At the Edge of the Knife

Indigenous cinema in Britain

Dr Jack Davy (UEA)
Research Associate, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’

Last week I was privileged to introduce the film Edge of the Knife at the Royal Anthropological Institute film festival at the Watershed cinema in Bristol. The film, originally released under its Haida name of SG̲aawaay Ḵ’uuna, was produced, directed and principally funded by the Haida people of the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, and has an entirely Haida cast, speaking exclusively in the Haida language. The film was recently profiled in The Guardian.


The Haida language is almost extinct, with less than twenty native speakers still living, all of them elderly. Less than two hundred years ago there were 50,000 Native Haida people living on the islands and the associated mainland, speaking their language, singing their songs and practising traditional material and ceremonial culture from their totem pole studded longhouse villages.

With the coming of large-scale colonial settlement on their coast, including industrial fishing and logging concerns in the mid-nineteenth century, the Haida were almost exterminated. Smallpox ravaged their uninoculated communities – in 1862-63 alone, 72% of the Haida population died in a single epidemic. [1] In its wake came missionaries, Indian Agents and the full oppressive apparatus of the Canadian colonial government. Children were abducted and sent to brutal residential schools to the south, villages were demolished, masks and drums were confiscated and burned. In 1884, a restrictive law formally outlawed Haida economic and social systems by prohibiting the potlatch, the celebratory gatherings of Haida people at which Haida affairs were settled through negotiation.

In 1882 a Canadian government report stated that

The decrease of this once powerful tribe, formerly many thousand in number, now reduced to about 300. At the several deserted or partially occupied villages evidence of their former number and power is everywhere visible in the numerous old houses, crest poles and carved graves, while the population of the villages at present inhabited grows yearly less, the young men and women migrating to the towns and the older ones dying off. I was particularly struck, when visiting the several villages, by the small number of children. [2]

The loss of so much was devastating for a society which had relied completely on oral histories for its identity, history and social relationships. A modern elder commented of that time that “Smallpox running through our people can be likened to a fire burning a library of 30,000 books. Our elders are our books of knowledge”.[3] Since the repeal of the laws prohibiting traditional culture in 1951, it has been a long and difficult road for the Haida to recover what they lost, and rebuild their social and economic systems to live in the modern, transcultural society of contemporary Canada. This film is the latest effort, and it makes a stunning intervention into the trajectory of Haida recovery.

Set in the 1850s, before the epidemic, it tells the story of two families who travel to their autumn fishing grounds to prepare for winter. While there a poor decision by one man, Adiits’ii, leads to the death of a child. Horrified by what has happened, Adiits’ii flees into the forest and is overcome by the spirits which live there, becoming Gaagiixid, the dangerous wild man of Haida legend. The story of his survival and ultimate reckoning with the family he left behind are an epic and fascinating tale beautifully executed in the forests above Yan, an ancient village site on Haida Gwaii.

Edge of the Knife. Photograph: Niijang Xyaalas Productions

It was my great pleasure at the event to introduce William Russ, who played Kwa, the father of the deceased child, in the film. William is a musician and youth leader on Haida Gwaii, who made an impassioned and powerful speech after the film in which he and much of the audience of 400 were brought to tears as he acknowledged the power inherent in the ability of the Haida to tell their own stories in their own language and thereby perhaps save them both. At the culmination of the event, William was presented with the RAI President’s Award for best anthropological film, a beautiful vase of blue Bristol glass.

‘Beyond the Spectacle’ has previously commented on the growing importance of Indigenous voices in film, in particular with our interview last summer with Eugene Brave Rock, the Blackfoot actor who played Napi, the trickster deity and First World War scout, in the blockbuster film Wonder Woman, produced in the UK in 2016.

What we haven’t previously highlighted, however, is the extent to which Indigenous-made films are starting to become more available to the British public. These are a million miles from the stereotypical tropes of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ in Hollywood cinema, and instead tell the real stories of Native North American communities, traditional and modern. Indigenous Americans telling Indigenous American stories in Indigenous American languages in Britain is a huge advance for Native presence in Britain, and something ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ has been proud to engage with.

2019 is seeing a significant increase in the availability of Indigenous movies for British audiences, and we encourage all of our readers and supporters to visit these films, support Native American cinema and encourage more Indigenous communities, more budding Indigenous filmmakers and more Indigenous production studios to take on these projects and tell their stories to the wider world.

Upcoming Indigenous cinema:

  • Canada Now is hosting a Canadian film festival in London from 24-28th April, including screenings of Edge of the Knife, followed by a tour across Britain during May.
  • The Origins festival, run bi-annually by Border Crossings, will take place in June at a series of sites across London. Watch out for films like Indian Horse and If the Weather Permits as well as the first Native director to stage a production at the Globe Theatre and a host of talks, performances and art shows by Native American artists.
  • On 2nd July, the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, in association with Native Spirit, will be showing ‘Edge of the Knife’, following the Endangered Languages workshop at the University of Leeds – more details to follow.
  • Later in the year, 12-20th October, the annual Native Spirit film festival will host a wide range of Indigenous film-makers and performers. The full schedule is still under development, but details can be found here.



[1] Boyd, Robert. 1999. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874. Seattle: University of Washington Press, p.229

[2] Powell, I. W. 1882. “General Report on Indian Affairs in British Columbia for the year 1882-1883” in Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, 1882. Ottawa, p.142

[3] Wilson, Barb. 2009. “Sometimes, it’s all right there” in Haida Laas: Journal of the Haida Nation. March 2009, p.6


2 responses to “At the Edge of the Knife

  1. I’m desperate to watch this film. Where will it be shown in the UK. Is it possible to get a copy.

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