One of the most prominent icons found in Native American cultures, the Thunderbird is a symbol of power, protection and renewal. A true cross-cultural symbol, legends of the Thunderbird can be found from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean, as far north as the Hudson Bay to the jungles of South America. In the spiritual traditions of indigenous North Americans, the Thunderbird is a powerful spirit often attended by eagles and falcons, who protects mankind and fights his most powerful enemies. The Thunderbird, who creates lightning from it's mouth or eyes and thunder by the beating of it's wings, was commonly though to be responsible for rain and the growth of plants as well. Usually depicted with a huge wingspan, it often is also pictured with large ears or horns, and sometimes with lightning bolts or snakes in it's talons. Not only limited to the New World, analogues have been found in Asia, Africa and European artifacts as well, though this article will focus on North American representations.
For the Algonqiuan of the east coast and Great Lakes regions, the Thunderbird was the Lord of the sky and outer earth, and opposed the Great Horned Serpent (or sometimes, the Underwater Panther) who was the master of the underworld. The Thunderbird, often represented by an X, creates thunder by flapping its wings and hurls lightning bolts at his underworld enemy.
In the Menominee culture of northern Wisconsin, the Thunderbirds were messengers of the Great Sun, and enemies of the Misikinubik, the horned serpents who feast on humans. Residing on a great floating mountain in the western sky, they were fierce protectors of humans, relishing in fighting and displays of power, and preventing the evil serpents from overrunning the Earth.
For the Ojibwe who lived on the northern coasts of the Great Lakes and into the Canadian interior, it was Nanabozho, the great hero and trickster god, who first created the Thunderbirds to oppose the spirits under the water who were bent on man's destruction. The Thunderbirds also served to punish human wrongdoing. Appearing in the springtime with the return of migratory birds, the doodem battled the underwater spirits during the summer, and flew south come fall.
After fasting and spiritual purification, if a vision of a Thunderbird is seen, the man will become a powerful war chief, according to the legends of the Winnebago or Ho-Chunk peoples of the mid-west. The power of shapeshifting is also ascribed to the Thunderbird, who can take the form of a human for more subtle interactions with tribe-members. This belief is also shared by the Passamaquoddy of the northeastern United States, in Maine and New Brunswick.
In the Lakota culture of the Dakotas, the Thunderbird is one of the great Thunder Beings who return in the spring, the beginning of the Lakotan ceremonial season, bringing rain and powerful storms. These beings hold the keys to both renewal and destruction, causing the animals, birds and plants to return or emerge from winter hiding places, but also destroying with the powerful forces of nature at their command.
The tribes of the northwest also share rich traditions of the Thunderbird. Extremely protective of their homes, the beings are said to inhabit high mountain fastnesses which they will defend if any human comes to near. To protect their aeries, they will call up thunderstorms and even avalanches to dissuade the curious or daring hunter. The Salish considered this home to be Black Tusk peak in British Columbia, while for the Quileute tribe of Washington state, it was a cave on Mt. Olympus. The Kwakwaka’wakw honor the Thunderbird in their art and at the peaks of their totem poles
in remembrance of the being's saving the tribe from starvation. The Squamish consider the Thunderbird a messenger of the Creator, and as well as strength and protection, it represents change, as symbolized by it's three tail feathers, one for the past, present and future. For Pacific coast tribes, the traditional underwater spirit enemy is represented by the Killer Whale, which also features prominently in art and legend. The Thunderbird hunts the orcas with it's lightning, which is often depicted as snakes. Prairies found near the coast are explained as being a result of tremendous battles between Thunderbirds and the whales which uprooted all the trees in these areas.