realize you’re never going to be part of the culture. And it’s pretty easy to lose your way. I think all of us have flirted with that a little bit,” Hunsaker said.
“Also the kind of strange position of saying, ‘OK, we really admire this culture but we’re also exploiting it for our own uses and in some ways making a living,” he continued. “Mostly I’ve been made to feel extremely welcome in (Native) culture but every once in while you meet somebody who feels like you are just ripping it off. And it’s a valid point. I think Curtis is kind of the epitome of a man who did that.”
In an interview with Zack Smith, published in USA Today’s blog “Pop Candy,” Shy echoed Hunsaker’s words.
“This wasn’t just a book — for us it was an obsession, one that mirrored the spirit of Curtis’ own crusade. I think that alone is worth a serious look.”
The trio’s passion for the project seems to have carried through for their audience; when the book debuted at the New York Comic Con in October, it quickly sold out. Locally it is available at Alaska Robotics on Front Street downtown in hardback.
Prior to working on the book, Hunsaker had only a vague idea of what a graphic novel was, so he went to a bookstore to find out.
“I spent the whole afternoon on the floor looking at these graphic novels. They seemed to me to run the gamut of everything from very familiar funny comic books like I read when I was a kid to very serious historical biographical things, like this marvelous book that was the most coherent thing I think I ever read about Robert Oppenheimer — it sort of explained nuclear fission.”
Intrigued, Hunsaker began adapting the story for the graphic novel from a screenplay he is currently working on with ShadowCatcher Entertainment. He said the end result reminded him strongly of the storyboards used by filmmakers.
“What they looked like to me was... film storyboards. I had been a big fan of both Alfred Hitchcock’s storyboards and (Akira) Kurosawa’s storyboards, which survive and which are gorgeous.”
He was familiar with Shy’s work, having enlisted his help several years earlier to flesh out an idea for a film.
“I’d written this thing and it had all these strange characters in it, and I had this vision but people weren’t getting it very well,” Hunsaker said. “So somebody put me in touch with Christopher and he did these really wonderful renderings, he really worked with me. I got to be friends with him from a distance.”
To prepare to tell the story, the two men traveled to Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island, where Curtis’ original film was made, and to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, where many of the descendents of the actors ended up. There they visited some of the shooting locations, which was particularly important for Shy, who lives in Wisconsin.
“I felt it was really important for him to see Fort Rupert and Alert Bay and meet some of the people, so I went there with him,” Hunsaker said. “I really wanted him to be in this world that we live in, and walk in the dark woods and see what it was like.”
Hunsaker had already been conducting research for the story prior to his trip with Shy, trying to get a sense of how Curtis was remembered by the locals.
“I talked to as many people as I could,” Hunsaker said. ‘I was having such a time getting a handle on Curtis especially among Native American people themselves, because some younger radicals, they hate him, he’s this guy who was exploiting the Indians and lying about things and calling them ‘the vanishing race.’”
“So I went to see what the Indians themselves had to say about him, and what I found out was that a lot of them really appreciated him, because even though he was using rigs and props, he tried to make things as real as he could.”
Encouraged by that response, he moved forward on the project.
Curtis ‘controversial reputation among many Native groups stems in part from the fact that he deliberately blurred the line between real and staged elements in his photography and films. For example, he might touch up a portrait to erase evidence of modern inventions, or, as in the “Headhunters” film, include traditions or rituals that had long since fallen out of favor; the 1914 film was presented as having occurred prior to European contact. He has also been criticized for referring to Native Americans as a “vanishing race.” Hunsaker said his actions and comments should be understood in their historical context, minus the wisdom of hindsight.
“When he was taking the pictures he really believed that the Indians were dying, that this was a vanishing culture,” Hunsaker said. “Kids were going to boarding schools and being forced to speak English — that’s what he saw. What he didn’t see until much later — but he did see it — is that they didn’t go anywhere, the cultures were adapting, and the things that were important were being kept alive.”
However, Hunsaker said it was not his intention to present Curtis in an entirely favorable light, and parts of the story are left largely up to the reader’s interpretation.
“I didn’t want him necessarily to be 100 percent likeable,” Hunsaker said. “I really think he was equal parts sincere artist and exploitive P.T. Barnum.”
The argument can be made that Curtis’ film helped the Kwakwaka’wakw keep a hold on their traditions at a time when the Canadian government was forbidding them from practicing them under the Potlatch Prohibition law of 1884 and other measures. The film was also the first to feature an all-Native cast (Robert Flaherty “Nanook of the North” was made seven or eight years later) and it was shot entirely on location in British Columbia. Some critics believe the film is evidence of an artistic collaboration between Kwakwaka’wakw performance traditions and the new art form of mass-market movies.
Hunsaker said even today, most pro-Native mainstream narratives about white men coming into contact with Native culture are told from the white point of view, and usually involve the main character’s total assimilation, one way or another. For example, Kevin Costner’s character in “Dances with Wolves” ends up renouncing his Western connections and joining the Sioux. Hunsaker was intrigued with the idea of presenting a story where such assimilation wasn’t possible.
“I really felt like I wanted to do a story about that, a guy sort of in the process of having that happen to him who then gets brought up short and thinks ‘I cant do that,’” he said.
While he was doing research for the screenplay and graphic novel, Hunsaker became involved in a project to reissue Curtis’ original film, spurred by the discovery of long-neglected footage and original score by John Braham.
The original 1914 film quickly fell into obscurity and then disappeared from view. In 1947 a partial copy was found in a dumpster in Chicago and given to the Field Museum. In 1973, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s Bill Holm and George Quimby reedited the original reels and made a new version of the film with a more politically correct title, “In the Land of the War Canoes.”
The 2008 re-issue project, which involved the work of cultural anthropologist Aaron Glass, stuck more closely to the original film, and culminated in a showing at the Moore Theater in Seattle, where it originally debuted in 1914. The showing also involved the participation of descendents of the Kwakwaka’wakw actors from the film.
“We showed the film with full orchestra and the grandchildren of the actors who were in it were part of his great dance group,” Hunsaker said, “They brought down masks and regalia and performed some of the same dances that are in the film.”
Returning the film to the Kwakwaka’wakw in this way points up the positive side of Curtis’ story, Hunsaker said. Though Curtis was ruined, financially and socially, by making the film and, by extension, by his obsessive quest to document Native groups, his letters indicate he had no regrets and was happy with his efforts.
And the Kwakwaka’wakw themselves have not only survived despite dire predictions to the contrary, they are thriving.
“It actually has a pretty happy ending,” Hunsaker said. “Curtis’ body of work — whatever people think about it — it’s beautiful. And it’s a happy ending for the Kwakwaka’wakw because the culture, like Tlingit culture, is really undergoing a renaissance. It’s exciting.”
For more on Hunsaker’s book, visit thenorthendoftheworld.com or visit Alaska Robotics Gallery downtown.