In late 2016, after joining protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Stephanie Big Eagle designed a tattoo to help the fight. “My heart was just poured into it,” she recalls.
A tattooist and descendant of Dakota and Lakota Sioux, Big Eagle rendered an eagle-like figure, with tail feathers morphed into a tipi. The bird-being hovered above zigzags and dots, representing the river of life and seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation.
Within weeks, the design decorated the flesh of thousands of people from Arkansas to New Zealand. Tattoo artists around the globe offered the image and donated a portion of each sale to a GoFundMe launched by Big Eagle and Elle Festin, an international organizer for traditional Filipino tattooists.
The campaign raised more than $153,000 to support the No Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL) movement and its water protectors. For nearly 10 months, these peaceful protestors maintained camps to block construction of the 1,172-mile oil pipeline that would burrow under four states and the Missouri River, threatening Indigenous land and water. In efforts to dismantle the camps, law enforcement and mercenary agents resorted to pepper spray, rubber bullets, attack dogs, arrests, and undercover spies.
“Peaceful, prayerful people getting attacked,” Big Eagle says. “These forces that we’re standing up against, I wonder sometimes how human they really are.”
That’s why she launched the tattoo campaign. More than a fundraiser, it was a summoning of supernatural defense: Big Eagle says the tattoo sent a prayer, a flesh offering, to the Thunderbirds, powerful spirit-beings who rule the sky and control storms. Known as wakinyan in Sioux languages, Thunderbirds are thought to protect the pure, clean and truthful from destructive, dishonorable forces.
“Brothers and sisters all over the world . . . every single person who got one of these tattoos participated in that prayer,” Big Eagle says.
Rulers of the Upper Realm
Beyond Sioux beliefs, Thunderbirds permeate the spiritual world of widespread Native groups, including the Ojibwa of the Great Lakes region, Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest, Pawnee of the plains, and about two dozen other tribes. A database of ethnographic records collected by anthropologists includes roughly 500 references to Thunderbirds in documents describing Native cultures of the Americas.
Sometimes translated as Thunderers or Thunderbeings, the spirits’ particular attributes and stories vary by tribe and even family line. But certain qualities transcend cultures. Thunderbirds are generally depicted as birds of prey or avian-human hybrids, such as a person with beak and wings. Some images present the figure chest forward, head in profile and tail feathers parted, as if they were human legs. More abstract versions signify Thunderbirds with X-shaped bodies, hashes for wings and hook-like heads.
Inhabiting the sky, Thunderbirds act as powerful, life-giving spirits who command storm clouds, which bring spring rains. Their eyes shoot lightning and their wing beats issue thunder. As powers of the upper world, Thunderbirds wage perpetual war against aquatic spirits of the beneath world, often portrayed as malevolent serpents or felines.
“Humans are caught in the middle of this,” says Cheryl Claassen, a professor emerita of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. For example, some Native people explain certain lightning strikes as a result of the rivalry: Thunderbirds shot bolts at trees because their underworld adversaries were lurking in the branches.
“A lot of human ritual is directed at deflecting this warfare . . . setting up safe spaces,” explains Claassen, who researches archaeological evidence for Native belief systems. The rituals often include feasts and offerings to please Thunderbirds and other spirit-beings.
Many people view Thunderbirds as protectors. For Sioux, Thunderbirds are “one of our celebrated, sacred beings that we work with,” Stephanie Big Eagle says. That means the spirits will intervene on behalf of earthly people, but also expect veneration, prayers, and gifts—including flesh offerings like tattoos.
Past these basic descriptions, Thunderbird beliefs cannot be fully expressed to outsiders. In part, this is because non-Native people lack the necessary perspectives to grasp the information.
“To totally understand it, I usually tell people, ‘Do you have a lifetime? What you're asking about, you'll have to come live here,’” says Navajo Nation citizen William Tsosie. The knowledge “needs to be seen in the bigger context, in the larger scheme of things.”
