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Bioscope en l'an 1900
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Beauvais, Johnny. 1985. Kahnawake: le Canada vu par les Mohawks et les aventures de Big John Canadian. Kahnawake: Khanata Industries.
McNally, Michael D. 2006. “The Indian Passion Play: Contesting the Real Indian in Song of Hiawatha Pageants, 1901 – 1965”. American Quarterly, Vol. 58, no. 1 (March), p. 105-136.
Indigenous Peoples in Film
An Artificial Exoticism
From the very beginning, “exotic” images have contributed to the allure of cinema. Depictions of indigenous peoples during the Silent Era were a part of this trend. Rather than using the film’s formidable ability to document the traditions and ways of life of various aboriginal communities in Canada, the first animated views usually limited themselves to simply reproduce clichés and stereotypes sensationalized by the media and popular forms of entertainment.
Western-themed “wild west” shows appearing across North America and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which employed Native American actors and performers, were frequently the subjects of animated views. One of the very first views ever made, for Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1894, featured performers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In 1913, members of Dickey’s Wild West Show, hired for the summer by Montreal’s Dominion Park, shot a Western in Quebec; however, even with their experience in cinema (including a collaboration with the American producer Selig and the employment of future screen star Tom Mix), the venture failed. The film was never screened in a theatre.
Another kind of outdoor show popular at the time, pageants, were also the subject of many views. In fact, Canada’s first fiction view, shot by Joseph Rosenthal, was a recording of pageants inspired by the epic poem Hiawatha, penned by the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (published in 1855). Hiawatha’s story ends with an encounter between romanticized Native Americans (engendering the myth of the “noble savage”) and the first white missionaries. Written and directed by an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Louis Olivier Armstrong, the Hiawatha pageants were presented every summer between 1901 and 1918 by the Ojibwa of the Desbarats reserve in Ontario.
The Ojibwa of Desbarats were not the only Native Americans to participate in shows at the turn of the 20th century. A number of actors and performers came from other Native American communities – and earned their living “playing the role of Indians”. Located near Montreal, Mohawks from the Kahnawake Reserve regularly appeared in pageants and “wild west shows”. The most well-known of these actors (including Joe ‘Whiteagle’ Monique and his wife Moneola, Chief Joe Beauvais and old ‘Scar Face’) regularly performed outside of Canada as well. Even though the precise details surrounding the production of Lumière’s Indian Dance (shot by the cinematographe of Gabriel Veyre) are not known, it seems likely that the Mohawks appearing in the film were part of this group of actors. The costumes they wore were obviously stage costumes and not typical clothing.
For many years, Kahnawake Mohawks also collaborated on various pageants with Louis Olivier Armstrong. They participated most notably in the impressive pageants surrounding Quebec City’s three hundredth anniversary celebrations in 1908. In 1911, they presented several tableaux from the Hiawatha pageants on the grounds of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association for the occasion of King George V’s coronation. The tableaux were shot in Kinemacolor by London’s Natural Colour Kinematograph, again by invitation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and shown for several months at the Princess theatre in Montreal. These images were also included in the film Canada: Nova Scotia to British Columbia, in which descriptions of the images were presented in a misleading manner to make them more attractive to audiences eager for exoticism; in fact, the Kinematograph catalogue lists them as having been shot on a real Indian reservation and depicting “ritual ceremonies of the Iroquois Indians.” Mohawks made several other screen appearances over the following years. In 1912 and 1913, they worked in productions from Montreal’s British American Film Manufacturing and appeared in Wolfe or the Conquest of Quebec, a major five-reel production shot in the Quebec City region by the American company Kalem.
However, by 1910 Canadian landscapes were being used less and less frequently by the film industry. Films were being shot with more regularity in American studios, which were gradually relocating far from the Canadian border, to a place that would be known as “Tinseltown” – Hollywood, California. White actors dressed in “Indian” make-up became the norm in increasingly popular Westerns and “Northwest dramas” (essentially, Westerns with Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers instead of cowboys) which Hollywood came to mass produce.
Ethnographic Fictions
Some films boasted having an ethnographic dimension. This was particularly the case with In the Land of the Head Hunters, shot in 1914 by renowned photographer Edward S. Curtis in collaboration with members of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes in British Columbia. Of special note is the fact that Curtis provided the Kwakwaka’wakw (who played all the roles in the film) an opportunity to perform several traditional dances and rituals forbidden at the time by the Canadian government. Nevertheless, the film relied heavily on a rather conventional melodramatic storyline. In addition, Curtis avoided setting the story in a specific place and time;it unfolds in a generic community in the West, in a distant past before the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. Accordingly, despite some excellent qualities, In the Land of the Head Hunters is not considered a faithful representation of Kwakwaka’wakw culture.
Even so, Curtis’ photography and cinematography went on to influence a prospector by the name of Robert J. Flaherty. In 1913, Flaherty began taking motion picture cameras on his expeditions to the Canadian arctic. Flaherty received financial assistance from Sir William Mackenzie, the main developer for Canadian Northern Railway, and by the Revillon Frères in New York, Hudson Bay Company’s main competitor in the fur trade.
In 1920 and 1921, Flaherty shot a six-reel feature-length film, Nanook of the North, depicting the life of an Inuit family on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec. For the first time, film goers saw a walrus hunt, the building of an igloo and other facets of Arctic life. The film was very successful upon its release in 1922. (For unknown reasons, Nanook was not screened in Quebec before 1924.) Nanook introduced the Inuit peoples to the rest of the world and marked an important moment in documentary history. However, many reproached Flaherty for manipulating events and misrepresenting Inuit culture through the staging of several important sequences. For instance, Nanook was in fact an Inuk by the name of Allariallak. Unfortunately, Allariallak did not benefit from the success of Nanook of the North. He died of hunger in a hunting expedition soon after its release.