Don’t let the Thunderbird fool you.
If you go looking for the supernatural avian figure in Coast Salish art, you’ll typically find it situated at the top of the composition with its wings outspread majestically. Atop its head, to signal the bird’s supremacy over the natural world, sits an impressive-looking crown. Under its wings are writhing lightning snakes, and when it takes flight you can hear each flap like the boom of thunder.
Watching over humanity from its lair on Black Tusk peak in Squamish, the Thunderbird shuns human company and routinely dines on its favourite meal: killer whale. If you get too close to his cave, he’ll set off a snowy avalanche, but if you want to push that preening poser off his pedestal, all you have to do is knock off his crown — suddenly you realize it’s just an eagle in disguise.
The Thunderbird represents many things to the Indigenous artists who conjure it, and takes on different characteristics in the various tales passed down from oral storytelling traditions, but it’s generally agreed that it’s a symbol of the supernatural.
People taking in the artwork are invited to ponder the metaphysical mysteries of life, including the most fundamental question of all: what happened before we were born, and what will happen after we die?
To capture and embody this eternal question, the Thunderbird is depicted with three distinct tail feathers. One feather represents the past, the middle one represents the present, and the final one represents the future — illustrating how all three are linked into one greater whole.
I learned most of this information from Squamish artist Rick Harry, otherwise known as Xwalacktun.
The prolific sculptor, designer, and teacher has work on display all over the province, and in recent years has become one of the most prominent and celebrated Canadian artists of his generation. He explained to me that it’s the stories behind his work, like the stories of the Thunderbird, which string the generations of his community together and links them across the impossible void of time.
He shared how important it was for him to receive this wisdom and knowledge from his ancestors, and then to pass it on to students that will carry it to future generations. And in chatting with him, I realized how rare it is in contemporary society for us to genuinely think beyond our own lifespan.
In western society, as we’ve become increasingly invested in the cult of the individual, many Canadians have been cut off from their familial, cultural, and spiritual traditions. Institutions that used to provide followers with a foundational sense of meaning in their lives, like Christianity, have been largely abandoned in favour of a consumer worldview dictated by corporate concerns and capitalism.
Instead of saints, we have superheroes, and instead of Jesus Christ, we have Ronald McDonald. Your average person looking for spiritual sustenance doesn’t have the ancestral support they once did because we’ve discarded much of the wisdom of past generations.
So instead of knowing about heaven or reincarnation or grace, instead we’re experts in social media and celebrity gossip — more preoccupied with enjoying the moment than pondering whether anyone will remember us 500 years after we’re dead. All the while the Thunderbird looms.
This is a topic that’s been omnipresent in my headspace since I recently became a father of two, an experience that fundamentally transformed the way I think about my life.
Suddenly I’m preoccupied with the past while simultaneously being fixated on the future, barely stopping for a moment’s breath in the boring old present. As I play a game with my daughter Celista, for instance, I’ll end up wondering whether my parents played the same game with me back in the day. Talking with my wife, we comb through stories of our distant past to glean insight into how best to take care of a baby today. Which traumas were caused by what, and which mistakes can we avoid repeating?
That will somehow lead me to thinking about Celista’s life after we’re gone, and whether some version of us will be able to look over her. I’m constantly fantasizing about leaving her notes or videos or scrapbooks to keep my memory alive, as if I’m already anticipating my exit — I’m only 37! This may be simply dictated by age, but I’m also curious what my ultimate legacy will be. What kinds of lives will my children have, and how can I manipulate their trajectories into positive directions? And most importantly, where can I go for guidance on these questions?
For Harry, he can rest easy knowing that his story-infused work is now scattered all over the planet for countless people to encounter. Viewers, whether they realize it or not, will all be connected to the ancestors that conjured the mythical Thunderbird in the first place. They can commune with life’s deep truths, allowing their awareness to expand beyond the reaches of their lifetimes. As the Coast Salish art tradition continues to pick up globally, more and more people will be reconnected with voices from the past that we’d long forgotten about, and they’ll have the privilege of carrying that knowledge into the future.
Can you hear the Thunderbird singing?
Will Johnson is a journalist and father who freelances for The Squamish Chief.