In 1911, as part of his massive undertaking, famed Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to visit the Kwakwaka'wakw. By the next year, needing money for his project and to add to his research and still photography work, Curtis decided that the best way to record the traditional way of life and ceremonies of the Kwakwaka'wakw was to make one of the first feature motion pictures. Curtis had already shot footage in 1906 of the Hopi Snake dance, which he had previously showed during his talks, but this was to be on a grander scale. It took three years of preparation for this one film including the weaving of the costumes; building of the war canoes, housefronts, poles; and the carving of masks. Assisting on the film was George Hunt, a Kwakwaka'wakw who had served as an interpreter for the famous anthropologist Franz Boas nearly twenty years before. Hunt helped contribute substantial portions of the film's story as well. Selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this early Native American drama/documentary released in 1914 is an amazing film produced in collaboration with the tribe members. The story of love and revenge among the Kwakwaka'wakw of British Columbia, Motana, the son of a great chief, goes on a vigil journey. Through fasting and hardships he hopes to gain supernatural strength which will make him a chief as powerful as his father. Curtis showcases the Kwakwaka'wakw's magnifcent war canoes, totem poles, rituals, costumes and dancing.
To gain power from the spirit forces, Motana, the son of a great chief, goes on a vigil journey. Through the fasting and hardships of the vigil he hopes to gain supernatural strength which will make him a chief not less powerful than his father, Kenada. First upon a mountain's peak he builds a prayer-fire to the Gods. After long dancing about the sacred flames he drops from exhaustion and in vision-sleep the face of a maid appears in the coiling smoke, thus breaking the divine law which forbids thought of women during the fasting. Now he must pass another stronger ordeal. Leaving his desecrated fire to go to the Island of the Dead he meets Naida, the maid of his dream, and woos her. She tells him she is promised to the hideous Sorcerer. Motana bids the maid return to her father and say that when this vigil is over he will come with a wealth of presents and beg her hand in marriage. Now he renews his quest of spirit power and tests his courage by spending the night in the fearful "house of skulls." And to prove his prowess he goes in quest of sea-lions and then performs the greatest feat of all, the capture of a whale. Then, for his final invocation to the Gods, Motana again builds his sacred fire upon the heights. While he fasts and dances there about his sacred fire the Sorcerer, in a dark glade of the forest, has gathered about him fellow workers in evil magic and they sing "short life songs" to destroy him. The Sorcerer sends his daughter to find Motana and in some way get a lock of his hair, that they may destroy his life by incantation. This plotting woman, on seeing Motana asleep by his fire becomes infatuated with him and decides to risk even the wrath of her Sorcerer father and win the love of Motana. When she awakens him with caressing words, he bids her begone, as he is not thinking of women, but of the spirits. With angry threats she departs, but in stealth watches the faster until he drops asleep, then creeping up steals his necklace and a lock of hair, and disappears. Motana, returning, asks his father to send messengers demanding the hand of Naida. Her father, Waket, replies to the messengers, "My daughter is promised to the fearful Sorcerer of Yilis. We dread his evil magic. We also fear Yaklus, the head hunter, the brother of the Sorcerer. The Sorcerer is proof against knife and spear and arrow. Yaklus and his clan know no conqueror." The followers of Motana and Kenada prove that the power of the Sorcerer cannot avail against the wrath of the raven clan, who are determined to rid the region of the head hunters. The head of the Sorcerer they bring to prove his death. But unknown to them, Yaklus, the head-hunting chief, has escaped. In great pomp of primitive pageantry Naida and Motana are married. Yet even while the wedding dancers make merry, a cloud of tragedy hangs over them, for Yaklus and the survivors of his village are thirsty for vengeance. Enraged at the death of his brother, the Sorcerer, he runs "pahu-paku," and is really Yaklus, "the short life bringer." In his magnificent high-prowed canoes he starts upon his war of vengeance. It is his law that the war party destroy all who are met, whether friend or foe. While on their foray fishing parties and travelers are encountered. Then they make their night attack upon the village of Motana. Kenada and his tribesmen give way before the infuriated Yaklus, and amid the smoke and flames of the burning village Motana is wounded and Naida is carried away to captivity. Yaklus, returning to his village, gives a great dance of victory. The frenzied warriors demand the life of Naida. Yaklus bids her come and dance for them. If she dances well enough to please him he will spare her life. If not, they will throw her to the "hungry wolves." So well does she dance that Yaklus spares her. In the sleeping hours Naida sends her fellow captive slave with a token and message to Motana, who has been revived by surviving medicine men of his village. When he receives the message from his bride-wife Motana calls for volunteers. By stealth he rescues her. Yaklus in rage starts in pursuit. Motana, hard pressed, dares the waters of the surging gorge of Hyal through which he passes in safety. Great was his "water magic." Yaklus attempts to follow but the raging waters of the gorge sweep upon him and he and his grizzly followers become the prey of the evil ones of the sea.
- Original advertising for the film describes it as a drama of primitive life on the shores of the North Pacific. The action takes place during the time of the first exploration of the Coast; an early scenario has the film opening with Vancouvers ship coming into the bay, though that part did not make it into the final film.
The story overlays three plot elements onto each other: a melodramatic love triangle; an equally melodramatic series of aboriginal battles (from which the Head Hunting title is drawn); and a full range of Kwakwakawakw ceremonial performances in regalia fully restored for the film. The hero, Motana, falls in love with the maid of his dreams, Naida, while on a vision quest. Unfortunately for him, Naida is betrothed to an evil sorcerer. After completing his quest, Motana embarks on a battle to win Naida by killing the evil sorcerer. As might be expected, the sorcerers equally unsavory brother, Yaklus, is outraged. He takes his revenge by ransacking Motanas village, killing his father, and stealing Naida for himself. Strangely, the most magnificent Kwakwakawakw dance ceremonies in the film come in celebration of Yakluss success. But then, Motana and his crew stage a dramatic rescue of Naida from the bedside of Yaklus. A remarkable canoe chase ensues, at the end of which the sorcerers brother meets his doom in the deadly gorge of Hyal. Yakluss canoe is capsized in the waves, his men perish, and his dead body washes up against the rocks.