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The thunderbird is a legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It is considered a supernatural bird of power and strength. It is especially important, and frequently depicted, in the art, songs and oral histories of many Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, and is found in various forms among the peoples of the American Southwest, Great Lakes, and Great Plains.
The thunderbird's name comes from the common belief that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. The Lakota name for the thunderbird is Wakį́nyąn, from wakhąn, meaning "sacred", and kįyą, meaning "winged". The Kwakwaka'wakw have many names for the thunderbird, and the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) called it Kw-Uhnx-Wa. The Ojibwa word for a thunderbird that is closely associated with thunder is animikii, while large thunderous birds are known as binesi.
Across many North American indigenous cultures, the thunderbird carries many of the same characteristics. It is described as a large bird, capable of creating storms and thundering while it flies. Clouds are pulled together by its wingbeats, the sound of thunder made by its wings clapping, sheet lightning the light flashing from its eyes when it blinks, and individual lightning bolts made by the glowing snakes that it carries around with it. In masks, it is depicted as multi-colored, with two curling horns, and, often, teeth within its beak.
In oral history
Depending on the people telling the story, the thunderbird is either a singular entity or a species. In both cases, it is intelligent, powerful, and wrathful. All agree one should go out of one's way to keep from getting thunderbirds angry.
The singular thunderbird (as the Nuu-chah-nulth thought of it) was said to reside on the top of a mountain, and was the servant of the Great Spirit. It was also told that the thunderbird controlled rainfall.
The plural thunderbirds (as the Kwakwaka'wakw and Cowichan tribes believed) could shapeshift into human form by tilting back their beaks like a mask, and by removing their feathers as if it were a feather-covered blanket. There are stories of thunderbirds in human form marrying into human families; some families may trace their lineage to such an event. Families of thunderbirds who kept to themselves but wore human form were said to have lived along the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The story goes that other tribes soon forgot the nature of one of these thunderbird families, and when one tribe tried to take them as slaves, the thunderbirds put on their feather blankets and transformed to take vengeance upon their foolish captors.
The Menomini of Northern Minnesota tell of a great mountain that floats in the western sky on which dwell the thunderbirds. They control the rain and hail and delight in fighting and deeds of greatness. They are the enemies of the great horned snakes - the Misikinubik - and have prevented these from overrunning the earth and devouring mankind. They are messengers of the Great Sun himself.
The Anishinaabe, who speak Ojibwa and have traditionally formed part of the Council of Three Fires, have many stories about thunderbirds. During the Sundance ceremony a thunderbird nest is put near the top of the tree of life. The dancers often face the nest while dancing, and their hands and arms reach up towards the nest at times. A thunderbird pipe is used during the ceremony, and thunderbird medicine is prepared as well. The area of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is related in some ways to the Anishinaabe stories of thunderbirds.
A famous story of the thunderbird is "Thunderbird and Whale". The thunderbird mythology parallels tales of the Roc from around the Indian Ocean; like the roc, the thunderbird is generally assumed to be based on real (though mythically exaggerated) species of birds, namely the bald eagle, which is very common on the Northwest Coast.
- Lankford, George E. (2011). Native American Legends of the Southeast: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and other Nations. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. p. 77.
- Burlin, Nathalie C. (1907). The Indians' Book: An Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and Narrative, to Form a Record of the Songs and Legends of Their Race. Harper and Brothers.