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The Thunderbird in Native American Culture

The Thunderbird is a significant creature in Native American mythology. This article teaches you the basics of its importance as a symbol in the beliefs of indigenous peoples.

The Thunderbird is a significant creature in Native American mythology. This article teaches you the basics of its importance as a symbol in the beliefs of indigenous peoples.

What Is the Thunderbird?

Native American legend has the Thunderbird as a large vulture or eagle-like bird with a wingspan of 20 feet or larger. A lot of tribes believed this Thunderbird was a God in animal form. It would often have large brightly colored feathers, a bald head, and curved horns. Some accounts tell of sharp teeth in its beak and that it had large talons to grab Orca whales.

Outside of the Native American culture, people have described the Thunderbird as having smooth skin on its body and wings, similar to that of the pterosaur that lived 115 million years ago.

Native American’s believed the Thunderbird controlled the weather and would bring thunderstorms. The Thunderbird could shoot lightning from its eyes and its large wings caused high winds and thunder when they flapped.

Artist depiction of the Thunderbird

Artist depiction of the Thunderbird

Symbolization in Native American Culture

The Thunderbird has been part of Native American history and culture for many years. All over the Thunderbird symbolizes power, nobility, and strength. In almost all Native American tribes, the Thunderbird is the dominant icon or symbol in their traditions and artworks such as totem poles, pottery, jewelry, masks, petroglyphs, and carvings. Totems often have giant birds carved into them sometimes with the Underwater Panther on the bottom. Many tribes share stories and even songs depicting the Thunderbird to honor the powerful creature.

Some West Coast tribes believed the Thunderbird and humans made a deal for the Thunderbird to help them in times of a food crisis in exchange for them honoring the Thunderbird in their culture. This is possible where the idea the Thunderbird is a protector of humanity came from.

Totem pole

Totem pole

Beliefs of the Native Americans

Different tribes have different beliefs when it comes to this creature. The Lakota Sioux believed if you saw birds in your dreams you were destined to become a medicine man in the tribe, while if you saw the Thunderbird in your dreams you would be destined to be a sacred clown. The Lakota Sioux tribe also believed the Thunderbird was a highly respected and feared spirit.

To the Illini Tribes, the Thunderbird was said to be a vengeful spirit that would feed on large whales and even children. It would use its powers of thunder to scare off humans from its nests and away from its territory.

Some of the Plain Tribes, including the Arapaho tribe, believed the Thunderbird was associated with Summer while a Great White Owl was associated with Winter.

The Winnebago Tribe believed that if a man saw a vision of the Thunderbird during solitary fasting, he would become a War Chief.

Pacific Northwest artwork of the Thunderbird.

Pacific Northwest artwork of the Thunderbird.

Thunderbird's Territory

The Thunderbird has been told to live high in the mountains but the location varies depending on the tribe.

The Quileute Tribe believes the Thunderbird lives on Mount Olympus while the Coast Salish believes the creature lives in Black Tusk Peak in British Columbia.

The Menominee tribe from the Wisconsin area believed the Thunderbird lived on a great mountain that floats in the sky. This way it can control the rain and weather easier.

It was believed that any human who ventured into the Thunderbirds territory would incur its wrath and hear its thunderous wings as a warning to stay away.

Enemies of the Thunderbird

While the Thunderbird sounds mighty and fierce, it wasn't without its supernatural enemies. Different locations had different enemies that the Thunderbird would fight.

The Lakota Sioux tribe thought the Underwater Panther, who was a sea monster from the underworld was the enemy of the Thunderbird.

The Menominee tribe in Wisconsin believed the Thunderbird's enemy was the Great Horned Snakes. It would need to fight them off to keep them from overrunning the world.

The Ojibway tribe believed the Thunderbird would fight off various underwater spirits and would also be the one to punish bad or sinful humans.

The Algonquian believed the enemy of the Thunderbird was a Great Horned Serpent. The Thunderbird would fight this sea monster by throwing lightning bolts at it from its eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.