By Steve Mizrach, Ph.D
Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies, Florida International University
The Thunderbird is one of the few cross-cultural elements of Native North American mythology. He is found not just among Plains Indians, but also among Pacific Northwest and Northeastern tribes. He has also become quite a bit of an icon for non-Indians, since he has also had the honor of having automobiles, liquors, and even a United States Air Force squadron named after him. Totems bearing his representation can be found all over the continent. There have been a number of curious theories about the origins of the Thunderbird myth – ones which I will show are probably wrongheaded.
In this paper, moreover, I want to examine how the myths and legends of the Thunderbird tie into the sacred clowning/trickster ritual complex of Plains tribes such as the Lakota. I will show how the Thunderbird is intimately connected to this complex, and attempt to explain why. It is the intimate association between these two traditions that may help explain some features of Plains culture and folklore. Aspects of the Thunderbird myth only make sense in light of these associations.
Plains Indians myth and folklore
In order to understand Plains Indians folklore, we have to realize that their myths were not just “just-so” stories to entertain, divert, or make inadequate efforts at naturalistic explanation. Rather, Indian myth functioned in religious, pedagogical, and initiatory ways, to help socialize young people and illuminate the various religious and other roles in society. Indian myth was always fluid, and grounded in the present, which is what might be expected of societies which largely lacked static, written traditions. Storytelling was an art which was maintained by the medicine people with great fidelity, because it was used to explain the development of certain rituals and elements of society. (Hines 1992)
Some have looked at the Thunderbird myths through the same lens of understanding applied to European mythology. The Thunderbird is like the Indo-European dragon or ogre or Leviathan, a huge monster who kidnaps virginal maidens, and who must be slain by the brave hero. Or the Thunderbird is simply treated as some kind of fantastic oddity, like the mythical unicorn or mermaid – an impossible construction borne from the extremes of the imagination. Both these attempts at explaining myth lose the important point of seeing Thunderbird as a personification of energies in nature – those found in violent thunderstorms and such – and his crucial dual nature.
Still, the Indians were not merely “mythmaking” in the pejorative sense. They no more literally believed in a giant bird generating storms through the beating of its wings, then Christians today literally believe in their divine being as an old man with a beard sitting on a marble throne. Thunderbird is an allegory; his conflicts with other forces in nature are then an attempt to allegorize relationships observed in the natural order, such as the changing of the weather. Like other Thunder Beings, he is essentially an attempt to represent the patterns of activity of a powerful, mysterious force in a way that can be understood simply and easily – sort of the way in which a weather map functions today. (Edmonds and Clark 1989)
The Plains Indians believed that everything that was found in nature had a human representative in microcosm. Everything in nature often contained its own opposite polarity, hence the expected existence of beings such as contraries, women warriors, and berdaches. Because the Thunderbird in particular represented this mysterious dual aspect of nature, manifest through the primordial power of thunderstorms, it is not surprising that his representatives were the heyoka or sacred clowns, who displayed wisdom through seemingly foolhardy action. Western thinking has prevented us from seeing the reasons why Indians perceived this connection. Few anthropologists have sought to locate how Thunderbird may have been mythologically linked to Trickster.
