In Search of the Hamatsa: A Tale of Headhunting Directed by Aaron Glass


2002, 33 minutes, color. Distributed by Documentary Education Resources , 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472 ,

This charming if unpolished film takes on an important and large topic in contemporary anthropology, one that touches upon the history of anthropology, intellectual property rights, museum display, repatriation, cultural continuity and invention, and the trajectory of indigenous culture through mainstream North American culture, a process ongoing for more than a century. The object of consideration is the hamatsa, the “cannibal dance,” practiced by several northern Wakashan speaking groups. The most famous of this group is the Kwakiutl. It is this group, or rather a portion of the descendants of this group—the Alert Bay Kwakwaka'wakw—with whom Glass worked. Although other communities have ownership of this performance, it is in Alert Bay that one finds the most dramatic conflicts over its representation. This is because the community bore the burden of prosecution under the Potlatch Law in 1922, during which a large collection of ceremonial regalia, including those associated with the hamatsa, was confiscated. (Although titled the Potlatch Law, it was the image of cannibalism that largely motivated the drafting of the original version in 1883.) Beginning in the 1970s, the slow process of repatriation began. This process in fact is continuing, making everything connected with the representation of traditional Kwakwaka'wakw culture especially politically fraught. This is the subtext for the film's presentation of two differing positions in the community on the degree to which the hamatsa can be presented to outsiders. One group believes, as it were, in full disclosure, portraying the hamatsa in four stages of relative “wildness,” while the other group argues for presenting only a portion of the dance, and withholding that which is most sacred.

The hamatsa has always meant different things to different people, and debates have long existed within indigenous communities about how much and what version should be presented to outsiders. George Hunt, Boas's Scots-Tlingit-Kwakwaka'wakw collaborator, was a key early player in this discussion. As a skilled culture broker, he was largely responsible for taking a group of dancers to the Chicago World's Fair. Later groups performed at fairs in Atlanta and St. Louis. This heritage of presentation to the outside world is still questioned by contemporary elders and intellectuals. In one scene, two middle-aged women involved in cultural education and performance discuss the complexities of such a historical moment, proclaiming themselves “confused” and unable to understand the motivation behind the performance, or the sorts of meaning white audiences would attach to them. In another scene, when Glass is showing photographs taken by Edward Curtis of George Hunt performing the hamatsa with a disinterred corpse to a group of elders belonging to the Umitsa Society, the comments are more direct. One elder says “that's sick” at a picture of Hunt cradling the corpse; another person states that thinking about Curtis and his sensationalist staging of these photographs “makes me boil.” At the same time, we hear no one debunking the idea that cannibalism and the use of actual corpses were part of the hamatsa.

The sacredness of the hamatsa is in fact rooted in its inversion of cultural norms. Thus, the slandering of all Kwakwaka'wakw as “cannibals” by the North American press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries very much missed the point. Glass's film raises this point. The symbolic richness has produced complex interpretations from native intellectuals. On one level, the hamatsa re-affirms the dependency of humans on killing other species, which are morally equivalent to humans. Salmon, the core food of all Northwest Coast peoples, are especially imagined as precisely like humans. Thus cannibalism is simply a statement of existential fact, and recognition of the sacrifice of others. Another line of thought is expressed well by Wayne Alfred, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist and dancer whom Glass interviews. For him, the crucial theme is the “evolution” of the hamatsa from an animalistic state (near to the ground, with extreme bodily movement) through two intermediate stages, to the point of being fully human. This constitutes an embodied metaphor for the coming into consciousness and development of a moral sense in persons ontogenetically. Thus the hamatsa stands as a useful symbol for various kinds of learning and healing processes. For instance, a men's recovery group has adopted the ritual. In fact, it is difficult to boil the hamatsa down to a single meaning; thus, I disagree with Glass, who, as narrator, says that the hamatsa is “an emphatic statement of their lasting cultural presence even at the heart of colonial power.” Yes, it is. But it shares this quality with any number of culturally distinctive symbols (e.g., clan totems and other graphic design elements), and certainly does more than merely represent identity.

Of course Glass's concern is with this very process by which symbols of identity are transmitted and transformed between and among cultural milieu. And as there is no unitary Kwakwaka'wakw perspective, neither is there a single Euro–American one. The audience at the Chicago World's Fair and the academic readers of Boas, for instance, represent only two of many such viewpoints. Some of this nuance is flattened by the limitations of the medium and by an implicitly ironic stance taken by Glass. Thus, we are presented with the completely unsurprising fact that a trendy gallery in Manhattan sells Northwest Coast art, including some masks associated with the hamatsa. Or that one can buy such objects (presumably less fine) at the Vancouver airport.

A more interesting line of inquiry is the way the hamatsa has been portrayed in museums, especially the American Natural History Museum in New York. Glass discusses Boas's work on the dioramas, and how this provided a template for ethnographic museum display across the country. The shots of the old Grand Gallery, taken not long before it closed, will provide a valuable (if somewhat underexposed, due to the gallery's dimness) record of Boas's ethnographic presentation. In the current configuration, the human figures have been removed and artifacts are presented primarily as objets d'art.

The most valuable parts of the film, however, are those set in the village of Alert Bay. As Glass knows, such visual records of native communities are rare, and film can uniquely capture ways in which such communities experience change and continuity. From my perspective, the last scene in the village was particularly interesting. It shows a contemporary “sports day” parade. This is a common late spring celebration in coastal communities (with links to the return of salmon and to the once obligatory celebration of Victoria Day). However, I have never seen the hamatsa featured in such a parade, and was especially taken by the image of the hamatsa dancer doing his performance out the window of an RCMP vehicle! Clearly, the hamatsa takes on new meanings all the time. I suppose this is the significance of the otherwise baffling subtitle, “A Tale of Headhunting.” While Glass certainly refers to a search for the intracranial meaning of this complex symbol, he does a very good job of showing how that meaning is also social in nature.

As a film, In Search of the Hamatsa betrays its origins as a student project. For instance, bridging shots involve such clichés as a jetliner flying overhead, a shot of highway exit signs, and even a sunset. Equally hoary images of anthropological fieldwork invoking the anthropologist as innocent outsider are presented. (In one shot reminiscent of Red Green and a long lineage of comedians before him, Glass is dressed in full commercial fishing gear and holding a fingerling). However, these rough edges aside, the film presents a complex issue succinctly, yet richly. It would make an excellent classroom film, especially as many issues are raised, but none are resolved, thus encouraging active classroom discussion. It is also useful in demonstrating a methodology that anthropologists, especially in North America, are increasingly pursuing. I call this method “archival fieldwork,” where the ethnographer brings materials from the archives to the field, using them as a means to gather new information and to spur discussion. (As such, it is also the basis for a new cycle of archive formation.)

This is a film that should be of interest to a wide range of scholars in anthropology, art history, native studies, dance, and related fields. Its pedagogical value is great, and it would be suitable for high school and above. Perhaps most gratifying is the fact that it demonstrates the relevance of anthropology to contemporary native communities, and to understanding their position in the larger society.