Thunderbird and Whale
Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the quileute tribe of meat and oil. Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. It soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized Whale. A struggle ensued; the ocean receded and rose again. Many canoes were flung into trees and many people were killed. Thunderbird eventually succeeded in lifting Whale out of the ocean, carrying it high into the air and then dropping it. Then another great battle occurred on land.
In one of many variant versions of the myth, the sound of the whale dropping into the sea is the source of thunder. A young boy of a Vancouver Island people, the Comox, was fascinated by the sound of thunder, and heard it from behind a point of land. He crossed that point, following the sound of thunder, and discovered the spectacle of the Thunderbird seizing and dropping the whale. The Thunderbird saw the boy, and told him that the story was now his, and he had the right to wear the Thunderbird mask and wings at the potlatch.
In another variant, the flapping of the Thunderbird's wings is the source of the thunder.
Reconstructing the myth
In the 1980s, geologists found evidence that an earthquake, powerful enough to send a tsunami all the way to Japan, hit the American Pacific Northwest in 1700. Some ethnologists believe that "Thunderbird and Whale" is a description of that disaster.
Aiornis, the prehistoric giant bird on which the Thunderbird mythology seems to be partly based, was a carrion feeder known from fossils found near Los Angeles. It is most likely that these birds, which were encountered by the first human settlers of the Americas, would feed on stranded whale carcasses.
- Ludwin, Ruth. 2002. "Cascadia Megathrust Earthquakes in Pacific Northwest Indian Legend." University of Washington Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences.
- Ludwin et al. 2005. "Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories". In: Seismological Research Letters, Volume 76, Number 2, March/April 2005
- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 2005. "Native American Legends of Tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest." Western Coastal and Marine Geology.