The Nature of Thunderbird
In Plains tribes, the Thunderbird is sometimes known as Wakinyan, from the Dakota word kinyan meaning “winged.” Others suggest the word links the Thunderbird to wakan, or sacred power. In many stories, the Thunderbird is thought of as a great Eagle, who produces thunder from the beating of his wings and flashes lightning from his eyes. (Descriptions are vague because it is thought Thunderbird is always surrounded by thick, rolling clouds which prevent him from being seen.) Further, there were a variety of beliefs about Thunderbird, which suggest a somewhat complicated picture. Usually, his role is to challenge some other great power and protect the Indians – such as White Owl Woman, the bringer of winter storms; the malevolent Unktehi, or water oxen who plague mankind; the horned serpents; Wochowsen, the enemy bird; or Waziya, the killing North Wind. But in some other legends (not so much in the Plains), Thunderbird is himself malevolent, carrying off people (or reindeer or whales) to their doom, or slaying people who seek to cross his sacred mountain. (Erdoes and Ortiz 1984)
Many Plains Indians claim there are in fact four colors (varieties) of Thunderbirds (the blue ones are said, strangely, to have no ears or eyes), sometimes associated with the four cardinal directions, but also sometimes only with the west and the western wind. (According to the medicine man Lame Deer, there were four, one at each compass point, but the western one was the Greatest and most senior.) (Fire and Erdoes 1972) The fact that they are sometimes known as “grandfathers” suggest they are held in considerable reverence and awe. It is supposed to be very dangerous to approach a Thunderbird nest, and many are supposed to have died in the attempt, swept away by ferocious storms. The symbol of Thunderbird is the red zig-zag, lightning-bolt design, which some people mistakenly think represents a stairway. Most tribes feel he and the other Thunder beings were the first to appear in the Creation, and that they have an especially close connection to wakan tanka, the Great Mysterious. (Gill and Sullivan 1992)
The fact that Thunderbird sometimes appears as something that terrorizes and plagues Indians, and sometimes as their protector and liberator (in some myths, he was once an Indian himself) is said to reflect the way thunderstorms and violent weather are seen by Plains people. On the one hand, they bring life-giving rain (Thunderbird is said to be the creator of ‘wild rice’ and other Plains Indians crops); on the other hand, they bring hail, flood, and lightning and fire. It is not clear where with them worship and awe end, and fear and terror begin. Some Indians claim that there are good and bad Thunderbirds, and that these beings are at war with each other. Others claim that the large predatory birds which are said to kidnap hunters and livestock are not Thunderbirds at all. Largely, I suspect that this dual nature of the Thunderbird ties it to the Trickster figure in Indian belief: like the Trickster, the harm the Thunderbird causes is mostly because it is so large and powerful and primeval.
Origins of the Thunderbird Myth
Cryptozoologists like Mark A. Hall, having studied the Thunderbird myths of numerous tribes, and compared them to (mostly folkloric) accounts of unusually large birds in modern times, as well as large birds (like the Roc) in other mythic traditions, suggest that there may well be a surviving species of large avians in America – big enough, apparently, to fly off carrying small animals or children, as has been claimed in some accounts. (Hall suggests the wingspan of such a species would be several feet longer than any known birds – certainly bigger than that of the turkey vulture or other identifiable North American species.) (Hall 1988) Such researchers feel the Thunderbird myth may have originated from sightings of a real-life flesh-and-blood avian which might be an atavism from earlier epochs (a quasi-pterodactyl or teratorn, perhaps.)
However, the big problem with this theory is that most ornithologists consider it to be quite farfetched. If such a species existed (a situation akin to the folkloric Sasquatch), it would be amazing that to this point it has remained unidentified and uncatalogued. A species of birds that big, unless it consisted of an extremely small number of members, would find it hard to avoid detection for long. Hall does suggest the possibility that maybe, like the mastodon, these large birds were hunted to extinction prior to the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent. Still, the other problem with his theory is that it ignores what Indians themselves have to say about the Thunderbird.
They describe the Thunderbird as a spiritual, not just physical, being. It is not seen as just a large, fearsome predatory bird that people tell stories about. Rather, it’s an integral part of Plains Indians religion and ritual. Only by ignoring this fact could we put our Western ethnocentric biases into effect, and reduce it to a zoological curiosity. The Thunderbird is much more than that; the Indian attitude toward it comes from more than just the mere fact that it is supposed to be really big. To understand the origins of Thunderbird myths, it’s necessary to see how they connect with other elements of Indian belief and ceremony – especially the Trickster complex – and see how they fit into the structure of Plains Indian myth as a whole.
Clowning around in Plains Indian culture
Clowning, like the icon of the Thunderbird, could be found in almost every North American Indian society. In every case, it involved ridiculous behavior, but on the Plains it especially exhibited inversion and reversal as elements of satire. There were four types of clown societies on the Plains – age-graded societies, military societies, the northern plains type, and the heyoka shamanistic societies. The behaviors of all sorts of clowns revolved around a few basic themes or attributes: burlesque, mocking the sacred, playing pranks or practical jokes, making obscene jokes or gestures, caricature of others, exhibiting gross gluttony or extreme appetite, strange acts of self-mortification or self-deprecation, and taunting of enemies or strangers. (Steward 1991)
The age-graded clown societies primarily consisted of older people who had been inducted into their ranks – groups such as the Gros Ventre Crazy Lodge or the Hidatsa Dog Society. These clowns were assumed to simply be playing a role appropriate to their sodality, rather than receiving some sort of supernatural inspiration. They carried out certain expected ritual performances on proscribed days, such as the Crazy Dance or the imitation of animals. In contrast, the military clown societies such as the Cheyenne Inverted Bow String Warriors, often carried comical or ridiculous weapons, but were also expected to show absurd bravery in battle, provoking the enemy into giving up its discipline and cohesion with taunts and insults. Not surprisingly, they sometimes rode their horses backwards into battle.
