In The Thunderbird, the Quesnel, & the Sea, Bev Lundahl takes readers on an investigative journey to track down a stolen grave marker carved in the shape of a mythical Indigenous thunderbird. She invites readers to follow her leads, hoping to find the missing artifact but not knowing if it even still exists
During the dark years of World War II, while docked at Alert Bay on the coast of British Columbia, sailors from the Canadian corvette HMCS Quesnel removed the carving from the ‘Namgis First Nation burial ground. The area was notable for its totem poles, and the crew wanted to distinguish their West Coast ship from East Coast ships. A thunderbird mascot would do just that.
The thunderbird was in such poor shape that the crew wasn’t sure whether to fix it or simply discard it. They opted to repair and paint it and bolted it to the crow’s nest on the mast. The Quesnel‘s captain, Murdo Smith, wanted the thunderbird off his ship, not because it was stolen, but because he believed it was a pagan idol. The crew persisted, and a near mutiny ensued. But the thunderbird remained.
Lundahl details the wartime history of the Quesnel and some of the perils it faced – a loose depth charge rolling haphazardly on deck, an ASDIC operator who was deaf in one ear listening for the ping of submarines below, and a crack in the hull that allowed seawater to seep in.
The Quesnel saw service on both sides of the continent – tracking Japanese subs in the Pacific and German subs in the Atlantic, particularly in the St. Lawrence. By the time Germany surrendered, the Quesnel was in such bad shape that it wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
Lundahl contacted former crew members to see what had become of the thunderbird when the ship was sold for scrap. She proposed to seek, find, and return the missing mascot. She had a personal stake in this matter – her father had served on the Quesnel.
Like any good detective, Lundahl visited the scene of the crime – the site of the theft – the gravesite of Michael Dutch. She also toured the grave of Murdo Smith, captain of the Quesnel, who died in Bermuda under “controversial circumstances.”
The Thunderbird, the Quesnel, & the Sea is also a search for reconciliation. Lundahl travelled to Alert Bay, met Dutch’s sisters and relatives, and learned about West Coast Indigenous culture and history. As a grave marker, this thunderbird was much more than a mere mascot. It marked the final resting place of a First Nations man who died in 1926 at age twenty-three.
Lundahl suggests that the federal government should apologize for the theft, replace it with a newly carved thunderbird, and pay for a potlatch ceremony to celebrate its return. Replacing the thunderbird may seem like a small gesture, but it would be one giant leap toward reconciliation. And it would allow Michael Dutch’s spirit to rest at last.
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