Almost every tribe in the woodlands and plains believed in the existence of the thunderbirds (animikiig). They believed that thunder, lightning and great winds were produced by these great birds, whose shadows were the thunder clouds, whose flapping wings make the sound of thunder and produced strong winds, and whose flashing eyes rapidly opening or closing sent forth the lightning.
Around the Great Lakes, the Ojibwe believed that the thunderbirds dwelled upon high hills or rocky elevations with difficult access, and that the white smears on the many rocks along the shores of the lakes were the remnants of their droppings. Within the territory, several places are believed to be thunderbird nests. The thunderbirds are said to appear in the form of great eagles which feed on water monsters and evil serpents. It is said that once, a brave warrior climbed up to a thunderbird’s nest and found the bones of many great serpents scattered around.
On the plains, many places were thought to be thunderbird nesting sites. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota believed that the thunderbirds nested in the neighborhood of Big Stone Lake, and there is a place near the summit of the Coteau des Prairies, in eastern South Dakota, where a number of large round boulders are found that are considered to be the remnants of a thunderbird nest.
In one Dakota legend, it is said that a hunter once shot and wounded a large bird which fell to the ground. Being afraid to attack it alone on account of its size, the hunter returned to camp for help from his friends, but when they approached the spot where the bird had fallen the hunters heard the sound of thunder and saw flashes of lightning shooting out from the ravine where the bird lay. As they drew near, the flashes of lightning blinded them so that they could not see the bird. It is said that one of the bolts of lightning struck and killed a hunter. This so frightened the men that they fled back to camp in fear for their lives.
The Plains Ojibwe tell of a story of a thunderbird encounter on the plains of the coteau overlooking the Souris River. They say that a party of hunters once found a thunderbird's nest. The men noticed that there were several chicks – each as big as a man – in the nest and they determined that they would kill and destroyed the young birds. As they were shooting the birds with their arrows, the old birds returned and chased the men away as they fled towards the trees along the river. It is said that they thunderbirds killed all but one of the warriors.
The Legend of Flies Fast
Once upon a time, when no wars existed among men, the only thing which they feared was the great thunderbird seen flying through the air, which caused great storms and damage. The thunderbirds were thought to have nests in the area, and great curiosity existed among the people as to the exact character of the birds and the location of their nesting places. But try as they might, nobody could find a nest.
At this time there lived on the northern shore of Lake Superior a warrior named ‘Otter Man’ noted for his courage and his wisdom. One time, as he was returning from a hunt, Otter Man was carrying a beaver on his back. It had become dark sooner than he had expected and he was still a far ways from home, but the moon appeared before he had traveled very far and lit up the trail which he was following. As he was leaving the trail to walk across the ice of a lake he needed to cross, he noticed the shadow of something large passing above him. He looked up and saw a great bird approaching him, and before he could defend himself it swooped down and carried him away in its talons. The bird rose high into the air and carried him westward, far above the earth.
After traveling a great distance Otter Man could see a high hill which was barren of trees that had a great rock at its crest. As they neared the rock, the bird dropped Otter Man, but was able to land without being hurt too badly. He looked around himself and saw a nest where the young thunderbirds were. Sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning happened as the old bird flew overhead.
Soon the young thunderbirds became aware of Otter Man’s presence and began to look over the edge of the nest at him. Otter Man prepared to defend himself, but whenever the birds winked a flash of lightning would pass from their eyes and scorch his hands and face. After a hard fight he finally succeeded in killing the young birds with his spear. Luckily the old bird did not return to exact vengeance upon him.
Not knowing what to do, Otter Man took out his pipe and offered up a prayer to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit spoke to him and told him that he should skin one of the young birds and use its skin to fly back home. He did this, and as he jumped from the cliff of the hill he found that he could fly. After a long flight he landed near the same spot from which he had been taken by the thunderbird. He found his wife and children there mourning for him, as they supposed that he had been killed by an evil spirit.
When they got home, Otter Man told his fellow tribesmen about his ordeal and everyone was amazed. He took from his pouch the hearts of the young thunderbirds that he had killed and they held a feast in celebration of his great deed. He was awarded a new name: Flies Fast!
As the hearts broiled they made a loud, crackling sound. To this day children are told that when the lodge fire makes a loud crackling noise it is because the hearts of the thunder birds are broiling in it.
Transactions of the Illinois Historical Society for the year 1908. Illinois State Historical Society, Springfield.
Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology: 1896. Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.