The northern plains clowns, found among tribes such as the Ojibway, wore masks which made them appear to be two-faced, and costumes of rags which made them appear comical. All of these three types of clown societies practiced a sort of conventionalized or patterned sort of anti-natural behavior. That is, they might do something which seemed strange or contrary, but under somewhat regular conditions. You knew when they might do something weird – and there were times when they were forbidden to perform their antics. Further, they might often “give up” the clowning way of life, and return to a non-contrary state by marrying and engaging in a more normal mode of existence.
The heyoka were different in three primary ways from the other sorts of clowns. They were truly unpredictable, and could do the unexpected or tasteless even during the most solemn of occasions. Moreso than other clowns, they really seemed to be insane. Also, they were thought to be more inspired by trans-human supernatural forces (as individuals driven by spirits rather than group conventions), and to have a closer link to wakan or power than other clowns. And lastly, they kept their role for life – it was a sacred calling which could not be given up without performing an agonizing ritual of expiation. Not surprisingly, these unique differences were seen as the result of their having visions of Thunderbird, a unique and transforming experience.
Testimony of Black Elk: the heyoka and lightning
The Oglala Indian Black Elk had some interesting things to say about the heyoka ceremony, which he himself participated in. Black Elk describes the “dog in boiling water” ceremony in some detail. He also describes the bizarre items he had to carry as a heyoka, and the crazy antics he had to perform with his companions. He also attempts to explain the link between the contrary trickster nature of heyokas with that of Thunderbird.
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm… you have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better. And so I think this is what the heyoka ceremony is for … the dog had to be killed quickly and without making any scar, as lightning kills, for it is the power of lightning that heyokas have.” (quoted in Neihardt 1959: 160)
Today, of course, Western physicists describe the dual nature of electricity. An object can carry a positive or negative electric charge. The electron is simultaneously a wave and a particle. Electricity and magnetism are thought to be aspects of the same force, and as is well know with magnetism, it comes in polarities, with opposite poles (north and south) attracting. Though the Indians did not have access to our modern scientific instruments, they are likely to have observed some of the same properties in lightning. Thus it would have been intuitive to link the dual spiritual nature of the heyoka (tragicomedy – solemn joking – joy united with pain) with the dual nature of electricity.
Thunderbird and Heyoka, the Sacred Clown
It was believed among the Lakota and other tribes that if you had a dream or vision of birds, you were destined to be a medicine man; but if you had a vision of Thunderbird, it was your destiny to become something else; heyoka, or sacred clown. Like Thunderbird, the heyoka were at once feared and held in reverence. They were supposed to startle easily at the first sound of thunder or first sight of lightning. Thunderbird supposedly inspired the “contrariness” of the heyoka through his own contrary nature. He alternates strong winds with calm ones. While all things in nature move clockwise, Thunderbird is said to move counterclockwise. Thunderbird is said to have sharp teeth, but no mouth; sharp claws, but no limbs; huge wings, but no body. All of these things suggest Thunderbird (and the heyoka) have a curious, paradoxical, contrary nature. You could become heyoka through a vision of the Thunderbird, or just of lightning or a formidable winged being of power. (Steiger 1974)
While clown societies were found throughout the Plains, the heyoka, or sacred clowns, were usually few in number, but were found in almost every clan. Heyoka were contraries, often speaking and walking backwards. They acted in ridiculous, obscene, and comical ways, especially during sacred ceremonies. They were thought to be fearless and painless, able to seize a piece of meat out of a pot of boiling water. They often dressed in a bizarre and ludicrous manner, wearing conical hats, red paint, a bladder over the head (to simulate baldness), and bark earrings. The heyoka was thought to usually carry various sacred items – a deer hoof rattle, a colored bow, a flute, or drum. His “anti-natural” nature was thought to be shamanistic in origin — and as a contrary, he was expected to act silly and foolhardy during battle (although this was found more among warrior clown societies such as the Cheyenne Inverted Warriors.)
