Spirit Wrestler Gallery (Vancouver, Canada)

Dancer Series (III) Thunderbird Dancer (1975)


  • Medium: serigraph
  • Size: 20 × 16 inches
  • Edition: 195
  • Reference Code: JD1975-03

The Potlatch continues with speeches, singing, games, feasting and more dancing. Soft and slow is the drumming and singing at the start of the Thunderbird Dance. The Thunderbird is the crest of prestige and distinction, belonging only to the highest ranking of chiefs, its dance and song performed with great pride only by members of the family, or an especially skilled dancer paid to perform it.

With slow drum beat in flickering firelight two dancers are crouched down. The majestic Thunderbird crests on the back of their capes are not seen as they face the audience with arms and capes, as wings, folded in close to the body.

The drumming grows faster, and louder. The great mythical birds rise upwards, stretching four times, twice to each side; the elbows move out, the hands are on the hips to spread the cape, and the feet pound the floor in frenzy. They move out and away from each other and then turn to reveal the full beauty of the Thunderbird design on the back of the cape. Through a concealed whistle in the mouth, the Thunderbird emits a whistling sound that joins with the drumming and the special song sung for this dance. The guests at the Potlatch are deeply impressed.

The two dancers meet again at the centre, twirling around each other, creating form and balance, their headdresses in constant motion. Finally the drumming slows and subsides, the mighty Thunderbirds fold their wings and crouch back down, returning to their original position.

The tempo of the drums will rise again and the dance will be performed four times, as is the custom.

Joe David’s dramatic and powerful rendering of the the Thunderbird depicts the liveliness of the dancer just as he has turned, showing the bird in full back view. Topped by the headdress, the feathered body is flanked by the outstretched wings. Through transformation the human arm and hand of the dancer are visible beneath the wings. The Thunderbird’s legs on either side and the feathered tail complete the design of this high-ranking crest.

Joe David

Joe David


(1946- )

Joe David was born in 1946 at Opitsaht, a Clayoquot village on Meares Island, on the western shore of Vancouver Island. The family resettled to Seattle, Washington, in 1958—and they moved frequently during his teen years. His father, Hyacinth David, was a respected chief and elder of the Clayoquot nation, and even though he had removed his family from Nuu-chah-nulth territory, he remained connected to the village and practiced the traditional values and ceremonies.