Nanook of the North (1922) dir. Robert J. Flaherty 

The iconic Nanook of the North has been a staple in film schools for decades, and was just voted 7th-best documentary film of all time by the BFI.

Even though Nanook’s reputation as an artistic masterpiece are secure, its reputation as a piece of ethnography or proto-ethnography has waxed and waned since it was made in 1922. The film itself hasn’t changed, but the way critics examine it has.

It’s important to look at Nanook in the context of similar work outside the world of film. I examined late 19th and early 20th Century portraits of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis, put on display at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and held in books in the museum’s library.

Both Flaherty’s and Curtis’s work went through three primary phases of evaluation:

1) Buying into the myth

In 1907, Curtis published “The American Indian,” to the acclaim of art critics, ethnographers, history buffs and to the general American public. He sold hundreds of sets of the photos, which were complete with descriptions of how Native Americans were said to live, hunt, believe and die. They bought into Curtis’s depictions entirely.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the forward Volume I:

“In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. All serious students are to be congratulated because he is putting his work in permanent form; for our generation offers the last chance for doing what Mr. Curtis has done…. e has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.”

The New York Times gushed:

“Photo-History” is the apt word which has been coined to describe the work which Edward S. Curtis is doing for the North American Indian. Nothing just like it has ever before been attempted for any people. Some slight inkling of its value, both artistic and ethnographic, has been given by a few articles and pictures published in magazines and newspapers.”

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was released in 1922, claiming it was a reflection of real life in the arctic. He sold his work in the same way Curtis sold his — as a picture of a vanishing people.

“What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible—before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well,” he wrote in his memoir. Flaherty presented his film as a look at the “actual arctic.” (Menand)

“Those who have praised Flaherty see him as a great artist and observer, or as Calder-Marshall called him, “an innocent eye,” a man who filmed out of love not greed. As Richard Corliss said, Flaherty “simply saw the truth and brought it home.” (Rony 116)

2) Criticism

A later generation of photographers and filmmakers turned a critical eye towards the depictions created by Curtis and Flaherty. They saw them as deceptive and fundamentally dishonest.

It was revealed that Curtis had essentially faked some of his most iconic images. The Native Americans he photographed weren’t people he stumbled across while exploring the West — they were modern people he had paid to dress up like their ancestors. Or, more accurately, dress up like Curtis’s romantic image of their ancestors. New tepees and war clothing were manufactured as props for his work.

The most infamous example is below. Image One is the original. Before publication, Curtis erased the clock and toned the photograph to give it a more “authentic” look. This is a typical example of Curtis’s manipulation. Curtis wasn’t trying to reenact Native American culture before European contact. He was staging a vision of Hollywood Indians.

“Generally the objects removed were of White manufacture. Among these were wagons, parasols, hats, suspenders, and product labels…. Assuming that adherence to the ethnographic present, and not simple deception, was Curtis’s motivation for retouching, it is interesting to note other evidence of acculturation left untouched. Machine-woven fabrics, rifles, medals and other jewelry of White manufacture, sheep, and horses appear frequently. These items, unlike those which Curtis had retouched out of his photographs, were all common in popular imagery of “Indianness” and therefore would not have appeared out of place to most Whites.” (Lyman 76)

Flaherty’s Nanook used many of the same tricks. In one scene, Allakariallak, the man who Flaherty calls “Nanook,” pretends he does not know what a gramophone is, and bites it. In the film’s most dramatic scene, Nanook hunts and kills a seal using a spear. Roger Ebert thinks he may have used a gun off-camera. Flaherty even had his talent build a special igloo missing a wall so his camera could show the interior.

These tricks bothered mid-20th Century filmmakers who championed vérité – and they (rightly) bothered my journalism professors in college. But the real deception was the way in which Native Americans were presented as a prehistoric “other,” rather than part of a living culture.

“…the Inuit portrayed in Nanook thus were using guns, knew about gramophones, wore Western clothing, and, although many had died from Western diseases, certainly were not vanishing” (Rony 109)

3) Rehabilitation

21st Century concerns of cultural imperialism, exploitation and appropriation would seem to convict both Curtis and Flaherty. But the past few decades have actually helped to rehabilitate their works.

The change has come about from a different way of seeing authorship. Rather than looking at Native Americans as victims of auteurs, contemporary criticism looks at them as participants in the creation of their myths.

“It is one of the proposals of the present study that The North American Indian should, to some extent at least, be read as a work of Native American autobiography and visual self-presentation, and that the hundreds of Native individuals who worked with Curtis during roughly three decades be considered its coauthors or co-creators.” (Zamir 10)

“De Heusch explained that the Inuit actors in Flaherty’s film willingly play-acted for the camera, a technique which he characterized as ethnographically sound, using French anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s use of role-play as an example.” (Rony 116)

Although the props Curtis used were manufactured, they were made largely by the Native Americans playing the roles. An exception – in this photograph of a Yebechai dancer, Curtis was asked to make the costume after consulting with the dancer, to ensure its use would not be sacreligious. Flaherty, for his part, showed rushes to his Inuit crew and they helped to print and develop the film.

The portrayal of the Native Americans, from this point of view, is subjective from a shared point-of-view between the White Europeans and the Native Americans themselves.

“Part of the appeal of participant obsevation is that it purportedly enables the Ethnographer to show how the anthropologist sees the native, but how the native sees himself. Flaherty encouraged the believe that he was doing just that. He explained, “I wanted to show the Innuit [sic]. And I wanted to show them, not from the civilized point of view, but as they saw themselves, as ‘we the people.” (Rony 119)

We can think of parallels in other cultural exchanges. The “Celtic Revival” of the 19th and 20th Centuries was initiated by the English ruling class, who had been using Celtic myths in their own legends for centuries. The romantic image of the Celts as portrayed in novels and films is far from historically accurate. But this is not usually seen as a negative example of appropriation, because modern Celts were full participants in the myth-making. It was how the Celts “saw themselves.”

But, I don’t know how well this analogy applies. Just how much did and could the Native American subjects portrayed in these works really control and participate in the process? It seems as though there was a fundamental power imbalance between the owners of the works – Curtis and Flaherty – and those who helped create them.


“AMERICAN INDIAN IN “PHOTO HIST.” The New York Times, 6 Jun 1908, sec. Saturday Review of Books.

Duncan, Dean W.. “Nanook of the North.” Criterion Collection. 11 Jan 1999. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

Ebert, Roger. “Nanook of the North.” Roger Ebert. 25 Sep 2005. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

King, Gilbert. “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project.” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Mar 2012, (accessed Jun).

Lyman, Christopher M.. and Edward Curtis. The Vanishing Race and Other I.: Pantheon Books in association. 1982.

Menand, Louis. “Nanook and Me.” The Atlantic, 9 Aug 2004, (accessed Jun).

Rony, Fatimah T. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, a.: Duke University Press. 1996.

Zamir, Shamoon The Gift of the Face Portraitu.: UNC Press Books. 2014.


Related Article

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.