However insulting or sacrilegious heyoka actions might be, they were tolerated, since it was assumed they were acting on the higher and more inscrutable imperatives of the Great Mystery. Heyoka were freed from all the ordinary constraints of life, and thus were usually not expected to marry, have children, or participate in the work of the tribe. Despite their bizarre acts (such as dressing in warm clothes during summer or wearing things inside out), they were trusted as healers, interpreters of dreams, and people of great medicine. Whenever they interrupted the solemnity of a ceremony, people took it as an admonition to see beyond the literalness of the ritual and into the deeper mysteries of the sacred. Like the flash of lightning, the heyoka’s sudden outbursts and disturbances were thought to be the keys to enlightenment – much like the absurd acts of Zen masters in Japan. (Hultkrantz 1987)
Thunderbird and Trickster
Part of the link between heyoka and Thunderbird comes from Iktomi, the Trickster figure. Iktomi is said to be heyoka because he has seen and talked with Thunderbird. Iktomi is the first-born son of Inyan (rock), and is said to speak with rocks and stones. Like Coyote and other Trickster figures, Iktomi likes to pull pranks on people, but is just as often the victim of tricks and misfortunes. This makes him at once a culture hero, and a figure to be feared and avoided. Iktomi was thought to be a hypersexual predator, one who frequently pursued winchinchalas (young virgins) who bathed in streams, through various methods of deceit. Yet his pursuits and antics often wound up with him inadvertently getting hurt or winding up in trouble.
Paul Radin suggests that Iktomi and other Trickster figures are akin to the Great Fool or Wild Man of European folklore, who often shows up in the Feast of Fools and other ceremonies where the social order is turned topsy-turvy. (Radin 1956) Jung, following his lead, claims the Trickster as an archetypal part of the collective unconscious; and his “crazy wisdom” as emblematic of humankind’s earlier, undivided, unindividuated consciousness. Iktomi and other tricksters seem to be at the constant mercy of their desires; yet their blind luck always seems to protect them from the consequences of their missteps. He is dangerous primarily because he is so powerful, yet so rarely has the forethought or good judgment to use his power wisely. Radin and others proclaim him the representative of untamed, unpredictably wild nature, within the confines of culture.
In other cultural traditions, thunder and lightning are connected with the unexpected. We talk about a “bolt out of the blue.” In American folk culture, there are a host of legendary stories of mysterious cures or transformations wrought by someone being struck by lightning. It’s at once dangerous, and a symbol of sudden, shocking revelation and inspiration. It’s also the primary weapon in most pantheons of the chief sky god (such as Zeus in Greek mythology.) For the Plains Indians, thunder and lightning symbolized the vast, uncontrollable energy of nature. It’s not surprising, then, that the Thunderbird is connected with the strange, uncontrollable force of the Trickster figure, and his avatar, the heyoka.
Significance of the Trickster Figure and “Contrariness” in Plains Society
Psychological anthropologists, especially those oriented toward psychoanalytic theory and depth psychology, point to the Trickster figure as a sort of important cultural “release valve.” He represents the “return of the repressed,” the Dionysian aspects of life only temporarily held in abeyance by the Apollonian forces of civilization. The carnivals and feasts held in honor of fools in Europe, suggest some anthropologists, are “outlets,” allowing people to invert the social order temporarily as a way of promoting its continuity in the long run (avoiding its ultimate collapse.) The ruler is dressed in peasants’ clothes, and some ignorant serf is crowned king. Symbols of authority normally held in extreme reverence are mocked and desecrated.
Clowns and contraries in Plains societies do not just come out once a year, however. They are permanent parts of the society, and are seen as continual reminders of the contingency and arbitrariness of the social order. Long before French theorists came on the scene, the heyoka was reminding his own people about the social construction of reality. By doing everything backwards, the heyoka in a way is carrying out a constant experiment in ethnomethodology, showing people how their own expectations limit their behavior. Like a good performance artist, the shocking behavior of the heyoka is supposed to confront people and make them reconsider what they may have arbitrarily accepted as normal. It’s to “jolt” them out of their ordinary frames of mind. (Steward 1991)
More importantly, as a representative of Thunderbird and Trickster, the heyoka reminds his people that the primordial energy of nature is beyond good and evil. It doesn’t correspond to human categories of right and wrong. It doesn’t always follow our preconceptions of what is expected and proper. It doesn’t really care about our human woes and concerns. Like electricity, it can be deadly dangerous, or harnessed for great uses. If we’re too narrow or parochial in trying to understand it, it will zap us in the middle of the night. Like any good trickster, the heyoka plays pranks on others in his culture not to make them feel embarrassed and stupid, but to show them ways they could start being more smart.
