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How The Thunderbird Came to UBC

By: Sheldon Goldfarb

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 shouldn't 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  Grizzlies (which later became the name of Vancouver’s professional basketball team).


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, Sea-Gulls, and Musqueams. 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 B.C. Indian mythology and seems appropriate.”


Perhaps the Thunderbird name was thought appropriate for sports teams because of its powerful connotations. In native mythology, 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.


The Indigenous connection also must have seemed appropriate. From very early times at UBC, Indigenous names were used in various contexts (and in ways that would now probably be considered cultural appropriation). 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. (If Prowlers had won, presumably UBC’s colours would have been changed from blue and gold to black, and we would eventually have had a Prowler Shop on campus selling house-breaking tools, just as we later had a Thunderbird Shop.)


Other names on the final ballot included Golden Eagles, Corsairs, Musqueams, Spartans, and Sea-Gulls – and unexpectedly Sea-Gulls won. However, the sports staff at the Ubyssey decided Sea-Gulls 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.      


No one at the time thought to ask for permission to use an Indigenous term.  But permission did arrive fifteen years later, when at a formal ceremony during half-time at the 1948 Homecoming football game, Chief William Scow of the Kwiksutaineuk people said the students could continue to use the Thunderbird name.  He also donated a totem pole named “Victory Through Honour” (carved by Ellen Neel) to the AMS.


And that is the story how the Thunderbird came to UBC.

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