HOW THE THUN­DER­BIRD CAME TO UBC

Trek Magazine - - Late Return - BY SHEL­DON GOLD­FARB, PHD’92, MAS’96

The Thun­der­bird is a su­per­nat­u­ral crea­ture which pro­duces thun­der by flap­ping its wings and light­ning by open­ing and clos­ing its eyes. It can also beat its enemies with its wings and rend them with its talons.

In Novem­ber 1933, the sports staff of the Ubyssey pub­lished an ar­ti­cle with the fan­ci­ful ti­tle “Zoo­log­i­cal Cog­nomen Needed for Our Ath­letic Teams,” which be­gan:

“Stu­dents of U.B.C., are you aware that our in­sti­tu­tion is lack­ing an im­por­tant phase of col­lege life? So im­por­tant is this de­fi­ciency that one won­ders how it has gone un­no­ticed. While other univer­si­ties pos­sess ad­mirable mas­cots, nick­names, or what have you, for their ath­letic teams, we have none. Why should not U.B.C. take its place among the horde of Bears, Tro­jans, Huskies, Mules, Muskrats, Gi­raffes, and other won­der­ful ag­gre­ga­tions that ca­vort each Satur­day.”

The ar­ti­cle called on stu­dents to sug­gest a name for UBC sports teams – some­thing “that roars, screams, growls, or at least shrieks” – and jok­ingly of­fered “a com­plete set of sea­son tick­ets (used)” for the best sug­ges­tion.

Per­haps be­cause of the joc­u­lar tone of the ar­ti­cle, few sug­ges­tions were sub­mit­ted. Among these early en­tries were Li­ons, Pacific Pachy­derms, and (an en­try ahead of its time) Griz­zlies.

Per­turbed by the lack of re­sponse, the Ubyssey sports de­part­ment pro­duced another ar­ti­cle, this time with a more se­ri­ous tone, call­ing for names “in keep­ing with the his­tory or ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion of our Univer­sity.”

At first, there were again only a few en­tries, among which were Cy­clones, Seag­ulls, and Musqueams, the lat­ter sug­gested be­cause the cam­pus was lo­cated on tra­di­tional Musqueam land. Then on Novem­ber 24, 1933, Clarence Idyll, a mem­ber of the sports staff, sug­gested in a let­ter to the edi­tor that the name Thun­der­bird be adopted, not­ing that it is “com­mon in BC In­dian mythol­ogy and seems ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Per­haps the Thun­der­bird name was thought ap­pro­pri­ate for sports teams be­cause of its pow­er­ful con­no­ta­tions. In Abo­rig­i­nal mythol­ogy, the Thun­der­bird is a su­per­nat­u­ral crea­ture that pro­duces thun­der by flap­ping its wings and light­ning by open­ing and clos­ing its eyes. It can also beat its enemies with its wings and rend them with its talons.

The Abo­rig­i­nal con­nec­tion also must have seemed ap­pro­pri­ate. From very early times at UBC, Abo­rig­i­nal names were used in var­i­ous con­texts, and in ways that to­day would be con­sid­ered cul­tur­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate. For in­stance, one of the early UBC stu­dent cheers be­gan with an in­vo­ca­tion of the names of var­i­ous tribes (“Kit­si­lano, Capi­lano...”). And the stu­dent an­nual for­merly pub­lished by the Alma Mater So­ci­ety was known as The Totem.

How­ever, the name Thun­der­bird was not in­stantly ac­cepted once it had been pro­posed. In fact, in late Novem­ber and De­cem­ber 1933, there were sud­denly a num­ber of new en­tries in the con­test to name the sports teams, in­clud­ing silly ones like Mo­rons, Sea Slugs, and Pee­wits; ones that were al­ready used by other univer­si­ties, such as Huskies, Cougars, and Wild­cats; and ones that the con­test ad­min­is­tra­tors said were not ap­pro­pri­ate to UBC, such as Aztecs, In­cas, Mo­hawks, and Apaches.

Still, there were enough se­ri­ous en­trants to have an elec­tion in which 25 names were listed on the bal­lot, among them Tar­tars, Cos­sacks, Philistines, and Prowlers. Other names on the fi­nal bal­lot in­cluded Golden Ea­gles, Cor­sairs, Musqueams, Spar­tans, and Seag­ulls – and un­ex­pect­edly Seag­ulls won. How­ever, the sports staff at the Ubyssey de­cided Seag­ulls was not the best name and de­ter­mined to have a new vote.

Such a vote was even­tu­ally held at a spe­cial pep rally on Jan­uary 31, 1934, at which time Thun­der­bird won, gar­ner­ing 320 of the 839 votes cast. Run­ner-up was Golden Ea­gles with 178 votes, and Griz­zlies came third with 101.

By Fe­bru­ary the Ubyssey was re­fer­ring to the bas­ket­ball team as the Thun­der­birds, and by March was us­ing the term for the var­sity rugby team and the ski team.

And that is how the Thun­der­bird came to UBC – although not yet with per­mis­sion. That didn’t come un­til 15 years later, when at a for­mal cer­e­mony dur­ing half-time at the 1948 Home­com­ing foot­ball game, Chief Wil­liam Scow of the Kwik­su­taineuk peo­ple granted per­mis­sion for the use of the Thun­der­bird name and do­nated a totem pole named “Vic­tory Through Hon­our” (carved by Ellen Neel) to the AMS. And as to the poor seag­ull, cheated out of its right­ful vic­tory in 1933? Well, in 2014-15 the AMS brought it back to life, declar­ing the seag­ull to be the mas­cot for the new stu­dent union build­ing, coin­ci­den­tally named the AMS Stu­dent Nest, and some­one in seag­ull cos­tume could even be seen wan­der­ing the halls.

Half-time at the 1948 Home­com­ing game, when UBC was granted per­mis­sion by Chief Wil­liam Scow (cen­tre) to use the Thun­der­bird name for its sports teams. Ellen Neel is pic­tured right. (Photo cour­tesy the Ubyssey. Pho­tog­ra­pher: Doug Bar­nett)

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