Spindle Whorls of British Columbia Part 3. Large Historic Spindle Whorls in the Indigenous Collection of the Royal B.C. Museum.

By Grant Keddie. March 2023.

[Part 4 in this series on Spindle Whorls in British Columbia will deal with the Thunderbird and Lightening Snake Iconography most relevant to Part 3]


Large wooden spindle whorls from the historic post contact period were used primarily for twisting together two already twisted strands of fibre. The fibre consisting mostly of hair of mountain goat, domestic dogs, seal and other mammals as well as bird down and plant material such as the plume of the fireweed.

Figure 1. Songhees woman using large spindle whorl to twist double strands of wool that are being pulled across a rope line to maintain tension. Paul Kane 1847. Stark Museum of Art 31.78.96.
Figure 2. PN83. Selisya or T’selit’sia Squamish weaver. Charles Newcomb photo 1915.

Description of the Large Whorls in the Ethnology Collection

There are 30 large spindles whorls in the Royal B.C. Museum Ethnology Collection. The term ethnology is used here to refer to non-archaeological artifacts in the Indigenous collections. These are all from the south eastern portion of Vancouver Island south of Nanaimo to Beecher Bay west of Victoria. All are in the cultural area referred to as the Central Coast Salish. I have only included spindle whorls that were used for spinning in a traditional manner and not whorls that were carved as modern art or pieces made as museum models. The latter do not necessarily reflect the traditional modes of manufacture, such as curvatures, thickness gradients, spindle hole size and iconography. The iconography on models usually includes copying of designs on other older museum examples.

In the collection there are five whorls with unknown provenience from the southern coast. Four are from the Lower Fraser River Region and 21 are from Vancouver Island.

Of the latter, 12 are recorded as Cowichan that include two specified as Quamichan; one is from Chemainus, three from Nanaimo, two from Saanich and three from Beecher Bay. Although the word Cowichan once was used to include a larger area than Vancouver Island, this designation used by Charles Newcombe for museum items only refers to the general area around Duncan on Vancouver Island. Many of the whorls were collected by Charles Newcombe or were from other private collections acquired by Newcombe.

Due to the limited number of whorls, I have examined the shapes and iconography of large spindles whorls from British Columbia that are found in other museums around the world. A number of the latter were collected by Charles Newcombe and can be provided with more specific information than that which may exist in those institution records.

The Ethnology Collections

General Area of Coast Salish Language Family. Unknown Location.

9654. “Coast Salish”. Whorl. Maple Wood. Weight: 157.4 grams. Diameter: 221 mm to 225 mm. Round shape. The edges range from 2.5mm to 3.8mm extending inward to a depth of 16mm which includes the slightly raised area around the spindle hole. The spindle hole diameter is 17mm-18mm. A carved design covers about half of the front or obverse surface of the whorl. Two thunderbirds are symmetrically placed on each side of the spindle hole with their talons touching below the hole. The birds are similar but with distinct differences in the shape of the head plume, the designs back of the beak, and the number and placing of curved lines on each side of a circle on the body of the bird. Diameter: 9”. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Newcombe photo record: EC 372 – Oct. 6, 1908, and EC591 – Nov. 1917. Old number 654. A capital “N” is written in pencil on the back or reverse side. Collection Date: 1908. No specific provenience known. (*On display). 9654[B] Spindle stick. Length: 109.5cm. 17mm at proximal end widens to 19mm and then narrows to 16mm at 1/3rd from distal end. 9mm at distal end.

“Coast Salish”. Two Thunderbirds. Unknown Location. RBCM9054

10781. “Coast Salish”. Whorl. Maple Wood. Base nearly flat. Top concave toward hole. Weight: 123 grams. Diameter: 220mm to 234mm. Thickness: Outer edge 5mm, Inner 15mm. Diameter of Spindle hole: 22mm . Hole raised but no collar. One to four painted red lines extending off red rim edge line. The red painted line extends 18mm in from the edge. In between central hole and red lines are seven green arrows or branches. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Coast Salish Unknown. RBCM10781.

11126. “Coast Salish”. Location: Unknown. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 153.6 grams. Diameter: 245-233mm. Th: 20mm – 3-5mm. Hole diameter: 24mm. Raised area around hole on smooth surface. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. # “19” on reverse side. “R 107”. Concave reverse side. 6mm carved into edge on reverse. Raised conical area around hole – Top of rim 37-41mm.

Coast Salish Family Unknown. RBCM11126.

