Pacific Northwest Thunderbird – Voices of the Wind

Haidi Thunderbird Dancer
Haida Thunderbird”painting from the Haidi Tribe, Pacific Northwest
  • Years ago an old man named Too-lux, who was the south wind, was traveling north, and met an old woman named Quootshooi, who was a giantess and he asked her for food, and she gave him a net, telling him she had nothing to eat and that he must try for fish. He succeeded in trapping a grampus. He was about to cut it when the old woman cried out to him to use a sharp shell in stead of a knife, and to split the fish down the back.

    Not heeding what she said he cut the fish across the side, and was taking off a slice of blubber, when the fish immediately changed to a great bird, which in flying completely obscured the sky and with its wings shook the earth. “This Thunderbird flew to the north, and alighted on the top of a saddleback mountain near the Columbia river. Here it laid many eggs, a whole nest full.

    The old woman followed and began to break the eggs and eat them. From these sprang the first Chehalis and Chinook tribes. Returning, the Thunderbird found the eggs broken; and now regularly the bird and Too-lux (the south winds), go forth in search of the old woman.”

In the Pacific Northwest Sound region, the Native Americans affirm that a girl, just reaching womanhood, during a certain month must not go out of doors if the southwest wind is blowing. If she does, the wind is offended that he will send the Thunderbird to make thunder and lightning. A thunderstorm it rare in this district, but when it occurs they attribute it to disobedience.

Anything that is supposed to have been touched or possessed by the Thunderbird has supernatural value in the eyes of the coastal Pacific indigenous. It is claimed that a Makah, who had been very ill, was reduced to a skeleton, and was considered past recovery. One day he managed to crawl to a brook near by. While there he heard a rustling which so frightened him that he hid his face in his blanket.

But peeping out he saw a raven not far away, apparently endeavoring to eject an object from its throat. According to this man the bird got rid of a bone about three inches long. The Makah secured this, believing it to be the bone of the Thunderbird. He was assured by the medicine-woman that it was a medicine sent him by his Tah-mahna-wis, or guardian spirit, to cure him. It is a fact that the patient rapidly grew better, and soon was entirely well.

  • A Quaintness Indian professes to have obtained a feather from the Thunderbird. He says he saw the bird alight, and, creeping softly up, he tied to one of his feathers to a buckskin string, and fastened the other end to a stump. When the thunderbird flew away, it left the feather, which was forty fathoms long! No other native has ever seen the feather, for the owner is careful to keep it concealed: but his acquaintances gravely state that doubtless he has it, “for he is very successful in catching the sea otter.

According to the Makahs one of the principal homes of the Thunderbird is on a mountain back of Clyoquot, on Vancouver Island. Here sits a lake which are many fossil bones, and these are the remains of whales killed by Thunderbirds. At a display of fireworks in Port Townsend a number of rockets, on bursting, showed fiery serpents. These the native spectators insisted, betokened the Thunderbirds, and offered large amounts for pieces of the animal.


Among the Northwest Indians there is a performance in honor of the Thunderbirds. It is termed the Thunderbird Dance, “Klale Tahmah-na-wis.” Concerning its origin the Nittnat Indians have the following legend: “Two men had fallen in love with the same woman, but she would not give preference to either. There upon they began to quarrel. One of them, with more sense than the other, said: ‘Do not let us fight about that woman. I will go and see the Chief of the Wolves and he will tell us what is to be done. But I cannot get to his house except with a strategy.

Now the wolves know we are at variance, so do you take me by the hair and drag me over these sharp rocks, which are covered with barnacles. I shall bleed and pretend to be dead, and the wolves will come and carry me away to their house.’ This was done, but when the wolves were ready to eat him and he jumped up, and astonished them by his boldness. The chief wolf was so pleased with the bravery of the man that he taught him the mysteries of the Thunderbird performance.”

The Native Americans who take part in the ceremonies seek the secluded depths of the pine forests. They hoot like owls, howl like wolves, paint their bodies black, scarify their limbs to cause profuse bleeding (in remembrance of the man dragged over the stones), pound on drums to represent thunder, flash pitchwood torches to produce lightning, and whistle sharply in imitation of the wind. Candidates for initiation are put through an ordeal, and it is claimed by trappers and other adventurers that the shaman, develops strong mesmeric power. The Makahs usually occupy five days in secret dances, during which the courage of the initiate is proved. Among the Clallams the initiate is thrown into a hypnotic sleep. This Magic organization extends from the Columbia river to Alaska.

Some of the details of the ritual, are not permitted to be known, symbolisms are lofty and the purpose high. The society is powerful, and although the government officers and the missionaries have endeavored to combat superstition, yet this  dance of the tribes—the Klale Tah-mah-na-wis exists today in all the phases it has been nurtured for hundreds of years.

Sources: Edwin L. Sabin, in Self Culture Magazine, Nov., 1899.; Daniels Stevans Encyclopedia 1903.

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