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Native American Symbolism: The Thunderbird

One iconic symbol featured heavily in our stunning Native American jewelry at Indian Traders is the Thunderbird.

The symbolism of the Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a mythical creature of huge importance to the Native Americans of both the United States and Canada. An enormous bird, he symbolized great power, strength, and protection for humans against evil spirits. Able to transform into human form by removing his head like a mask and his feathers like a cape, he was considered the most powerful of all Spirits in Native American culture. Beneath his wings were lightning snakes, and these he wielded as weapons or tools as required.

Lightning shot from Thunderbird’s eyes and the flapping of his wings sounded like thunder. The Thunderbirds brought storms and rain – these could be good when the rain was needed or bad when floods, fires, and destructive winds were the result.

Said to reside in the clouds above the highest mountains, the Thunderbirds had sharp claws and teeth and vibrant, colorful feathers. His wingspan was enormous.

Tribal Legends

Legends of the Thunderbird have been passed through the generations via stories, songs, and dance. Many legends depict the anger of the Thunderbirds; they are fearsome and frightening. Some tribes perceived them as sacred natural forces, while others saw them as normal parts of the animal kingdom.

Only the strongest, most successful and powerful Chiefs and their families were permitted to use Thunderbird in their crests.

  • According to the Algonquin Indians, Thunderbird controls the upper world; the underworld is controlled by the Great Horned Serpent.
  • The Menominee believe they are direct messengers from the Great Spirit.
  • On the Pacific Northwest Coast, people begged Thunderbird for help with crops and food in times of scarcity. He agreed to help, but asked that thereafter he only be depicted with wings stretched out atop a totem pole.
  • To the Winnebago Indians of the Plains and Midwest, Thunderbird was a Shapeshifter who could take human form. He has been associated with the Birdman legends in Mississippian culture. According to Winnebago legend, a man who experiences a vision of a Thunderbird while fasting will become a war chief.
  • The Passamaquoddy Indians of New Brunswick and Maine believed that Thunderbirds were Native American men who could transform into flying creatures to protect humans.
  • The Sioux believe Thunderbird was a noble protector against reptilian monsters known as Unktehlia.
  • Thunderbird appeared to the Shawnee tribe as backwards-speaking boys.
  • The Ojibwe believed Thunderbirds fought underwater spirits, punished immoral humans, and travelled with other birds.
  • The Quillayute Indians of the Pacific Northwest believed Thunderbird was sent by the Great Spirit to help after a catastrophic natural disaster, bringing a great whale from the ocean to feed them and enable their survival. Quillayute legend mentions the Great Flood in its description of the battle between the Thunderbird and the whale.
  • The Navajo war god Nayanazgeni battled with the Thunderbirds who, according to Navajo belief, was an alien god.

Thunderbird symbolism has for many thousands of years been applied to pottery, masks, carvings, totem poles, and jewelry.

The Thunderbird at Indian Traders

We offer some beautiful pieces featuring the Thunderbird in Native American jewelry, from a Zuni Thunderbird keyring to Zuni Moneyclips and even a Native American blanket for your baby’s crib. Visit our store today to explore our vast range of stunning, authentic southwest American Indian merchandise.