11127. “Coast Salish”. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 185 grams. Convex top and concave bottom. Diameter: 235 – 214mm; Th: 28 – 35.6mm. Top raised collar – Dia: 32mm. Spindle hole dia. 18-19mm. Raised lip around hole. Painted red zig-zag line forming triangles around whorl hole. Ziz-zag lines around painted edge line forming triangles – 13-20mm wide line off rim line. Nine star pattern of top of rim around hole. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Coast Salish. Family Unknown. RBCM11127.

11425. “Coast Salish”. Whorl. Wood. Convex top and concave base. No collar around hole. Weight: 148.4 grams. Diameter: 224mm by 207mm. Thickness: 6mm from edge to 23mm at hole. Spindle hole diameter: 21mm. Most of the front surface is covered with a carving of what I consider as a representation of thunderbird man. The spindle hole is centered on thunderbird man’s chest. A circular low relief extends around the head with feathers extending around low area. Feather designs extend downward below the centre wings on thunderbird and thunderbird legs are at the base of the Thunderbird man. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Coast Salish. Thunderbird in human & bird form. Location Unknown. RBCM11425.

Coast Salish Unknown. Spindles with no whorls.

RBCM11193. Spindle. Length: 106.5cm. Diameter: 22mm at proximal end and tapering to 14mm at distal end.

RBCM11194 Spindle. Length: 108.5cm. Proximal end is 20mm in diameter and tappers to a diameter of 15cm at about 2/3 distance to the distal end. 4mm diameter at distal end.

Whorls from the Lower Fraser River


9657. Katsie. Spindle and Whorl. Maple Wood. Weight: 103.7 grams. Diameter: 188mm to 190mm. Round. The edges range in thickness from 3.5mm to 4.5mm and extend inward to a depth of 19mm at the spindle hole. There is a 5mm raised rim around the spindle hole on the front or obverse surface (partially broken). Spindle hole diameter: 18mm. A bird design is at the center of the front surface of the whorl with the spindle hole at the chest area of the owl. The bird has outstretched wings and a human-like lower torsal and legs. Although this has been described as an “Owl”, I would suggest that this is a rare frontal view of thunderbird man presented with his thunderbird head as opposed to his human head. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe, 1961. Purchased (Oct. 6?) 1908. Previous number “NoX657” and older #268. [EC 368. Salish. No. X657 Katsi near Pt. Hammond”]. [(Oct.6?) 1908. E.C. 591-nov. 1917. E.C. 382 – “Frazer R. Coll. N.W. 08”]. *** Associated with spindle 9658A (*On Display). [EC382. VI/57abc Salish spindle whorls “Fraser R. Coll. N. W. This image includes 9657 and 9658].

 Katsie. Thunderbird man design. RBCM9657.

9658B. Katsie. Whorl. Maple Wood. “Salish. No. 658 Katsi near Pt. Hammond”]. Newcombe photograph collection record number EC369. Katsie. Wood. Diameter: 8”. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Purchased October (6?), 1908, from Chief Joe Isaacs. Newcombe EC591- Nov. 1917. EC382 – Vl/57abc Salish spindle whorls “Fraser R. Coll. N.W.”. With spindle RBCM9658A. [Cabinet 38].

Newcombe provides a description of the iconography as: “Faces in centre & 4 mink on edge”, but he adds: “I.C. adds to Mink characterization: “or Lake Monster”. [see #1192]. [On Newcombe artifact card he wrote: “Lake Monster & Face. No. 658. Katsi, Hammond. (Monster-SwamAtsAn)”. I would interpret this design to be Thunderbird man with two Lake monsters that share some of the characteristics of lightning snakes.

9658B. Katsie. Human faces and Four SwamAtsAn or Lake monsters.

2455. Whorl. Alder Wood. Halkomelem. Weight; 110 grams. Diameter: 197mm by 185mm. Thickness: 3mm at outer edge to 17mm near hole. Hole diameter: 17mm. “77” on back of whorl. Collected by Charles Newcombe in 1911, from “Lower Fraser”. “Spindle, Sul-sul-tin”. Purchased with #2450.

Halkomelem. “Lower Fraser”. RBCM2455.

9864. Whorl. Maple Wood. Sardis Halkomelem. Convex top and concave base. Carved thunderbird grabbing whale. Red varnish coating. “Sumas’. “George of Lower Sardis”. Weight: 111 grams. Diameter: 195mm by 197mm. Thickness: 3mm outer rim to 16mm near hole. Hole diameter: 20mm. “Spindle whorl – Eagle & Whale – ex Sumas X864. [19]13”. “Thunder bird & Whale, C.F. N. nr Sumas Neg. EC485”]. Thunderbird is also described as a “mountain eagle”. I would interpret this design as a Thunderbird.

