The Legendary Thunderbird
Throughout history each culture across the globe has been host to its own beliefs about how the world was created, how life came about and what beings create order amongst these things. The Native American’s are no different and had a diverse series of beliefs that differed from tribe to tribe. Perhaps one of the most famous creatures to come from their ideology is the majestic thunderbird. It’s a huge bird that dominates the sky, stirring the wind creating the sounds of thunder by beating of its colossal wings. It’s a concept that still excites us to this day.
A common theme in the story of the great thunderbird is that it controls or protects the upper world, the underworld is the domain of a different beast, usually the underwater panther, a giant catlike being covered in scales and large spikes that protrude from its back and tail, or the great horned serpent, an underwater snake covered in crystalline scales, with the horns of a stag and a single large crystal on its forehead. Storms over the seas were believed to be these creatures battling each other as they were sworn enemies. These beliefs were believed to have originated amongst the Mound Builders of ancient Mississippian culture and became major elements in the South Eastern Ceremonial Complex of American prehistory.
The above description of the myth is something of a generalisation of the many different variations of the story that were developed by the many different tribes of America. The thunderbird had different backgrounds and meanings to each of these. For example the Ojibwe people believed that they were created by the spirit Nanabozho, he helped create the world and was a hero of the people. He created the thunderbird not only to fight the underwater spirits but also to punish humans that broke the moral rules of their society.
Another example of slight differences in the myth would be that of the Menominee tripe of Northern Wisconsin. This story says that the birds all dwell on a great island that floats high above in the western skies. They control the world’s rain and hail and were said to delight in battle, fighting and deeds of greatness among the people. In this story they fight the many great horned serpents named the ‘Misikinubik’ and stop them from taking over the world and destroying humans in the process.
The symbol of the thunderbird is one the most foremost icons in the art and culture of Native Americans. This is entirely understandable considering the power these creatures supposedly wielded, along with the respect drawn from their tales of protection of humankind. It’s depicted in many ways, on weapons and shields, in pictograms and perhaps most memorably in totem poles. It’s usually shown as a large raptor bird, often with large legs, curling horns, a long curved beak and head void of feathers.
There’s no real telling as to where the legend derives from, however it’s believed that it may have been inspired by the larger species of birds that dwelled in North America such as eagles, pelicans and the Great Blue Heron. That being said there are many sightings of much larger, giant birds throughout the country’s history so who’s to say that the thunderbird doesn’t truly exist?