Published on August 4, 2014 by Amy
The meaning of the Thunderbird as a Native American symbol varies according to the tribe (geographic location). This page discusses the Thunderbird symbol as viewed by the sacred eye of the beholder: The prime people of North America who held a vision of glory and power concerning this Spirit Bird.
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Some tribes view the Thunderbird as an omen of war. When quaking peals of thunder rattle the heavens, it’s a sign the spirits are warring in the skies. This was also a foretelling of victory for tribal wars fought on the ground – particularly when ritual ceremonies and dances were reverently adhered to.
When the cry of the Thunderbird was heard (in the form of thunder in the skies) war huts were constructed to begin ceremonial processions. These huts were always made with the wood of the cedar tree, sacred to the Thunderbird. War dances by the Iroquois and Shawnee must be performed to exact precision in order to appease the rousted Thunderbird and insure victory in battle.
Tobacco (also sacred to the Thunderbird) would be smoked in intricate ceremonial order. The effects of the smoke would lift Native souls to the heavens where braves would encounter the Thunderbird in spirit-journeying; further bolstering the warrior’s heart and insuring triumph against foe.
Other, more peace-keeping tribes viewed the Thunderbird as supreme Nature Spirit and a solar animal. It’s eyes were said to be made from the sun, and upon waking in the morning, the Thunderbird issued the dawning day. Alternatively when Thunderbird retired at night, its sleepily closing eyes marked the solar dusk.
Another Native tale indicates lightning jetting out of the eyes of the Thunderbird when angered (during storms), and deafening cracks of thunder were produced when it flapped its mighty wings.
As a Native American symbol of creation, the Thunderbird marks the separation between the heavens and the earth. Moreover, in Northwestern tribes the Thunderbird is known as the Skyamsen, and is the dominating force of all natural activity.
In this perspective, the Thunderbird is the Creator, Destroyer and Controller of Nature and must be honored and appeased at all cost. This is where we see a connection to rain as the Thunderbird is the bringer of life-giving waters (so agriculture may thrive and provide to the tribe). Countless ceremonies are conducted in honor of the great rain-bringer as a way to insure continued food supply.
The Eagle is often a Native American symbol that represents the Thunderbird. I’ve heard stories of various Native clans of the Great Lakes regions using Eagle feathers in headdresses and ritual dances as a personification of the great Thunderbird. In this way shapeshifting/animism/shamanic journeying is facilitated.
I’ve been told me stories of the Thunderbird (in the form of the Eagle) wages constant battle with a massive water Serpent. This horned Serpent is said to be quite nefarious and bodes ill-will against humankind.
The Thunderbird dives into the waters, seeking out the serpent to vanquish it from the Great Lakes in order to protect humans. The battles between the Eagle (Thunderbird) and the Serpent results in raging waters and brewing storms.
Perhaps the most breath-taking specimen of the Thunderbird symbol is atop traditional Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Alaska, Oregon and Washington in the USA and the NW coast of Canada known as the British Columbian province). The more familiar native Nations of this region include: Tlingit and Haida.
In the sacred circles of wisdom among these NW coastal tribes, the Thunderbird perches regally atom Totem Poles to denote ultimate status – an ascended emblem of power and supreme chief among the Native pantheon of natural spirit energies.
Interestingly, Totem Poles are traditionally made from the cedar tree, and the cedar is sacred to the Thunderbird.
Legend states the Thunderbird dwells in regal solitude in mystic cedar forests, where no man may enter. There, the Thunderbird rules the activity of the skies. It’s also said the Thunderbird smokes tobacco from cedar pipes – and this is where we get the link between the Thunderbird and tobacco.
The Haida created elaborate masks in the image of the Thunderbird. During ritual, these masks are worn and the beaks would open to reveal the human face of the wearer. This is a symbolic statement that underscores the of the Haida belief in the human soul taking on the Thunderbird form.
Some Haida stories tell that great hunters and honored elders of the tribe would be visited by the Thunderbird upon his deathbed, and the great bird would fly his soul to the great mystic cedar forests where he would be stay as a guest of honor (and get to smoke good tobacco for the rest of his days in the spirit world).