Halkomelem. Stalo. Lower Sardis. Thunderbird and Whale. RBCM9864

Vancouver Island Spindle Whorls

Nanaimo Region

456. Maple wood. Convex top and concave bottom. Weight: 168 grams. Diameter: 216mm. Thickness: 5mm on edge to 16mm near centre. Hole diamtere: 20mm. Raised collar: width 34mm. In possession of C.F. & W. A. Newcombe. Acquired in W.A. Newcombe estate in 1961. Preliminary catalogue of 1898: “Nanaimo Indians Capt. Newton Henry Chittenden, 1884”. In cpn photograph combo with 10692 and 10503 taken in 1978.

Nanaimo. RBCM456.

2388A. “Coast Salish”. Whorl. Cedar Wood. Weight: 133 grams. Four- pointed star pattern. Nanaimo. Cut out 4 triangular grooves extending from edges to mid-point of cut out pattern. Diameter: 215mm by 216mm. Thickness: 4mm at edge to 25mm near hole. Raised collar: width 35mm. 2388B. (Old # 647). Spindle. Cedar Wood. Length: 40 %” [1021mm], 6” % diam. [ 17.2mm]. Purchased from “Chief Jimmy” by Charles F. Newcombe in 1912.

Nanaimo. RBCM2388A.

2389. (Old # 648). “Coast Salish” Nanaimo. Maple wood. Top slightly convex and bottle slightly concave. Two left hands etched on one side. Weight: 113 grams. Diameter: 228mm by 250mm. Thickness: 3mm from outer edge to 15mm near hole. Raised collar: 31mm wide. Hole dia. 14mm. Purchased by Charles Newcombe from Chief Jimmy in 1912. [published in Inverarity 1973 (1950), Figure 30]. (see Newcombe 1912 list).

Nanaimo. RBCM2389.


10139 – Chemainus; (old cat. # 616). Whorl. Alder Wood. Weight: 148 grams. Slightly convex top and convave base. Asymetrical pattern of gouged grooves. Diameter: 236mm by 238mm. Thickness: 7mm from outer edge to 5mm at inner portions. Described as: “alder disc crude cut & red painted rays on back”. John Humphreys Jr. Collection. Diameter: 6. 9 ^. Diameter of hole: 18mm. Newcombe photograph negative EC 616 – Probably collected 1917-19. Old number “1139” written in pencil and ink on back.

Chemainus. RBCM10139.


2454A. Whorl. Maple Wood. Quamichan. “Cowichan District”. Newcombe describes as: Man and “Otter” figures. “Carved man in centre of lower part, 2 carved men [men crossed out with pencil and replaced with “otter”] on upper edge. C.F.N. Newcombe 1912 Cowichan District”. Collected by: Charles Frederick Newcombe in 1912. With wooden spindle 2454B. Length 112.5cm. “5c” written on spindle. Newcombe lantern slide catalogue lists it as EC451. Old number 451 on 2nd lantern slide. 3rd lantern slide EC451 has “Salish-Kuper Island ex Humphreys”. This is from collection of John Humphreys Jr. and can be seen with whorl RBCM 2906 on a for sale board of Humphreys.

CPN 2454 Lantern Slide has written on paper label: “Spindle whorl Salish Beacher Bay” – this is a wrong designation. A white and red sticker has: “120”. An old Black and white image shows this whorl with whorl RBCM 9054 suspended on the same wooden board. I interpret the notes of John Humphries to Newcombe under “Salish Collection” to refer to this whorl: “Whirl. Thunder-bird, Lsquawhales. Quam.” The latter refers to Quamichan. Additional notes of Humphreys refer to the “reptile” creatures on the whorl: “Reptile could fly in the air, fights with the Thunder-bird, causes streaks on trees (Newcombe Family Add. Mss. 1077, vol. 57, folder2). I interpret these designs to be Thunderbird man with two lightning snakes. The head plume of the lightning snakes is flattened down.



Quamichan whorl of Thunderbird man and two lightning snakes. RBCM2454A.

10270 – Cowichan. Whorl. Maple Wood. Weight: 106gm. Carved “Thunderbird” design. Diameter: 184mm by 202mm. Thickness: 3mm from outer edge to 16mm inner. Estate of C. F. and W.A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Originally in collection of Alf Colliard. Collected in 1927.

Cowichan. Thunderbird. RBCM10270.

