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Native American Legends of the Thunderbird

    The Passamaquoddy Legend of Thunderbird's Origin

    • The Passamaquoddy tell of two Indians who plotted to discover the origin of thunder. Traveling north they eventually came to a high range of magic mountains; the peaks would draw apart, move backwards and forwards, then slam back together. The first Indian to try leaping through the cleft succeeded, but the second was crushed. The survivor found himself on a large plain where he saw a group of warriors playing ball. The warriors eventually tired of their game, entered their wigwams to put on wings, then emerged with bows and arrows and flew up, southward over the mountains, to hunt: The Passamaquoddy Indian had discovered the home of the Thunderbirds. He spoke with the old men of the village about his mission; they pounded him in a large mortar until all his bones were broken, then reshaped him with wings and sent him back south. This is how the Passamaquoddy came to have a lone Thunderbird to keep a watchful eye over them.

    Legends Embodied in Name and Iconography

    • Even the name "Thunderbird" is steeped in legend; in basic terms the beating of his massive wings when he is in flight is thought to cause the thunder and the wind of storms. He carries lightning snakes under his wings, and lightning also flashes from his eyes. The direct translation of his name from Lakota, however, simply connotes a sacred, winged creature. On totems from the peoples of the Pacific northwest to the Plains Indians he is depicted as multi-colored, with horns and a crown -- or a crown of coiled feathers -- and a hooked beak somewhat larger in proportion than that of an eagle.

    Legends of Thunderbird's Purpose and Interaction

    • Native American legends and ceremonies usually concentrate on interactions with the natural world.Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

      Most Native American and First Peoples with a single Thunderbird culture believe him to be a servant messenger of Great Spirit, living on a mountaintop and only flying when he has a purpose. Nations with a plural pantheon believe the Thunderbirds can shape-shift into the likenesses of humans; some legends have them marrying human females, and some clans trace a direct lineage from such a liaison. Entire family units of Thunderbirds in human form were believed to live at the northernmost extent of Vancouver Island. When attacked, such tribes would don blankets of feathers and transform back to their natural form to wreak their vengeance.

    Thunderbird and Killerwhale

    • Thunderbird is not always a figure that inspires fear. In the Salish story of Thunderbird and Killerwhale, the people are starving to death because Killerwhale has invaded their bay, scaring off all the salmon on which the people were heavily dependent. They called out to Thunderbird who swooped down, caught Killerwhale up in his massive talons and returned to his mountain to eat his prey. The salmon saw that Killerwhale was gone and returned to the bay, so the people were again able to eat. Perhaps because of this occurrence, during the Sundance ceremony of the Anishinaabe people -- who relate the Thunder Bay area of Ontario to Thunderbirds -- a Thunderbird nest is installed near the top of the tree of life and venerated during the dances.

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