A puzzling phenomenon of ice-stream flow is the stick–slip motion displayed by Whillans Ice Stream (WIS), West Antarctica. In this study we test the hypothesis that the WIS stick–slip motion has features similar to those of other known stick–slip systems, and thus might be of the same origin. To do so, we adapt a simple mechanical model widely used in seismology to study classic stick–slip behavior observed in tectonic faults, in which the difference between static and dynamic friction allows for the generation and spatial propagation of abrupt slip events. We show how spatial variability in friction properties, as well as a periodic forcing intended to mimic the effect of tides, can reproduce the observed duration and periodicity of stick–slip motion in an ice stream. An intriguing aspect of the association of WIS with mechanical stick–slip oscillators is that the onset of stick–slip cycling from a condition of permanent slip appears to be associated with the reduction in overall speed of WIS. If this association is true, then stick–slip behavior of WIS is a transitional phase of behavior associated with the ice stream's recent deceleration.