10271A. Cowichan. Maple Wood. Weight: 99 grams. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Carved design of lightning snakes or “Lake Monsters”. Concave on reverse. Diameter: 195mm. A double circle forms the collar. 42mm across outer circle and 28 across inner circle. Hole diameter: 18mm. [old No.1270]. “Cowichan” in ink on back. Spindle is 10271B.

Cowichan. Lightning snakes. RBCM10271.

10352 – Cowichan. Whorl. Wood. Convex top and concave bottom. Weight: 103 grams. Diameter: 184mm by 200mm. Thickness: 5mm outer edge to 14mm inner. Raised collar: 28mm wide. Hole diameter 19mm. carved design of “Thunderbird and two Whale heads”. “Cowichan 1352” [old #] in ink. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Collected in 1927 by Alf Colliard. Newcombe photo record EC 680B-XI.27.

Cowichan. Thunderbird and Whales. RBCM10352.

10353. Cowichan (old #1353). Whorl. Wood. Weight: 132.4 grams. Convex top and concave bottom. Carved “Feather” design. Diameter: 212mm by 232mm. Thickness: 5mm outer to 28mm inner. Raised collar. Hole diameter: 22mm. Collected in 1927 by Alf Colliard. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Cowichan. RBCM10353.

10354. Cowichan. (old # 1354). Wood. Weight: 234 grams. Diameter: 242mm by 248mm. Thickness: 5mm outer to 28mm inner. Raised collar width 31mm. Hole Diameter: 17mm. “Painted or penciled Sun Rays”. A penciled line extended 29-39mm from the edge with small triangles on outside of line that are 14-18mm high. 12 line arrows are drawn inside center of area between hole and outer line. Convex top with greatest height to ward center and concave bottom. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Collected in 1927, by Alf Colliard.

Cowichan. RBCM10354

10354A. Cowichan. (old # 1354). Wood. Weight: 154 grams. Carved Sun Rays. Radiating long thin triangles with lower thin triangles between 11­17mm from base of raised triangle. Diameter: 246mm by 258mm. Thickness: out edges 3-5mm thick and 15mm inner. Raised collar width: 38mm. Hole Diameter: 18mm. “Cowichan” & “354” in black ink and “2W” in pencil. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Collected in 1927 by Alf Colliard.

Cowichan. RBCM 10354A.

10503. Cowichan. Alder Wood. Weight: 187.8 grams. Diameter: 230mm to 242mm. Round. The edges range from 5mm to 6.5mm and extend to a thickness of 17mmm at the spindle hole. Spindle hole diameter: 18.5mm to 19.2mm. There is a raised area around the hole of 4.5mm. The front surface is covered with the design of a whale design centered on the spindle hole with a thunderbird on each side of it facing each other. Described as “2 Thunder Birds & 1 Whale”. In pencil on the back is the old number “1503” and a large number “2” with a curled upper part of the “2”. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Collected in 1927 by Alf Colliard.

Cowichan. RBCM10503

10504. Cowichan. Whorl. Alder Wood. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Collected in 1927 by Alf Colliard. Carved design referred to as a “Mythical bird”. I interpret this as a Thunderbird.

Cowichan RBCM10504.

10692. Cowichan. Whorl. Maple Wood. Weight: 85.7 grams. Diameter: 198mm. The edge ranges in thickness from 4.5mm to 6mm and extends to a thickness of 9mm at the hole. Hole diameter: 15mm. The spindle hole is not raised above the surface but does incorporate a raised design on the front surface. The front or obverse side is mostly covered with a carved design of a “Thunderbird” with the spindle hole centered on the birds chest. The talons of the bird are clutching the back of a large fish (the number and positioning of the fins do not indicate a whale). Under the large fish – belly to belly – is a lightning snake with a long head plume. Estate of C.F. and W. A.

Newcombe acquired in 1961. Newcombe obtained from C.F. Punnett.

Cowichan. RBCM10692.

10693 – Cowichan. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 110 grams. Convex top and concave bottom. Design of concentric circles. Diameter: 178mm by 190mm. Thickness: 5mm outer edge to 15mm inner. Raised collar: width 23mm. Hole dia. 16.4mm; (Concave on reverse) Spindle 170cm. 2nd Catalogue: “Coast Salish, Cowichan” & “Cowichan G/X”. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Cowichan. RBCM10963.

