Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Land of the War Canoes

February 28, 2015

When I lived in Ottawa back in the day I used to take my kids to visit the old Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street. In those days (the early '80s) the museum shared its castle-like building with the Museum of Natural History but we were mainly interested in the First Nations exhibits in the history section. (Subsequently the museum moved to its impressive Douglas Cardinal-designed home in Gatineau and is now called the Canadian Museum of History.)

At the entrance to one of the galleries was a smallish television set where a grainy version of Edward Curtis's 1914 silent movie, In the Land of the Headhunters, was running on continuous loop. Or at least what was left of it. The original film had disappeared after its premier and a damaged, incomplete copy resurfaced in 1947 in a dumpster in Chicago, which is what I and the kids were watching. It was a mesmerizing few minutes of cinema history, with actual Kwakwaka'wakw actors enacting their own story, or so we thought. (You can see snippets of it on YouTube.)

Curtis, of course, was the American photographer whose life work, which was to record the cultures of the First Nations before they "disappeared," was preserved in the multi-volume set of books, The North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930. Needless to say he was wrong about the Aboriginals disappearing, but he took many memorable photographs.

A few years ago I met the Iroquois photographer Jeffrey Thomas who was on his way back from Kwakwaka'wakw territory where he had met some of the elders who actually appeared as actors in Curtis's film, a living link with this first documentary motion picture about indigenous North Americans.

Anyway, I see that the film, now titled In the Land of the War Canoes, has been restored and digitized along with the original musical score and is now available on DVD.

February 10, 2015

I can't allow my pal Brian Busby to walk off into the sunset without an acknowledgement.

Six years ago Brian launched his website, The Dusty Bookcase, dedicated to what I think of as Canadian pulplit but what he calls "the suppressed, ignored and forgotten in Canadian literature." Always entertaining and witty, sometimes surprising, Brian's blog brought to light hundreds of books, mainly pulp fiction, that had been lost to posterity until...

February 4, 2015

Wierd. The CBC on its website recommends 10 books to read for Black History Month, yet as far as I can tell all of the titles are novels, not history.

So let me add to the list a few books that are actually Black history.

First of all, a couple of old chestnuts:

The Blacks in Canada, by Robin Winks: first published in 1971, this classic has a...

January 24, 2015

This past week the news media here in Vancouver have been reporting on the imminent destruction of one of the last, if not the last, squatter cabins that at one time dotted the shoreline of Burrard Inlet. Local jazz legend Al Neil has occupied the cabin out in the Dollarton area of North Vancouver since 1966, latterly with his companion the...

January 20, 2015

Years ago we were driving along the causeway through Stanley Park talking about what to name the new dog when my (then) young son piped up from his booster seat in the rear, "What about Stanley Bark?" It was his first joke.

What brings this reminiscence to mind is that a new issue of Geist magazine has arrived on the newsstands -- making 95 times that the Vancouver-based cultural quarterly has made its way into print since it was founded in 1990 -- and it contains my regular...

January 10, 2015

Not long ago I read Julie Gilmour's fine book, Trouble on Main Street, about the 1907 race riots in Vancouver and their aftermath.

The riots are well known to those of us who live in Vancouver as an embarrassing episode in our city's history. They were spearheaded by something called the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL), lasted two or three days, and involved the destruction of many properties...