Native American Birds Legends: Wakinyan Tanka,the Great Thunderbird

Published on January 30, 2013 by Casey

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Wakinyan Tanka,the Great Thunderbird
Wakinyan Tanka,the Great Thunderbird

Native American Birds Legends: Wakinyan Tanka,the Great Thunderbird

Told by Lame Deer in 1969 in Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota

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Wakinyan Tanka, the Great Thunderbird, lives in his tipi on top of a high 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.

Four paths lead to the mountain on which the Wakinyan dwell. A Butterfly guards the entrance at the East side. A Bear guards the West, a Deer the North, and a Beaver the South. 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.

The Great Wakinyan’s tipi stands beside the tallest of all cedar trees. That’s why we use its foliage for the “cedaring,” the “smoking up,” in our ceremonies which call for sweet-smelling incense to purify our homes and ourselves. Inside the Wakinyan’s tipi is a nest made of dry bones. In it lies the giant egg from which the little thunderbirds are hatched. The egg is bigger than the whole state of South Dakota. You cannot see the Wakinyan because they are wrapped in robes of dark clouds, but you can feel their presence. I have often felt it. During a vision quest they may come and try to frighten you, to see whether you have enough courage to go through your “crying for a dream” — your four days and nights of fasting and listening and staying awake on top of a lonely hill. They test you this way, but the Wakinyan are good spirits. They like to help the people, even if they scare you sometimes.

Everything in nature moves in a certain way that whites call clockwise. Only the thunderbeings move in a contrary manner — counter-clockwise. That’s their way; they do everything differently. That’s why, if you dream of the Wakinyan, you become a heyoka: an upside-down, hot-cold, forward-backward man. This gives you power, but you don’t want to stay a heyoka for long, so we have a ceremony through which you can become your old self again.

The Wakinyan’s symbol is the zig-zag lightning, forked at the ends, which I use in some of my rituals. It’s a design I like and to which I feel in some way related, because a heyoka is also a sacred clown, and there is some of that clown nature within me.

The thunder beings are guardians of the truth. When you’re holding the sacred pipe and you swear on it, you can say nothing but the truth. If you lie, the Wakinyan will kill you with their lightning bolts. So 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 scaly snake with feet. She had a huge horn coming out of the top of her head, and she filled the whole of the Missouri River from end to end. The little water monsters, who lived in smaller streams and lakes, likewise had no use for humans. “What are these tiny, lice-like creatures crawling all over the place?” they asked. “What are these blood-clot people creeping out of the red pipestone? We don’t want them around!”

The Great Unktehi could place her body and puff it up in such a way that it made the great Missouri overflow, and her children, the little water monsters, did the same with their streams and lakes. So they caused a great flood that spread over the whole country, killing most of the people. Only a few escaped to the top of the highest mountain, and even there the waves threatened to sweep them off.

Then the great thunderbird spoke: “What’s to be done? I like these humans. They respect us; they pray to us. If they dream of us, they get a little of our power, and that makes them relatives of ours, in a way. Even though they are small, helpless, an pitiful, Grandfather put them on this earth for some purpose. We must save them from Unktehi!” Then began the great battle between the thunderbirds and the evil water monsters. It lasted many years, during which the earth trembled and the waters burst forth in mighty torrents, while the night was like day because of the flashes of lightning.

The Wakinyan have no bodies as we imagine them — no limbs or hands or feet — but they have enormous claws. They have no mouths, but they have big, sharp teeth. They have no eyes, but lightening bolts somehow shoot out of the eyes which are not there. This is hard to explain to a wasichu. The Wakinyan used their claws, their teeth, their lightning to fight the water monsters. The Wakinyan Tanka grappled with the Great Unktehi and the little thunder children were pitted against the smaller water monsters. The battle was not only long but desperate, for the Unktehi had spikes at the tip of their powerful tails that could gouge out fearful wounds as they roared and thrashed.

At last the Wakinyan Tanka called to the little thunderbirds: “My children, the Unktehi are winning. This close body-to-body fighting favors them!” All the thunder beings retreated to the top of their sacred mountain and took council together. The Great Wakinyan said:

“Our country is the air. Our power comes from the sky. It is wrong to fight the Unktehi on their own ground, on the earth and in the water where they are all-powerful. Come, my children, follow me!” Then all the thunderbirds flew up into the sky. “When I give the signal,” said the Wakinyan Tanka, “let’s use our lightning and thunderbolts together!” So the thunder beings shot off all their bolts at the same instant. The forests were set on fire, and flames consumed everything except the top of the rock on which the humans had taken refuge. The waters boiled and then dried up. The earth glowed red-hot, and the Unktehi, big and small, burned up and died, leaving only their dried bones in the Mako Sicha, the Badlands, where their bones turned to rock.

Until then the Unktehi had represented the water power, and now this power was taken by the Thunderbirds. And the few humans who survived climbed down from their high rock, praising the Wakinyan for saving them. These few again peopled the earth, and all was well.

The battle and the victory of the Wakinyan took place in the first of the great four ages — the age of Tunka, the Rock.

When I was young, hardly more than a boy, I went after some horses which had somehow got lost. Following their tracks into the Badlands, I searched for many hours. I lost all sense of time and was surprised by nightfall, sudden and pitch-black. The clouds that were covering the moon and stars split open in a thunderstorm. Hailstones as big as mothballs blanketed the ground with icy mush, and I thought that I might freeze to death in the summer. I happened to be in a narrow gulch, where I was in danger of drowning from the rush of water.

As best I could, I began scrambling up toward a high ridge. I couldn’t see except when there was a flash of lightning, and the earth was crumbling under me. Somehow I made it. The thunder never stopped, and the lightening became almost continuous. I could smell the wakangeli, the electricity, all around; it made my hair stand up.

The thunder was deafening. I straddled the ridge as if I were riding a horse. I could see enough in the lightning to know that I was very high up and the canyon was a long way down, and I was afraid of being blown off the ridge and hurled into that black nothingness. My teeth chattering, my legs and hands clamped to the razorback ridge, I moved inch by inch as I tried to get out of there. But I felt the presence of the Wakinyan, heard them talking to me through the thunder: “Don’t be afraid! Hold on! You’ll be alright.” At last the storm ended, and finally dawn came. Then I saw that I was straddling a long row of petrified bones, the biggest I had ever seen. I had been moving along the spine of the Great Unktehi.

Stiff with cold, I waited until the sun warmed me. Then I scrambled down and ran toward home. I forgot all about the horses; I never found them. And I searched many times for the ridge deep inside the Badlands that formed Unktehi’s spine. I wanted to show it to my friends, but I never found the ridge either.

Source: pyramidmesa Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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