*2906. Quamichan. Listed as unknown “Coast Salish”, but I have determined that it is Quamichan. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 147.2 grams. Diameter: 207mm to 210mm. Squarish shape. The thickness around the edges range from 4.5mm to 5.5mm. The edges tapper up to a depth of 12.5mm at the spindle hole. There is no raised extension area above the spindle hole. The spindle hole is 11mm in diameter. A carved design covers much of the front or obverse surface. The two “thunderbirds” encircle the central spindle hole in a curving head to tail position. The reverse or back of the whorl is concave with no carved designs. Acquired in 1917, from “Mrs. Blanche Dewdney”. This item was sent to the 1939 World Fair exhibit in Seattle, resulting in the red and white U.S. Customs sticker on the back labelled “Lot 2906”. Initially this whorl did not have a provenience and was ascribing as “Salish” because of its design style. An old Black and whiteimage shows this whorl with whorl RBCM 2454 suspended on the same wooden display board I attribute to John Humphries who displayed artifacts for sale in this manner in his barn on the Chemainus Reserve. The latter is recorded as being from the “Cowichan District”, but I am certain that notes of John Humphries to Newcombe under “Salish Collection” refer to this whorl: “2 headed reptile, Tsenoqoa” with a ditto below “Quam” [Quamichan]. (Newcombe Family. RBCM Add. Mss. 1077, vol. 57, folder2).

Quamichan. Two Thunderbirds. RBCM2906.
Quamichan Whorls on Chemainus John Humphrie’s for sale rack. Pre- 1927 photograph. RBCM2454 & RBCM2906.


10115A. Saanich. Straits Salish. Whorl. Maple Wood. Weight: 133 grams. Feather-like design. Four curved patterns on a stem. Two branches in 2 and 3 branches on two opposite each other. Raised center but no distinct collar. Diameter: 226mm by 232mm. Thickness: 5mm outer rim to 15mm inner. Hole dia. 21mm. “1115” written in blue marker. “Tsekum Reserve, Union Bay, Saanich, 10.VII.17C/-. EC591. Dec. 1917.” Pat Bay. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961. Spindle. Length: 3’ 2 1Z>”.

Saanich. Tsekum. RBCM10115

13376. Saanich. Straits Salish. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 140 grams. A spoked wheel-like design. A solid outer circular rim is 51mm wide. Five solid triangular spokes extend from the rim to a raised collar around the hole, creating five open cutout areas that extend in a tapering fashion toward the inner circle. Thickness: 6mm on outer rim to 18mm around inner circle. Diameter: 127mm. Hole Diameter: 22mm. Diameter of raised collar: 45mm. Collected in 1972 by Peter McNair from “Mrs. Pitts”. Label: “Obtained from Saanich Indian Reserve Van’ Island, B.C. Oct/1919”.

RBCM13376. Saanich.

Beecher Bay

1179. Maple Wood. Beecher Bay. Weight: 240.3 grams. Dia: 248mm to 253mm. The edge ranges from 4mm to 5mm and extends inward to a thickness of 23mm at the spindle hole which is raised 7mm above the surrounding surface. Spindle hole dia:19mm. The convex front surface is covered with a geometric design composed of four leaf-like extensions from the spindle hole. In between each of these extensions are groupings of four curved lines with thinner lines radiating from them. In the curvature of these four frond-like designs is a raised conical circle. Collected by Charles Newcombe in 1908. EC373 – 6/X/08. From “Simon Fraser Exhibit”.

Beecher Bay. RBCM1179.

1180. Beecher Bay. Whorl. Wood. Weight: 240.8 grams. Diameter: 235mm to 245mm. Round. The edges range from 4.5mm to 6mm and extend to a depth of 23mm at the spindle hole. The Spindle hole diameter: 18mm. The front has a geometric design of 8 leaf-like petals extending out from the spindle hole. Between the petals are curved line cuts extending outward from small one to larger ones. Graduated raised area around spindle hole. Collected by Charles Newcombe in 1908, from Bernard Fillip Jacobsen? (*On Display). *Image. EC 373 (lantern slide?) “Rotate flower des,. Becher B. @ Pr. Mus.” (Charles Newcombe card note) – Associated Spindle. 1180B.

Beecher Bay. RBCM1180.

9659. Becher Bay. Whorl. Maple Wood. Plain design pattern. Weight: 118 grams. Bottom slightly concave. Hole diameter: 25mm. “Becher B.”. Split in half. Dia: 208mm by 213mm. Thickness: 3mm outer rim to 24mm inner. Hole diameter: 25mm. Raised collar around hole: 36mm wide. No carved pattern. Old #659. Estate of C.F. and W. A. Newcombe acquired in 1961.

Beecher Bay. RBCM9659