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Thunderbirds

Native Skeptic

Noah Nez

Volume 21.4, Winter 2011-2012

ThunderbirdThis image of a Thunderbird is part of a Rosie Yellowhair sand painting done in 1950 and depicts the Navajo Creation or Emergence Story. It’s located at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Noah Nez)

Various civilizations have used culturally relevant stories to teach their people the importance of community and respecting the power of nature. Nearly every culture speaks of the common notion of the changes that life often brings. The Native American Thunderbird, who brings changes to the people, serves as a reminder that change is inevitable. Traditionally, tribal elders teach younger generations how to navigate through the emotional struggles of life by giving some explanation or insight into the purpose of fear and their struggles with change. The Thun­derbird is seen as an agent of change that helps determine be­havior within the dynamics of both family and community. Thunder­bird stories are a way of relating the people to the natural world by using metaphorical depictions of things that the people have always understood, such as birds that can fly or live in the sky (i.e., the heavens).

The tale of “Wakinyan Tanka,” the great Thunderbird, originates from one of the seven Western Sioux tribes known as the Brule Sioux. This group, which received its name from the French word brule (meaning “burned”), presently occupies the Rosebud reservation located in the southwestern region of South Dakota. A Sioux medicine man, John “Fire” Lame Deer, recalls the story of the Great Thunderbird:

Wakinyan Tanka, the great Thunderbird, lives in his tipi on top of a mountain in the sacred Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. The whites call it Harney Peak, but I don’t think he lives there anymore since the wasichu, the whites, have made these hills into a vast Disneyland. No, I think the thunder beings have retreated to the farthest end of the earth, where the sun goes down, where there are no tourists or hot dog stands. The Wakinyan hates all that is dirty. He loves what is clean and pure. His voice is the great thunderclap, and the smaller rolling thunders that follow his booming shouts are the cries of his children, the little thunderbirds. (Lame Deer 1969)

Lame Deer goes on to describe the nature of these beings:

There are four large, old Thunderbirds. The Great Wakinyan of the West is the first and foremost among them. He is clothed in clouds. His body has no form, but he has giant, four-jointed wings. He has no feet, but enormous claws. He has no head, but a huge, sharp beak with rows of big, pointed teeth. His color is black. The second Wakinyan of the North is red. The third Thunderbird of the East is yellow. The fourth thunderbird of the South is white, though there are some who say that its colors are blue. That one has no eyes or ears, yet he can see and hear. How that can be is a mystery. From time to time a holy man catches a glimpse of a Wakinyan in his dreams, but always only a part of it. No one ever sees the Thunderbird whole, not even in a vision, so the way we think a Thunderbird looks is pieced together from many dreams and visions. (Lame Deer 1969)

Some modern sightings and cryptozoological accounts tell of terrifying encounters of giant bird-like creatures carrying people off and building nests out of their bones. However, according to the Brule Sioux, these “Thunder Beings” are painted with a much different tone, as Lame Deer notes:

Thunderbirds stand for rain, and fire, and the truth, and as I said before, they like to help the people. In contrast, Unktehi, the great water monster, did not like human beings from the time they were put on this earth. Unktehi was shaped like a giant scaley snake with feet. She had a huge horn coming out on top of her head, and she filled the whole of the Missouri River from end to end. The little water monster, who lived in smaller streams and lakes, likewise had no use for humans. (Lame Deer 1969)

The Great Unktehi and her offspring were said to have been the source of many floods when they “puffed” up their bodies, causing lakes, streams, and even the whole Missouri river to overflow. The Thunderbirds protected humans from these “water monsters” in an epic battle to make the world a safer place for people to live, and in doing so gained the water power by taking it from Unktehi.

sand painting tapestryA sand painting tapestry from Navajo medicine man and artist, Hasteen Klah, depicting each of the Thunderbirds of the Four Directions (North, South, East, West). Located in Phoenix, Arizona, at the Heard Museum’s Navajo Textile Exhibit: 100+ Years of Weaving. (Photo by Noah Nez)

Some attempt to correlate the various stories from different tribes of indigenous people into modern Thunderbird sightings. However, when one looks a little more critically at these legends, it is clear they serve a much different purpose.

