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A Northwest Coast styled Kwakwaka'wakw totem pole depicting a Thunderbird perched on the top. To Kwakwaka'wakw, different Thunderbirds are ancestors, whom they descend from.

The Thunderbird is a legendary creature in North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It's considered a "supernatural" bird of power and strength. It is especially important, and richly depicted, in the art, songs and oral histories of many Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, but is also found in various forms among the peoples of the American Southwest and Great Plains. Thunderbirds were major components of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of American prehistory. [1][2]

Contents

Naming

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 Wakį́yą, a word formed from kįyą́, meaning "winged," and wakhą́, "sacred." The Kwakwaka'wakw have many names for the Thunderbird and the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) called him 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.

Common depictions

Across many North America 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 many-colored, with two curling horns, and, often, teeth within its beak. The Native Americans believed that the giant Thunderbird could shoot lightning from its eyes.

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 that one should go out of one's way to keep from getting thunderbirds angry.

The singular Thunderbird (as the Nuu-chah-nulth thought of him) was said to reside on the top of a mountain, and was the servant of the Great Spirit. The Thunderbird only flew about to carry messages from one spirit to another. 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 Sioux believed that in "old times" the Thunderbirds destroyed dangerous reptilian monsters called the Unktehila.

A famous story of the Thunderbird is "Thunderbird and Whale." The Thunderbird mythology parallels tales of the Roc from around the Indian Ocean; as the roc, it is generally assumed to be based on real (though mythically exaggerated) species of birds, specifically the Bald Eagle, which is very common on the Northwest Coast.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Townsend, Richard F. (2004). Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300106017.  
  2. ^ F. Kent Reilly and James Garber, ed (2004). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms. University of Texas Press. pp. 29–34. ISBN 9780292713475.  

See also

External links








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