Now an archaeologist for the Navajo Nation Heritage and Historic Preservation Department, Tsosie learned about Thunderbirds as a child from his grandparents. In everyday conversations, they imparted stories that explained how the world works and came to be. “Everything was a story. The corrals, where the sun rose, just the whole cultural landscape around you,” he says. Thunderbirds figured into these oral histories, and their deeds are embedded in the landscape.
Tsosie offered one example about a past battle between Navajo and Ute people. Thunderbird, “came in a flash and had a sonic boom,” he says. Thanks to the spirit’s intervention, the warring parties made peace. To this day, the spot is called Thunderbird Perch, and marked by a ponderosa pine and fir tree, rooted together.
Thunderbird knowledge can be considered privileged and powerful.
There are aspects of Thunderbird beliefs that Tsosie doesn’t share for another reason: The knowledge can be considered privileged and powerful. “There are some beautiful ceremonial stories associated with it, but we don’t speak of those that have power,” he explains.
Within Native communities, this information is typically limited to individuals with proper spiritual preparation. And spreading specifics beyond Indigenous people is often prohibited. Representatives from several Native groups, including the Shawnee and Potawatomi, stated that it would be inappropriate to discuss details about Thunderbirds publically. They recommended ethnographies and other written sources for descriptions suitable for un-inducted ears.
Archaeologist David Dye, who is not of Native heritage, respects the confidential nature of Thunderbird mythology. This is based on his experiences working with tribes like the Choctaw, who have helped him interpret archaeological finds. According to Dye, Thunderbird and other sacred stories are not campfire tales, meant to entertain. They are more like instruction manuals for working with natural and supernatural forces.
The knowledge is “secretive because it’s dangerous,” he says.
Finding Thunderbirds Past
Still, some conception of Native beliefs is critical for archaeologists because they come across relicts, which can help discern the ancient roots of Thunderbird traditions. At sites spanning the past 4,000 years, researchers have found Thunderbird images adorning rock surfaces, animal hides, pebbles, and pottery. They’ve also uncovered figurines, pendants, and copper cutouts shaped like the avian spirits.
To make sense of this evidence, scholars rely on information volunteered by contemporary Native people, colonial-era documents, and ethnographies by anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, Dye cautions about the veracity of written sources penned by European colonizers and European-descent scholars. These records contain stories told by Native informants, who deliberately gave redacted renditions, full of euphemisms and analogies. And those versions were further filtered through the scribes’ minds.
As a result, “when you sit down to read a Shawnee story about the Thunderers, it’s so watered down from what it would have meant to the people who originally told it,” he says.
But even such diluted data provides clues that help archaeologists interpret otherwise inscrutable finds. For example, dozens of broken ceramic pieces surfaced at sites in northern Michigan near where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The artifacts were crafted between 600 and 1600 AD by ancestors of Ojibwa and other Anishinaabeg people. Now just broken bits no bigger than chess pawns, the pieces could have easily been ignored by archaeologists. However, thanks to their awareness of Anishinaabeg beliefs, researchers spotted Thunderbird’s wing, a serpent’s head, and other parts of spirit-beings among the fragments. It seems the pieces once formed figurines, made to placate the spirits, according to an American Antiquity study published earlier this year.
Another recent paper, in Quaternary International, reported a cache of Bald Eagle bones discovered at a 2000-year-old site on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Drawing on documented Algonquin beliefs, archaeologists contend that the bird bones were part of a ceremonial feast related to Thunderbird veneration.
Tying present practices to ancient remains suggests Native people have honored Thunderbirds as protective spirits for millennia. It’s likely Thunderbird tattoos extend back just as long. Needles used for tattooing have been recovered from numerous archaeological sites, and a 1710 AD portrait shows a Mohican chief with four Thunderbird tattoos on his face.
Those who got tattoos in support of Standing Rock joined this long tradition. “I think people knew deep in their hearts, even if they don’t understand our ceremonial ways,” Big Eagle says. They offered their skin to Thunderbirds, asking the spirits to protect Native people against destructive forces.