Thunderbird

Thunderbird | Indigenous Symbolism 

THUNDERBIRDS SYMBOLIZE: POWER, PRIDE, NOBILITY

Thunderbird is a mythical creature prominent in many Indigenous groups across Noth America with varying meanings across each culture. Each tribe, clan, and family may even have distinct and unique associations with Thunderbird. Many of these symbols can represent the stories, traits, and values that hold a special significance to Indigenous Peoples. In retail jewellery, these symbols still hold significance but aren’t held to the same cultural standard. Regardless, we believe learning more about these legends' beauty and depth brings the wearer more pleasure.

In general, Thunderbird symbolizes power, pride, and nobility. In most legends, Thunderbird is described as a giant bird that lives in the mountains, watching over the land.

Depictions of Thunderbird In Indigenous Art

Oftentimes, you’ll find Thunderbird at the top of totem poles with outstretched wings. In Indigenous legends, Thunderbird’s wingspan is said to stretch twice as long as a war canoe. Legends foretell Thunderbird creating and causing lightning and thunder. This is often depicted in many forms of Thunderbird art. 

Thunderbird pendant made by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Don Lancaster. This image is meant to show Thunderbird's prominent plumage on his head.

Thunderbird has a curved beak, like Eagle, and heavy plumage on top of his head.

Other popular scenes often shown in Indigenous art are Thunderbird in his nest overlooking the mountains or snatching a Killer Whale from the ocean. 

In Pacific Northwest Indigenous art, Thunderbird is very similar to Eagle with its curved beak. When distinguishing between these two, look for Thunderbird’s prominent ears, horns, or mohawk. Thunderbird is often drawn with a prominent plumage meant to represent these traits.   

Also Read: Eagle Symbolism | Indigenous Art and Jewellery

Thunderbird Symbolism

Only the most powerful chiefs and families use Thunderbird as their crest. Thunderbird is a symbol of pride and great power. In stories where humans try to outwit Thunderbird, the humans are almost always sorely mistaken. Thunderbird is intellectual and proud, overlooking and watching the land from his mountaintop.  

One Kwakwaka’wakw story tells of Thunderbird helping the people during a food crisis. In this story, Thunderbird brought food back to the people after hearing their plea. In exchange, the Kwakwaka’wakw agreed to honor Thunderbird in their art, which is why Thunderbird is often found on the top of totem poles. 

Thunderbird In Northwest Coast Cultures

Thunderbird is a powerful symbol among many Indigenous cultures. It’s said he is the reason for thunder, lightning, and many other natural forces. By flapping his powerful wings, he creates thunder. Lightning, on the other hand, is said to be its own sentient being referred to as Lightening Snakes.    

Feathered serpents called Lightning Snakes are the Thunderbird’s companions. The Lightning Snakes are the preferred weapon for Thunderbird and he uses them as harpoons while hunting Orcas. In Indigenous art, Lightning Snakes are often portrayed with dog or Wolf heads. For the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, who were also great whale hunters, Thunderbird is a giant man living in the mountains.   


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40 products