It is incredibly likely that the name “Thunderbird” is a name that many are familiar with. From luxury cars to electric bass guitars, and everything in between, the name “Thunderbird” is almost omnipresent. But why is that? Why does the name “Thunderbird” carry such an allure? To understand why, we must look at the history of the Thunderbird and its origins that lay in the rich history of the indigenous North American people.
The story of the Thunderbird can trace its origins back to the Algonquian people. The Algonquian people are one of the largest language groups of indigenous people (a group of people united by a language/languages that derived from one common language.) The Algonquian people are made up of many different tribes that can be found distributed throughout the northern areas of the United States and Canada. Algonquian tribes could most often be found along the northern Atlantic coast and around the great lakes of the United States and they could also be found commonly in Central Canada.
From there, the legend of the Thunderbird spread throughout many different Native American cultures. One notable example is that of the Dakota people. According to Scottish journalist and folklorist Lewis Spence in his 1914 book Myths and Legends of the North-American Indians, the Thunderbird is said to be a deity that was responsible for causing thunderstorms with each flap of its wings. In addition, lightning was said to project from the eyes of the Thunderbird as well.
The Thunderbird is said to take on the role of a guardian spirit for the indigenous people. Often represented as a protector. One that would ensure the safety of the good and pure. In Dakota lore, the Thunderbirds banded together to do battle against the water serpent god, Unktahe. The serpent represents a malicious force that would cause harm to the Dakota. These Thunderbirds unleashed a storm of lightning that was said to be so strong that it boiled the oncoming flood that Unktahe was plotting to drown the humans.
In the Lakota language, the Thunderbird’s name is translated to Waukheon. Waukheon is thought to be derivative from the Lakota word for thunder, Wakíŋyaŋ. Wakíŋyaŋ is a combination of the words “wahka” and “kinyan” (“sacred” and ”wings” respectively.) Wakíŋyaŋ can also be translated to “spirits of thunder” and “thunder beings.” While the concept of thunder originating from the wings of a deity bird isn’t a universal concept throughout all indigenous beliefs, it is incredibly prominent in native lore and mythology.
Currently, it is mostly unknown how the story of the Thunderbird was spread so far amongst the tribes of North America. Due to the numerous tribes that represent the Algonquian group, each with their own languages and beliefs, a definitive origin point is almost impossible to be defined.
American historian and folklorist, Adrienne Mayor proposes that the prominence of the Thunderbird in Indigenous lore can be credited to native people finding fossilized remains of pterosaurs. Mayor points to large pterosaur fossils being found in Mexico, which is thought to have inspired the Aztec legend of the dragon god Quetzalcoatl.
Thunderbird in Modern Times
Today, the legend of the Thunderbird is one that has mostly stayed in the oral and written stories of the Indigenous people of North America. However, the influence of the Thunderbird can still be felt.
In the summer of 1977, a child was reportedly attacked by two large birds in Lawndale, Illinois. At 8pm, 10-year old Marlo Lowe was playing outside in his family’s lawn when he was suddenly flocked by two massive birds. As the boy ran, his mother, Ruth Lowe, heard a disturbance and went outside to investigate. Once outside, she was shocked to see her son being pecked and clawed at by a pair of massive birds. Even worse, Ruth soon saw one of the birds grab hold of the boy’s shoulders as it picked him up off his feet and began to fly away with the boy. Ruth would chase after the bird and eventually managed to free her son from the bird’s grasp, but not before the bird was able to carry the boy over a distance of 35 feet. Ruth would later describe the birds as:
“It had a white ring around its half foot long neck. The rest of the body was very black. The bird’s bill was six inches in length and hooked at the end. The claws on the feet were arranged with three fronts, one in the back. Each wing, less the body, was four feet at the very least. The entire length of the bird’s body, from beak to tail feather was approximately four and one half feet.”
Soon after, Lowe’s story would soon be circulated around the local community. The family was met with great skepticism and ridicule. Marlo Lowe became known as the “bird boy” at his local school. Dead pigeons were even thrown at the family’s home by local bullies. While the birds in question have been referred to as “Thunderbirds”, this report lacks key defining features of the Thunderbirds from indigenous lore. Despite what the Lowes say, the culprit seems to be a Thunderbird in name only.
Many observers of Lowe’s story have suggested that the birds in question were two large California Condors. The California Condor is the largest North American land bird. However, this is rather unlikely due to the bird’s known habitat being on the West coast. In addition, during the 1970s, the California Condor was known to be an endangered species. This would make a sighting in Illinois to be incredibly unlikely.
In modern day, the name Thunderbird is often attributed to any anomalously large bird, rather than the deity. Many cryptozoologists have taken the Thunderbird name and used it as a way to describe any cryptid-like bird. It is incredibly rare to see a modern Thunderbird sighting that reports the bird’s reported ability to produce thunder or lightning. Instead, many cite that the sound of these large birds flapping their wings is similar to that of a clap of thunder.
Today, it is more common to see something brandishing the name of the Thunderbird than it is to see something resembling the deity. However, it is impossible to deny the importance of the Thunderbird. The influence of the Thunderbird is almost as legendary as the storms it would bring in its wake. The next time you look up at the open sky, remember the legend of the Thunderbird and the unique avian thunder it would bring that captivated indigenous people all those years ago.
Berke, Jeremy. “The Mythic Child-Stealing Thunderbirds of Illinois.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 5 Aug. 2015, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-mythic-child-stealing-thunderbirds-of-illinois.
Mayor, Adrienne. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton University Press. 2005.
Spence, Lewis. The Myths of North American Indians. George G. Harrap & Company.1914