Groundbreaking filmmaker an adventurer at heart

The Interior News, July 21, 2004.

In 2004, Howard Ennis was living in the Kispiox Valley. He told me the story of how he first came to the north – to be one of the first people to film the First Nations people of British Columbia. This was published in the Interior News on July 21, 2004. It never went online, so the following story is published in full now:

WHEN Howard Ennis was a young boy in 1930s Pennsylvania, he used to read books by Canadian naturalist and author Ernest Thompson Seton, and dream about having similar adventures in the northern wilderness.

He was so keen he would plan small-scale, outdoor adventures and drag his older brother along.

Ennis says he was always the brains of the operation and his brother, the brawn.

Since then, Ennis has been the brains of many operations. Most notably, he was among the first to film the native people of northwestern British Columbia.

The two documentaries he made, The People of the Skeena, and Skeena River Trapline, will be shown this week at the Roi Theatre in Smithers.

When Ennis was older he retained his thirst for adventure, even after winning a scholarship to go to one of the top preparatory schools in the U.S., the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

His mother’s family were sixth generation river pilots, but that didn’t appeal to him. “I could have been a river pilot if I wanted but I didn’t want to spend my life going up the Dell River,” he says.

Ennis had other rivers in mind, rivers far from Pennsylvania.

While finishing up his military service at the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C., in 1946, he made friends with an artist for National Geographic Magazine called W. Langdon Kihn.

They found that they both shared a passion for studying native culture.

Ennis had already decided he wanted to film native people living in traditional settings.

“I was always fascinated by them. I’d seen some pictures of British Columbia and I thought ‘That’s where I want to go’.”

Kihn had explored a lot of the North American continent, one trip bringing him from New York to Prince Rupert.

“He was a very friendly guy, he used to invite me to stay with him.

“Finally, I said ‘Where should I make my headquarters?’ and without hesitation he said ‘Hazelton’. I’d never heard of it. So I bought my ticket to get up here.”

Ennis spent about three days on the train with his Swiss Bolex 16 mm camera under his arm and adventure in his heart.

He arrived in Hazelton in the fall of 1947 and began filming right away.

“When I was filming I often thought how fortunate I was to be here taking these pictures,” he says. “I thought there’s so many people who are shut in and never get to see these beautiful areas.

“I was not only thrilled to be able to be there, but also to be able to have other people see the pictures.”

Though Ennis’s headquarters were in Hazelton, he didn’t limit himself to one area. He went to the Nass Valley, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Tweedsmuir Park, the Kispiox Valley and the Skeena Trapline.

He says watching the films now bring back memories, though not all were caught on tape.

“Often the most interesting things happen when the sun isn’t shining and you can’t take a picture. Something fascinating would happen.

“So the films are just a smattering of what actually happened, and it was the whole experience that really thrilled me, almost like I was destined to do it. I just had it in me.”

One of the documentaries details the Skeena trapline. He filmed a Gitxsan man, Ben MacKenzie, as he travelled the line. Ennis says he and MacKenzie became good friends.

“You would think that we would run out of things to talk about, but we never did,” he marvels.

When Ennis travelled at this time, he often found himself to be the only non-native person in the crowd.

He said at one point he went to a meeting for natives across the north, which was held on the Queen Charlotte Islands. There, he remembers an old Nisga’a chief telling him that if they’d have met even 50 years ago, they would have been trying to kill each other.

“It was a fascinating experience,” Ennis says.

Despite the hard work that went into filming, Ennis wasn’t sure he would have a buyer for the pictures. Because he was an American citizen, the National Film Board of Canada said they couldn’t employ him.

“I was not at all certain at that time what I would do with those films. I wanted to sell them, but not necessarily to the film board.”

But the film board urged Ennis to take the trip to Hazelton and to keep sending reports.

When he returned to the U.S., he still hadn’t finished the negotiations for the sale of his film.

But officials at the film board had obviously taken an interest in the material.

Jim Beveridge, a director at the National Film Board at that time, invited Ennis to Ottawa over the Christmas holidays in 1948.

There, Ennis was presented with a $6,000 cheque, and was paraded around to a gaggle of parties.

Ennis and Beveridge became quite close, with Beveridge becoming the producer of the films. When the documentaries were finished, Ennis says Beveridge turned to him and said: “What you’ve done will never be repeated.”

“And I didn’t think it was all that special. I just did what I wanted to do.

“But to make the plans, to come up here, to dedicate myself for a year to it – and I actually worked for the lecture bureau in New York for a while – I guess was a bit out of the ordinary.”

Ennis made a few more films, most notably, the first colour film of the Grand Falls (now Churchill Falls) on the Hamilton River (now Churchill River) in Labrador before a large-scale hydroelectric project diverted the river and destroyed the falls as they once were.

But Ennis didn’t become a full-time filmmaker. Instead, he went to Columbia University to study law and later became a lawyer in Pennsylvania.

His law office had the lowest pay schedule of any law office in the U.S.

Ennis said it kept him busy for his entire career.

“From the day I went in there to the day I hung up my shingle, I was going like a house on fire,” he says.

“I liked helping people, and when you like helping people, you always have lots to do.”

Even though he’d spent much of his life in Pennsylvania, after retiring from law, he knew he wanted to move somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

With his daughter, he travelled all over the west of the continent, from Alaska to Idaho, to Washington State. Finally, in 1978, he came to the Kispiox Valley.

“I was all by myself the day I went to my present ranch and I thought ‘this is what I’ve been waiting for’.”

Ennis has been living in the Kispiox Valley since 1979. He no longer practises law but he says he’s not completely retired. “I don’t think a person who has as many interests as I do ever fully retires,” he says.


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