Thunderbird Paddle by Bill Henderson, Kwakwaka'wakw
Paddle depicting Thunderbird, c. 2000
by Bill Henderson, Kwakwaka'wakw
yellow cedar, pigment
56” long x 9” wide x 1.5” deep
The Thunderbird is a mythical creature that is said to be the dominating force of all-natural activity. Located in the Pacific North Western Mountains, the Thunderbird creates booms of thunder by flapping his wings and shoots bolts of lightning from his eyes, when hunters got too close to his home. In this depiction, Thunderbird is transforming into a human.
By creating rainstorms he waters the earth, making it possible for vegetation to grow. He is said to be so large that his wingspan is as large as two canoes, and that he could easily carry a killer whale out of the water with his talons. Only the most powerful and successful chiefs and families use the Thunderbird in their crest.
Bill Henderson was born into the Weiwaikum band of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation on March 21, 1950. Bill is one of nine sons of the late Chief Sam Henderson and May Quocksister Henderson. As a child, Bill learned the ways of an artist by watching his father, a self-taught carver. Sam and May Henderson are well-remembered as protectors of ancient customs, and they instilled in all their children respect for their cultural heritage.
At age seven, Bill carved a little whale plaque for his Grade 1 teacher; it is still proudly displayed at Campbellton School. Young Bill would draw and paint stylized figures from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology on pieces of leftover plywood in his father’s shed – a shed he has carved in now for nearly half a century.
In his late teens, Bill took up carving more seriously and at 19 he began to sell his work. Since then, he has honed his skills while preserving the family’s traditional style in carvings, dance masks, paddles, bowls and plaques. While he was always drawn to painting and the culture of carving, Bill never dreamed that his work would become sought-after by collectors from around the world.
Over the years, Bill has carved over a thousand masks for private collectors and ceremonial dances. The masks represent figures from Indian mythology and bring from images long ago to life with music, movement and song. Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial regalia is among the most elaborate of all the Northwest Coast tribes.
A professional Native dancer, Bill performs at numerous potlatches and ceremonies. The symbolism of the mystic character he portrays in dance can be seen in his art, be it the Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven, the Grizzly Bear, or the Sea-Monster. The dance ‘Hunter of the Woods’ was gifted to Bill by his father during a potlatch; it belongs to him alone.
The Museum at Campbell River has Bill’s ceremonial masks on permanent display. One large, powerful mask describes the legend of Yagis, or "Bad Thing from the Sea", a powerful sea-monster that causes storms and threatens fishers. In the museum’s Sewidi collection, Bill’s "Octopus" mask features eight tentacles that can each be manipulated by the dancer.
An achievement he is proud of is the creation of ceremonial regalia for other chiefs' lineages. On nearby Quadra Island, Bill’s art is part of the ceremonial regalia exhibit at the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre, and a Henderson totem graces the museum entrance. At Ishikari, Japan, one of Bill’s totems stands in front of city hall - a ‘sister city’ gift from Campbell River in 1993.
Three majestic Henderson totems stand at the entrance to Wei Wai Kum House of Treasures at Discovery Harbour Shopping Centre. One 30-foot pole is topped by a powerful mythical bird, with a whale and a bear holding a salmon beneath. A beaming sun figure tops the larger 40-foot pole, with a man beneath holding copper – a sign of wealth. The third pole is topped by an eagle with the three-headed serpent beneath. The heads on a totem are large to give the creature a fearsome look, while the body is small. Traditional Kwakwaka’wakw colors of deep green, red and black predominate.
The creative traditions of the Henderson family are now being nurtured by a third generation; Bill mentored his nephews, Junior and Greg. Using methods handed down through time, they still fashion all their own tools; blades from old net fishing knives are bent, tempered, sharpened and then attached to cedar handles with fishing twine.