History of the “Thunderbird” Nickname

Main Library concourse 1920sHow UBC sports teams got their name

Thanks to Fred Hume of UBC Athletics for permission to reprint these articles.

Thunderbird Scrapbook: Be Thankful, We Were Almost Called the “Seagulls”

Article originally published in The Point (Vol. IV, No. 8, January 12, 1994), p. 5.

The mysterious Thunderbird: a creature able to grant supernatural blessings or engage in warfare with the earth’s most fierce beasts. With lightning for eyes, thunderous wings, and according to legend, talons strong enough to pluck whales out of the ocean, this bird was revered by native people of the North Pacific Coast.

It was this vision of strength and fearlessness that prompted Ubyssey staffers to adopt the Thunderbird as UBC’s unofficial nickname 60 years ago.

It wasn’t until 1948 that UBC’s use of this symbol was officially sanctioned by local native people (and was rededicated by descendants of those same people at the April 1993 UBC Hall of Fame Induction banquet). It was back in 1934, however, that the Thunderbird name was originally selected and came to be used on campus.

In November 1933, the sports department at the Ubyssey decided it was time the school had a “popular name or mascot” as at the time all UBC sport teams were known simply as “Varsity” or the “Blue and Gold”.

The campus paper solicited suggestions from the students in the form of a contest, with the students responding with several names. The five best were the Corsairs, Spartans, Thunderbirds, Golden Eagles, and Musqueams. The Ubyssey would not consider such submissions as Peewits (what is a Peewit?), or Sea Slugs.

The contest ran a second time, and students were invited to elect the name from among the five best suggestions.

When the ballots were counted the name “Seagulls”, a write-in candidate, was the winner.

Not amused, the Pep Club and Ubyssey staff took matters into their own hands. They dropped the idea of a student vote, electing to settle the issue once and for all at a meeting scheduled for Jan. 31, 1934.

After a lengthy and spirited debate, the name “Thunderbird” emerged victorious, beating out its closest rival, Golden Eagles. It was at this meeting that the name, through the particular efforts of student activist Clarence Idyll, had finally been chosen.

The Thunderbird name was not only considered original but it was felt it symbolized the power and fighting spirit exhibited by the Blue and Gold teams.

A tradition had started, for it was the very next day, Feb. 1, 1934, when both the UBC basketball and rugby teams were referred to as the “Thunderbirds”.

— Fred Hume
UBC Athletics Historian

Mythological Bird to Live at UBC

Article originally published in The Point (Vol. VI, No. 10, January 10, 1996), p. 3.

During the half-time at the 1948 UBC homecoming football game, a significant ceremony took place before 5,000 fans that to this day leaves its mark on the UBC campus.

It was this occasion that the Kwicksutaineuk people and Chief William Scow officially sanctioned UBC’s use of the name “Thunderbird” for our campus teams and facilities. From this moment on UBC had full permission to use the Thunderbird name, consent granted by those very people for whom the Thunderbird played such an important role in traditional folklore and culture.

UBC and its teams had actually been using the Thunderbird name since January 1934, the product of a Pep Club/Ubyssey name-the-team contest issued to the students. However, it was almost fifteen years later at this half-time ceremony that Chief Scow, adorned in full native dress, along with his son Alf, also in full dress, entitled the University for the first time to use the name of this powerful and mythological creature.

As part of this same dedication ceremony, well-known native carvers Ellen and Ted Neal presented to UBC a twenty-two foot totem pole which served to sanctify the occasion. Ellen Neal later stated, “Both Ted (my husband) and I wanted the University to have a real totem, one given directly from the native people and one to which they have the rights under old customs.”

That same totem pole can be found today standing on the north side of SUB. However, the significance of this piece of UBC history and the role it played in establishing much of the fabric of UBC campus life has been lost on those few who notice it and those who don’t.

Alf Scow, the young man standing next to his father the Chief during that 1948 ceremony, later graduated from UBC and eventually became both Judge and Chief Alfred Scow. On April 30, 1993, Chief Scow was invited back to UBC to attend UBC’s first Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony. At this banquet, forty five years after the initial dedication, Chief Scow with the Urban Kwakiutl Dancers, re-dedicated to the university the Thunderbird name on behalf of his late father and his tribe. The “peace dance” was performed which brought peace and protection to those of us now within the domain of the sacred Thunderbird. To the banquet guests who witnessed this event, it became clear that we as a campus are more than privileged to retain both possession and the blessing of this gift which is treasured and meaningful to so many.

— Fred Hume
UBC Athletics Historian