Thunderbird – Canada’s Captain Ahab

20170410_133119It is half term….at least it is for Isla. Her international school seems to follow a French term curriculum, which is offset from the British one.


Anyway, she and I bound like eager otters into one of London’s famous black taxis and urge the languid cockney behind the wheel to make all haste for the British Museum. We screech away, tyres smoking, before settling down to a ponderous sashay through London’s central streets, moving slightly slower than a Venetian gondola.

Our 2 mile trip spills us out at the entrance to London’s Number One Tourist Attraction. Partly because it’s free entry, I suspect. That said, despite all the complaints (some justified) of countries for the British to return their cultural heritage it is a place where you can see some of the greatest treasures on earth.

I point out some solid gold doubloons to Isla.

“Oooh, chocolate money?” she chirps.

Not quite. Note to self…buy less chocolate money for our chatty 5 year old.

I won’t go into details about the British Museum, you can look at the website for that. However, there is a temporary exhibit on the upper levels. One I think is necessary for Isla, what with her being half-Canadian. This one tells us all about the Northwest Coast peoples (the coastal strip from Vancouver to Alaska). It’s fascinating. We skip gaily up the museum’s wide stone steps, past the disappointed Japanese tourists who want a peak at their “rooms”; finding their exhibits are closed for renovation.

We have arrived! Thunderbirds are go!

We meander past glass cages with their artefacts: scowling masks, thunderbird motifs, cloth weaving, art, pottery. I read some out to Isla: for thousands of years, Canada’s Northwest Coast peoples (this includes the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish cultures) have lived thoughtfully with the resource rich but often challenging coastal landscape. This respectful relationship with the environment is reinforced by way of life that is expressed and communicated through a vibrant visual language. People have experienced great environmental and societal changes that have caused great devastation. However, the technological innovations, belief systems and artistic forms of expression embodied in their objects demonstrate how people have learnt to cope with these challenges over millennia.

We learn about the potlatch ceremony, a gift-giving feast is at the heart of power and social relationships in Northwest Coast society. These celebratory events involve dances, stories, and the distribution of wealth. In 1885 the Canadian government banned the potlach in a deliberate attempt to suppress Northwest Coast culture and undermine the principle of distributed power which helps make the communities strong. Since the overturning of the potlatch ban in 1951 there has been a resurgence in the practice.

As we wander deeper into the exhibit, Isla excitedly points to a Nuu-chah-nulth weapon depicting a Thunderbird. We peer at it. It’s one collected by Captain James Cook in 1778 from Nooka Sound (readers might recognise that name from the recent T.V series, Taboo, featuring the brooding Tom Hardy). This one is made of wood, steartite, black hair, inlaid snail shell and, curiously, sea otter teeth.

Cool. We investigate further.

It seems that the Thunderbird is often depicted as giant bird-like beings with colossal wings and sharp claws that seem both protective and threatening at the same time. As they are attributed with the ability to either create or destroy, it is believed this dual nature (give life, cause death) has made them a very prominent, powerful symbol. For example, physical endurance and great bravery were required of whalers. Whaling provided a rich supply of resources for the community and was fundamental to both political and spiritual life. Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth oral traditions explain that the Thunderbird, the most renowned whaler, taught them how to whale. Thunderbird’s preferred weapon was a pair of Lightening Snakes, which he threw like a harpoon at his prey, stunning the animal. Immobilised, the whale was then carried off in Thunderbird’s enormous claws. Beat that, Captain Ahab!

Awesome. Take a look at some of what we saw…

The end of the rooms arrives at some Asian motifs; it is not clear to us what the link to Thunderbirds is; but there a darkened case with a scroll that is so fragile it is only lit for a few months a year. We see nothing. Then there is some Japanese/Chinese? Writing and great portrait of a samurai? I know not.

It is time for Isla and I to fight our way outside into the blinking , watery sun with its cyanic skies; maybe to find some comestibles.  If you’re in the area, go see the Canadian Thunderbirds. Not the ones created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. These are real ones


Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Canada, London

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