The Yaqui tribe also has its own legend describing a giant mythical bird. In the tale of the “Otam Kawi,” it is said that “a great bird lived on a hill of Otam Kawi. Every morning he would fly out in search of food. He caught men, women, and little children and carried them back to Otam Kawi to eat. In those days the people always were watchful. They couldn’t have fiestas because when they had pascolas [ceremonial dances], always two or three of the people were carried away by the big bird. The Yaquis lived in hu’ukis, little houses made of mud and branches that looked like the house of a pack-rat, because they were afraid of the giant bird” (Giddings 1959).

Rather than describing a Thunderbird, this account more closely resembles a creation story. The following quote provides some insight into the intention of this particular account: “There were cows in those days, but no animals of the claw” (Giddings 1959). Upon closer review, this particular story sounds much like the Navajo’s “Mon­ster Slayer” legend, an alternate creation story. The story follows the life of a boy whose parents were taken by the giant bird during the time when the earth was still unsafe for people. The grandfather makes the boy a set of arrows and a bow and as time goes by, the boy becomes a better hunter and grows stronger as he ages. One day he ventures off to avenge his parents’ killer, seeking out the big bird. The story describes the giant birds: “He saw everything; the size, the colors of the feathers, the big eyes, and all.” When the boy returns back to his village to speak to his grandfather about the things he saw while hiding in a hole near the giant bird’s mesquite tree, he gives another similar description: “I saw him. I saw all of his colored feathers and his big eyes.” When the other villagers catch word of what the young boy has seen, they all go to visit him to ask if he has really seen the legendary giant bird. The boy gives the following response: “Yes, I saw it. It has feathers of many colors, a big body, and long claws”1 (Giddings 1959).

Often the legends of Native American folklore include the common theme of a giant bird-like creature nesting in a “pile of bones.” For example, in this story, the young boy declares his intent to kill the terrorizing bird to the dismay and doubt of the elders. After being equipped with a new set of arrows and a stronger bow, the boy sets off on his journey to Otam Kawi. Along the way he encounters an older man who lived near the mountain who tells him, “Wait for this bird near Otam Kawi. He lives there. He only goes away to catch the people. He always comes back there. You will see there a great pile of bones.” The story continues:

He pulled out a handful of feathers and threw them into the air and the feathers become owls. With another handful of feathers he made smaller owls. With four handfuls of feathers, he made four classes of owls. In the same way, with other handfuls of feathers, he made birds of every kind, crows, and roadrunners. He threw the feathers and they became birds of different colors. When he had finished all of the feathers, he cut off a piece of meat from a dead bird. He threw this and it became a mountain lion. He cut another piece and made another kind of lion, which is a little braver. With another he made the topol, and with another, a spotted cat. Thus, the boy made four classes of big cats. After that he made four smaller kinds of cats. “I killed the big bird. Now you may walk about the world.” Upon returning to the village, the boy encounters some elders, stopping to ask if he has indeed killed the giant bird. “Yes, sirs. I made many little animals out of the feathers and the meat. I made owls of four kinds. I made four kinds of coyotes, four kinds of small cats, four kinds of lions, all animals of the claw.” The boy described some of the other animals made from the remains of the big bird: “These little birds don’t do any harm to us. But those animals I made from the meat of the big bird, you must take care about those. From today on they are not going to be gentle. We no longer have danger from above. Now we must take care from below. These animals aren’t much good for food, only for clothing. The birds are valuable only for their pretty feathers.”

This is clearly part of the creation story of the Yaqui, which is not to be taken literally. Those who offer the Yaqui legend of Otam Kawi as historic evidence for the existence of the Native American Thunderbird are misrepresenting the actual accounts of these vastly diverse groups of people and their different tribal beliefs.

