James Cook’s Thunderbird club

What is it?

This ceremonial yew-wood weapon – dating to the late 18th century – was made by the Nuu-cha-nulth people of the Pacific North-west Coast of Canada. Measuring 25cm in length, the club handle is decorated with black human hair and inlaid with snail-shell opercula and the teeth of sea otters. A curved steatite stone protrudes downward from the handle to form the aggressively protruding tongue of a carved figure, tapering upwards to depict the beak of a bird on the reverse side.

IMAGE: British Museum.

The bottom of the handle is decorated with a small owl atop a stylised double face, while Thunderbird – a legendary creature that symbolises power and strength for many of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific coast – appears on the top of the club.

Where was it found, and when?

The Thunderbird club was collected by the British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778, during his voyage in Nootka Sound (western coast of Canada) between the territories of the Nuu-cha-nulth and the Makah. Sailing in the sloops Resolution and Discovery, Cook and his crew entered the sound while on an expedition to find a western portal to the North-west Passage. In March 1778, they became the first Europeans on record to land on Vancouver Island.

In the years following Cook’s arrival, Nootka Sound became an international theatre for political dispute over colonial land-ownership and access to the lucrative maritime trade. By the end of the century, Britain, Spain, Russia, and the United States were all vying for control, and Nootka Sound became the busiest seaport on the western coast of the Americas.

Why does it matter?

The weapon is one of the oldest well-preserved artefacts of the North-west Coast peoples, and dates to a crucial transitional period of early European contact and socioeconomic transformation.

It also bears a stunning representation of Thunderbird, a particularly important supernatural being in the Pacific North-west, also found in various forms in indigenous iconography from the American South-west, the Atlantic Coast, the Great Plains, and the Great Lakes. According to Nuu-cha-nulth and Makah oral traditions, Thunderbird is the most renowned whaler, responsible for teaching humans this dangerous but rewarding practice. Armed with a pair of cosmic harpoons (Lightning Snakes), Thunderbird stuns a whale, before carrying it off in its enormous claws.

Whaling provided a rich supply of resources and was fundamental to the political and spiritual life of many communities. Paddling in swift cedar canoes, whalers used harpoons tipped with mussel shell, antler, and eventually iron heads. These were tied to plaited ropes with seal-skin floats attached that would provide drag to tire the whale. A whaler and his wife underwent elaborate ritual preparation before a hunt to connect them with the whale and give them influence over its spirit. For the North-west Coast peoples, all living forms in the landscape have an everlasting life-force.

Thunderbird remains a celebrated figure today in art, songs, and cultural festivals. The Thunderbird Dance, for example, is a highlight of the annual Makah Days festival in Neah Bay, Washington.

The Thunderbird club is on display as part of the British Museum’s exhibit Where the Thunderbird lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America until 27 August 2017.
TEXT: Nicholas Bartos.