Tools for Carving the Thunderbird

Posted on September 9, 2014

Stories of the Thunderbird in First Nations mythology are popular among the various Aboriginal peoples across North America. In British Columbia’s Northwest Coast, the Thunderbird represents the most powerful supernatural spirit and personifies “chief.” According to legend, Thunderbird lived high in the mountains and fished for killer whales. He is often depicted with his talons clenched into the back of a killer whale, lifting it from the ocean and soaring through the sky much like an eagle would prey upon salmon.

In some Coast Salish myths, the peak Black Tusk in southern BC is said to be his favourite perch. It’s also said the flapping of his wings caused the thunder, and that lightning flashed from his eyes when he blinked.

Because of his special significance, Thunderbird is regularly depicted in the varied and diverse artworks and distinctive styles of the different First Nation groups in BC. In the second of an ongoing series of videos exploring the diverse world of West Coast Aboriginal art, carver Gordon Dick chats about a Thunderbird mask he is working on with fellow artist Andy Everson.

Gordon is Nuu-chah-nulth from the Tsheshaht tribe, who has worked in a variety of mediums, including: painting, drawing, ceramics and woodcarving, the last of which is his greatest passion. The alder wood mask he is creating represents the Thunderbird, but in human form, with a hooked nose to imply the hawk-like beak. Gordon explains that he first “roughs out” the carving using a chainsaw, but then returns to ancient methods handed down from his ancestors to create the piece. Using stone tools and special carving knives that need to be hand-made, Gordon carves the mask in the distinctive style of his people, continuing the legacy, culture and traditions he learned from his grandparents.

If you’re headed to the West Coast of Vancouver Island, you should make a point of stopping by the Ahtsik Art Gallery just outside of Port Alberni.

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