Thunderbirds and Cryptozoology

Mark A. Hall, a leading cryptozoologist and self-proclaimed Thunderbird expert, has been investigating historical records and the eyewitness testimonies of cryptozoological phenomena for over fifty years. He is the author of Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds and is quoted on the Cryptomundo blog as being “an old fashioned patriot who allows himself to question the scientific establishment with every breath he takes” (Coleman 2010). Hall offers the following description of Thunderbirds:

The bird is distinguished by its size and lifting capabilities exceeding those of any known bird living today anywhere in the world. Wingspan estimates are necessarily all guesswork. But observers sometimes have the benefit of a measurable object for comparison or the benefit of time to ob­serve a resting bird. The results most often provide sizes of 15 to 20 feet. The bird at rest or on the ground appears to be four to eight feet tall. Typically the coloring of the birds overall is dark. (qtd. in Heinselman 2011)

However, Thunderbirds are unlike any extinct, prehistoric, or living species of birds presented by many cryptozoologists and monster enthusiasts because they are mythical creatures inspired by animals familiar to the groups of people living at the time these stories originated; they are intended as a way to explain the natural world.

Thunderbird mural in Phoenix, ArizonaAs part of the city’s public-art program, this mural runs along the Thunderbird exit of the I-17 freeway located in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Noah Nez)

Craig Heinselman has contributed to cryptozoology with works such as Elemen­tum Bestia, which chronicles various subjects such as “elusive” prehistoric dino­saurs. In his article on Thunderbirds featured on Cryptozoology.com, he writes, “The evidence thus far for the existence of a large predatory bird in North America is based on historical and modern sightings and legends with no physical evidence, there is however two images of the Thunderbird, or at least a large bird” (Heinselman 2011).

Claims of modern Thunderbird sightings are not even supported by Native Amer­ican stories. No person has ever seen a Thun­derbird, even in dreams or in the “visions” of medicine men. According to the Native Amer­ican mythologies, Thunder­birds have no actual physical form. Most accounts resemble any other modern citing of a large bird-like shape with the potential of being misjudged in size and distance, which is notoriously common in eyewitness accounts. Some stories and reports offer various bones, possibly fossils, of large birds as physical evidence of Thunderbirds, but they are not necessarily the same creatures mentioned in these “sightings” from all around the world.

The majority of the “evidence” proposed for this mythic bird-like creature is given as literal interpretations of Native American folklore, which as we have seen are erroneous. Any eyewitness sightings (and certainly those by non-Natives) by definition cannot be Thunderbirds. In fact, it may even be considered disrespectful to suggest that a person could see, or has seen, a Thunderbird. Some may have looked to the Thunderbird legend to help rationalize these various strange encounters that people experience, but in doing so they bastardize these legends, misinform their readers, and do a disservice to the people and their tribal culture. If any part of the story should be taken out of the legend of Wakinyan Tanka, it should be that Thunderbirds are a link between the supernatural and natural worlds. They do not exist, but they are very real in the hearts and minds of Native American people.


Note

1. A major difference between this Yaqui story of the Otam Kawi and the Thunderbird legend is in the detailed descriptions given by these respective tribes. While the Thunderbird has “no body form, no eyes or feet,” the giant bird of the Otam Kawi is described in the story as having “colorful feathers with a big body and big eyes.”


References

Coleman, Loren. 2010. Men in cryptozoology (blog post). Cryptomundo (June 14). Available online at www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/mencz-hall/.

Lame Deer, John. Wankanyan Tanka, the Great Thunderbird. In American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, (New York: Pantheon, 1984): 218–222.

Giddings, Ruth W. 1959. Yaqui myths and legends. Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona 2: 78–83.

Heinselman, Craig. N.d. Thunderbird. Available on­line at www.cryptozoology.com/cryptids/thunderbird.php.

Noah Nez

Noah Nez's photo

Noah Nez is a Native American skeptic living in Arizona; he is a member of the Phoenix Area Skeptics Society (PASS) and author of Native Skeptic, a blog that looks at critical thinking from a Native American perspective.