By Marius Barbeau
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 arrow—the lightning—darts 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 Bay—Mamalilicoola, 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 vegetation—semi-tropical, moist and deep green, its people—small, squatty and strikingly Mongolian, and its large wood carvings that stand at the house fronts like monsters and divinities. Yet, such is the West Coast—a panorama of sea and mountains facing the Pacific and borrowing some of its features from distant regions beyond the waters—Asia 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 clearings—salal, 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 northerners—the Tsimsyan, the Haidas and the Tlingit—were 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.