Island sport legend’s trademark on display
Chief Thunderbird’s headdress is the first artifact to be placed in new Aboriginal Sport Gallery
His wrestling name was Chief Thunderbird. When he stepped into the ring, he wore a full headdress made of eagle feathers and he employed a muchfeared hold known as the “Saanich Snap” to subdue opponents.
For 22 years until he retired in 1955, Jean Baptiste Paul was one of Canada’s best-known pro grapplers.
Now, thanks to a new feature at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, memories of a great Vancouver Island First Nations athlete will not fade.
The headdress that became Chief Thunderbird’s trademark is the first artifact to be placed in the Aboriginal Sport Gallery, a 300-square-foot exhibit that officially opened yesterday at the hall housed in B.C. Place Stadium.
The famous wrestler’s grandson, Paul Sam, 60, attended some of the matches wrestled by the man he knew as Baptiste Paul.
He was too young to remember them, but he is pleased to see his grandfather honored and thinks it may help inspire young aboriginals.
“He was known worldwide,’’ Sam said. “Our youth need good role models like this.’’
Although Chief Thunderbird was his wrestling name, Paul was also a hereditary chief of the Tsartlip First Nation before dying in November 1966 at age 71.
The headdress, which Chief Thunderbird wore during the 1940s, is also trimmed with rabbit fur and intricate beadwork. It was given to the B.C. Hall by an anonymous donor in 1978.
According to the Slam! Wrestling website, Chief Thunderbird was “the first big name native wrestler in Canada.”
He entered the ring in “full native regalia” (although not traditional Tsartlip regalia), to pounding drums.
The six-foot, 220-pounder toured the world through his sport, including Australia, New Zealand, India and Hawaii.
A program for one of his matches during an England tour said: “The Red Indian warrior has made a terrific reputation for himself in this country in this wrestling ring.’’
The same report described his “Saanich Snap” as similar to an “Indian Deathlock.’’
Chief Thunderbird excelled at many sports.
Born in 1896 to the hereditary chief of the Tsartlip band, he attended the Cushman School for aboriginals in Tacoma and lettered in eight sports — boxing, wrestling, baseball, basketball, track and field, football, soccer and lacrosse.
He also boxed professionally, winning 27 of 32 pro bouts.
After he died, a totem pole was erected in his honour. Its inscription reads: “All the world knew him as Chief Thunderbird, greatly skilled in athletic games and world champion wrestler.’’
“What I really enjoyed about him was his sense of humor. If you ever knew him, he was a real jokester,’’ said his grandson.
The B.C. government announced a $75,000 contribution toward the aboriginal gallery, which will include photographs, videos, displays and artifacts. A portable gallery to reach remote aboriginal communities is also part of the initiative.
The exhibit will travel across B.C. and be displayed at the North American Indigenous Games in Duncan.
“It highlights aboriginal athletes as well as aboriginal sports — kind of getting at the roots of sport in B.C.,’’ said Jason Beck, curator of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Besides Chief Thunderbird artifacts, the display includes lacrosse and running prints by well-know aboriginal artist Roy Henry Vickers, photographs of the 1936 North Shore Indians lacrosse team and images of runner Angela Chalmers and rodeo bronc rider Kenny McLean.