The Account of John (Fire) Lame Deer: Heyoka and ASC
Lame Deer calls the heyoka the
“upside-down, forward-backward, icy-hot contrary.” He describes in detail one particular heyoka trick which may give some clues to the nature of their antics. Apparently, they would grab pieces of dog meat out of a pot of boiling water, and fling them at a crowd of people, without being burned or harmed in any way. (Why dog meat? Lame Deer gives a clue when he says, “For the heyoka, he says god when he means dog, and dog when he means god.”) Lame Deer suggests before doing this they chewed a grayish moss called tapejuta. I suspect that heyoka were able to perform this feat through going into trance, an altered state of consciousness, by utilizing this and other psychotropic plants on occasion.
More importantly, I think they induced trance in others through their contrary behavior. Psychologists have noted that trance does not always occur through rhythmic repetition. Another way in which it occurs (the “paradoxical state”) is through a sudden shock to the nervous system. Ethnomethodologists have often noted the blank, glassy stares and strange states produced by violating peoples’ expectations – by, for example, getting into an elevator and facing the other people in it. It’s in such “paradoxical states” that people often may assimilate new information quickly, without filtering. They also may be able to “abreact” psychological trauma. For these reasons, the heyoka may have been seen as a source of wisdom and healing.
Lame Deer seems to suggest the power of trance is connected to the power of Thunderbird. As a paradoxical state of consciousness, it ties into the paradoxical energy of thunder and lightning. The crash of thunder can startle us and wake us up out of dreaming sleep. The trance of the heyoka comes from sacred power. He ties it all together in a way that’s fairly succinct:
” These Thunderbirds are part of the Great Spirit. Theirs is about the greatest power in the whole universe. It is the power of the hot and the cold clashing above the clouds. It is blue lightning from the sun. It is like atomic power. The thunder power protects and destroys. It is good and bad; the great winged power. We draw the lightning as a forked zigzag, because lightning branches out into a good and bad part… In our Indian belief, the clown has a power which comes from the thunder beings, not from the animals or the Earth. He has more power than the atom bomb, he could blow off the dome of the Capitol. Being a clown gives you honor, but also shame. It brings you power, but you have to pay for it.” (quoted in Erdoes 1972: 251)
The Thunderbird’s association with heyoka clowns is not simply serendipitous. The fact that the Thunderbird displays many paradoxical and contradictory attributes links it to Trickster figures and to the contraries of Plains Indians culture. This culture complex probably resulted from Indian beliefs about nature and the ways in which thunder and lightning exemplified the manners in which it could be at once capricious, beneficent, and destructive. The Thunderbird’s own link to the original Great Mystery suggests that the role of the sacred clown was seen as one of the highest in Plains society – like wandering fools in Europe, they were thought to be touched by the Divine power itself. Like Thunderbird himself, the heyoka was thought to be a conduit to forces that defied comprehension, and by his absurd, backwards behavior he was merely showing the ironic, mysterious dualities that existed within the universe itself.
- Edmonds, Margot, and Clark, Ella E., Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends, Facts on File, New York, 1989.
- Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso, eds., American Indian Myths and Legends, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.
- Fire, John, and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, Washington Square Press, New York, 1972.
- Gill, Sam D., and Sullivan, Irene F., Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, 1992.
- Hall, Mark A., Thunderbirds: The Living Legend of Giant Birds, Fortean Publications, Minneapolis, 1988.
- Hines, Donald M., Ghost Voices: Indian Myths, Legends, Humor, and Hunting Stories, Great Eagle Publishing, Issaquah, 1992.
- Hultkrantz, Ake, Native Religions of North America, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1987.
- Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1959.
- Radin, Paul, The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1956.
- Steiger, Brad, Medicine Power, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1974.
- Steward, Julian Haynes, The Clown in Native North America, Garland Publishing, New York, 1991.