This print illustrates the story of how Kwatyaht drowned three Thunderbirds. The story originated among the Hee-Koolth-aht who lived in the mouth of Barkley Sound where they had territorial waters and some traditional village sites. The Tse-Shaht (another tribe of Barkley Sound) and Hee-Koolth-aht have since amalgamated; and both tribes have relocated in the Alberni Valley.My mother is from Hee-Koolth-aht, so the story holds much interest for me. It is also the theme of an 8 x 12-foot red cedar dance screen I did for the B.C. Provincial Museum.In the distant past, the Hee-Koolth-aht tribe went whaling every year, without failure. Whenever a great whale was pulled up on the beach, they would host a large feast. Their generosity was known all along the West Coast. Much prestige was theirs for being brave whalers and good hosts. Each year they waited anxiously for the return of the different types of whales that visited their tribal waters. Each year the whales returned faithfully.The Hee-Koolth-aht were very surprised, then, when one spring no great whales were seen from their shores. As always killer whales could be seen off shore, but no one ever hunted these smaller whales. They were left at their peace.All of the noted brave men and wise men, of the tribe, tried to solve the great mystery. But no one seemed to have an answer. When the list of prominent men was almost exhausted Kwatyaht stepped forward.Kwatyaht was a fellow the whole tribe trusted. He was a superhuman who could become many different creatures by putting on different skins. Early the next morning he bathed in the icy waters of a small mountain stream. Then he walked from the bush, down to the beach. He walked out into the surf of the sea, carrying with him the skin of a great whale. He moved into deeper and deeper water, as he slipped into his new skin. Four times he came up for air. Three times the back of his head was seen above the surface. The fourth time he surfaced he was the great whale Eah-toop. He spouted once and sounded.When he surfaced, he was just off the beach at Anaktla, to the southwest of Hee-koolth. Kwatyaht noticed four thunderbirds, hunting for great whales passing that place. In their turn, the four huge birds were all successful. They would dig their claws into the back of a blowing whale, wait for it to quit struggling, then fly off with their dead prey. So it was that Kwatyaht found out what was happening to all the whales that usually migrated through the territorial waters of the Hee-Koolth-aht. He quickly made a plan to get rid of the too successful hunters.He surfaced where the whales had been carried off. He spouted as loudly as he could, making sure to blow a great cloud of vapour up into the sky. He rolled over in the water to show his shiny wet skin to the giant thunderbirds; and he beat his broad tail on the ocean’s surface.Finally he felt the talons of one of the big birds digging into his whale skin. He struggled with the bird, until he was sure it was exhausted. Then he filled his lungs and sounded. The great bird fought to free himself, but soon gave in and was drowned. When he felt no more movement, Kwatyaht rolled over on the ocean floor, to free himself of the great carcass. He repeated the trick two more times. The next victim was a young male, and the third was the mother of the first two.By the time he surfaced the third time, Kwatyaht’s whale skin was torn, and blood gushed from his many wounds. He was an easy target then, for Teetskin, the last thunderbird. He felt the claws in his back and sounded; but this time he changed his mind and did not drown the last bird. Instead, he allowed himself to be carried off to the nest of the thunderbirds. There he told Teetskin what he had done with his children and wife. As he told the story he transformed himself back into a man.Before he left Teetskin alone, Kwatyaht presented him with a gift of two Lightning Snakes. He instructed the bird to use the Lightning Snakes by throwing them at his prey. If hit, the whale would die instantly; and so put up no struggle. This arrangement reassured Teetskin that he would never be fooled, as the other members of his family had been.
From that time on Teetskin never feared for his life and the Hee-Koolth-aht were assured they would have enough whales each year.
A carver, graphic artist, and painter residing on the Ahaswinis Reserve where he was born, Ron Hamilton has made a vital contribution to the preservation and the continuation of threatened Nuu-Chah-Nulth art and design. The nephew of George Clutesi, Hamilton apprenticed with renowned carver Henry Hunt. A fisherman by trade, Hamilton works in Campbell River slate, wood, silver, gold, and ivory, employing the sea serpent as a characteristic motif.
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