Native American Thunderbird: Significance and Symbolism

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The Thunderbird is a legendary creature that is part of the rich culture and history of the Native American people. Thus, it’s a very important symbol of their identity and representation even amid the modern world. In this article, we’ll cover what the Thunderbird means to the Native Americans and how it’s possibly inspirational for your life as well.

History of the Native American Thunderbird

Native american thunderbird both wings open

The truth of the matter is that the Thunderbird does not have one origin story. It was a mythical creature that was common to many Native American tribes. There are reasons for this, one being that the Native American people had no centralized organization and instead, existed in various tribes with their own leaders and traditions. Due to this, different tribes share similar myths sometimes with variations. The earliest record of the Thunderbird symbol however, can be traced as far back as 800 CE to 1600 CE around Mississippi.

Thunderbird in Various Native American Tribes

Regardless of tribe, the common description of a Thunderbird is a bird-like mythical creature that dominated nature. It was described as a beast who created loud thunder with just the flap of its wings. It was believed to be so powerful that it could also blast lightning from its eyes whenever it got enraged. Some depictions portray it as a shapeshifter.

The thunderbird was both respected and feared simultaneously. Here’s what it symbolized to different tribes.

  • For the Algonquian people, who are historically one of the largest groups in America pre-colonization, they believe that the world is controlled by two powerful and mystical beings. The Thunderbird reigns supreme over the upper world, while an underwater panther or a great horned snake rules the underworld. In this context, the Thunderbird was a protector that threw bolts of lightning at the panther/snake to keep humans safe. This indigenous tribe depicts the thunderbird taking the shape of the letter x. 
  • The Menominee people or those who come from Northern Wisconsin, thought that thunderbirds live atop a magical great mountain that floats near the western sky. For them, thunderbirds control the rainy and cold weather, and enjoy a good battle and display incredible feats of strength. This indigenous tribe also believes that thunderbirds are the messengers of the Great Sun and are enemies of the so-called Misikinubik or great horned snakes, who aim to devour the entire planet.
  • The Lakota Sioux meanwhile believed that a thunderbird appearing in one’s dream meant that that person would become some sort of a sacred clown called heyoka, who is deemed to be unconventional compared to the community standard.
  • The Shawnee tribe feared thunderbirds are shapeshifters who appear in the form of little boys to interact with people. The only way to identify thunderbirds are by their ability to speak backwards.
  • The Ojibwe tribe myths tell the story of thunderbirds as creations of their culture hero, Nanabozho, to deal with the underwater spirits. However, they not only protect humans, but thunderbirds were also thought to be instruments of punishment for humans who commit moral crimes. The Ojibwe people thought thunderbirds live in the four cardinal directions and come to their area every spring. After their battle with the snakes in the fall, the thunderbirds retreat and recover to the south.
  • More recently, the thunderbird was also used in 1925 by the Aleuts to describe the Douglas World Cruiser aircraft on its mission to be the first to complete an aerial circumnavigation of the planet Earth. It was also co-opted by the last Prime Minister of Imperial Iran, Shapour Bakhitar, before the country’s revolution. He said: I am a thunderbird; I am not afraid of the storm. Hence, Bakhitar is also commonly referred to as the Thunderbird.

Native American Thunderbird: Symbolisms

native american thunderbird symbolism

Thunderbirds are usually depicted atop totem poles because of the belief that they could hold spiritual powers.  The symbol itself forms an x with a bird’s head looking either left or right and its wings folded on each side. The thunderbird can also be seen with two horns, spread-eagled, and directly looking in front.

But no matter how it looks, here are the prevailing symbolic meanings of the thunderbird to the first inhabitants of America:

  • Power
  • Strength
  • Nobility
  • Spirituality
  • Leadership
  • Nature
  • War
  • Victory

Thunderbirds in the Modern World

Native american thunder bird

Aside from appearing in many stone carvings and prints in Native American sites, thunderbirds are also commonly seen in jewelry, and masks. 

Thunderbird symbols are also etched upon boxes, furniture, skin, and even burial sites which are popular to those who recognize their heritage and want to look back on the earlier traditions of the first people of America.

Why the Thunderbirds Matters

The symbol of the thunderbird will always hold a special place in the heart of Native Americans. It is the symbol of their strength, power, and resilience to keep their culture and traditions alive despite the years and years of colonization and modernity. Thunderbirds also exist to remind us to treat nature right or we risk facing the wrath of the spirits and of Mother Earth herself.