Haunts of the Thunder-Bird
There is a gigantic bird
whose wings spread wide and whose voice at times breaks out in the storm clouds.
Whatever its name happens to be among the many tribes of the North West Coast,
its features are everywhere the same. Its might remains unchallenged. It is the
Thunder-bird of native mythology. Like the golden eagle
it descends from great heights and by preference seeks its food in the waters.
But its powers are magical and spectacular. When it loosens its snake belt and
flings it down, an arrowthe lightningdarts through the air and strikes
its target, a whale in the sea. The Thunder-bird then pounces upon its prey and
carries it to its aerie in the mountains.Something in this belief quite expresses
the individuality of a race whose subsistence is derived from the ocean and whose
ambitions were for efficiency in the whale hunt, success in warfare and prestige
in social functions. But it did not stay very long unutilized. It became the symbol
of the tribes that first claimed it as their own and, within those tribes, of
the families that had established themselves in the leadership. Heraldry being
their current means of expressing such symbols, they resorted to paint and wood
carving, and represented upon their house fronts or posts a bird with outspread
wings, a snake belt and a whale in its talons.Thus it came about that the Thunder-bird
is a clan emblem, and a picturesque one, in several villages of the Nootkas and
the Kwakiutl, on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the main coast northwards.Mr.
Walter J. Phillips recently visited a few of those villages around Alert BayMamalilicoola,
Karlukwees and New Vancouver....., and some of his woodcuts from that neighbourhood
are reproduced in this portfolio.To those unaccustomed to West Coast vistas, these
drawings may convey impressions of a country strangely non-American, with its
sea-coast vegetationsemi-tropical, moist and deep green, its peoplesmall,
squatty and strikingly Mongolian, and its large wood carvings that stand at the
house fronts like monsters and divinities. Yet, such is the West Coasta
panorama of sea and mountains facing the Pacific and borrowing some of its features
from distant regions beyond the watersAsia and the South Seas. Its bluish
hues, soft mists and lofty mountain crests with eternal snows are reminiscent
of Japan. The tangle of its forests suggests the tropical jungle. Cedar and hemlocks
grow to a huge size and clothe those wild shores with evergreens. Maskeg [sic]
carpets the rocky spurs that emerge from the waters in channels and fiords as
complicated as a labyrinth. Ferns and fungi grow extravagantly in the shade. The
devil's club, with its large lustrous leaves and its sharp needles, makes the
bush forbidding, if not impenetrable. A thick undergrowth chokes the Indian trails.
Strange blossoms and luscious fruit greet the eye in the clearingssalal,
crabapples, salmonberries, blue and pink huckleberries, and scented currants.
Salmon and trout in vast numbers spawn in the creeks. Whales, sea-lions and seals
swim in the dark green sea. Deer, elks and grizzly-bears roam in the foothills,
and bearded goats in the mountains.In the midst of this luxuriance once thrived
varied tribes, whose encampments dotted the coves or capped impregnable cliffs.
But the age of their prosperity is now of the past. Just as they had conquered
their domains from earlier occupants, they have passed under the domination of
the white man.For me stand here on the highway of native migrations from Asia.
Drawn from the barren north and the frigid interior, scattered families of nomads
incessantly sought a foothold on the coast, where the climate was balmy and the
food abundant. Their invasions led to incessant raids wherein the weaker and more
peaceful elements had to give way. This process is likely to be an ancient one.
It certainly persisted in historical times, when circumnavigators discovered the
country, in the second half of the eighteenth century. Invaders of the Eagle and
Wolf clans are known to have come down the coast from Alaska and the Yukon in
considerable numbers, during the past two hundred years. Local population, as
a result, was considerably altered. The Eagles and Wolves have spread their territories
southwards, whereas the tribes of the Wonder-bird and the Whale have either been
subdued, assimilated, or have migrated under compulsion farther down the coast.It
is through their decorative arts that the nations of the North West Coast have
achieved world-wide distinction. Their carvings, paintings and textiles compare
favourably with those of aboriginal Mexico, Peru, Africa or the South Seas. They
are extensively represented in the state museums of Europe and America, and their
artists have won recognition for their amazing sense of decorative fitness, sometimes
plastic realism and beauty.In style and contents this native art varies from tribe
to tribe. Yet the North and the South stand in marked contrast. The local traditions
of the Eagles, the Wolves and the Ravens among the northern nations differed from
those of the Thunder-bird and Whale tribes to the South. The aims and skill of
their craftsmen were hardly comparable. The northernersthe Tsimsyan, the
Haidas and the Tlingitwere by far the best carvers and weavers. Their style
was smooth, elaborate and refined. Their most accomplished artists have left works
of art that count among the outstanding creations in the sphere of aboriginal
inspiration. The souther tribes, on the other hand, could not boast such refinement.
The Bellabellas, south of the Skeena river, were painters rather than carvers.
The Kwakiutl and Nootka plastic art always remained very crude compared with that
of the north; and, besides, it reveled in grotesque forms by preference. The beings
it represents often are monsters. When they are animals, the contortions of the
face and body usually belong to caricature rather than sincere realism. This contrast
between the northern and southern areas on the coast is fundamental and it is
based upon cultural differences that are racial and ancient.A commendable feature
of this aboriginal art is that it is truly Canadian in its inspiration, yet universal
in its appeal. It has sprung up wholly from the soil and the sea. Grizzly-bears,
beavers, wolves, whales, seals, eagles and ravens constitute its most familiar
themes. Cedar trees, walrus tusks, moose hair and mountain-goat wool serve as
raw materials. And it is remarkable how skillfully the native artists have adapted
their designs to the exacting nature of the materials, while striving to serve
a public purpose that constantly stimulated their originality and taxed their
creative talents to the utmost.The tribal villages here represented by Mr. Phillips
are among those of the Kwakiutl and belong to the southern group. They are primitive
and colourful, and the Thunder-bird still spreads its protective wings over them,
even after their occupants have died or moved away to other parts in the constantly
shifting stream of life.
by Marius Barbeau
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