The Legendary Thunderbird Meaning and Symbolism

thunderbird meaning
The thunderbird, also called the Thunderer or the Thunderbeing, is integral to Native American culture. The mythical creatures symbolize power, strength, and thunderstorms. They protect people from evil forces using their large bodies and wings. 

What Does the Thunderbird Symbolize?

The thunderbird is named for the sound of its flapping wings as thunder and lightning shoot out of its eyes. The storms generated by thunderbirds can be good or bad. The legendary bird is revered and feared by Native American tribes in North America and Canada. 

thunderbird meaning
Thunderbirds can symbolize power and strength, and they represent thunderstorms.

What is the Native American Thunderbird?

There are countless legends about thunderbirds in Native American culture. Some say that the birds belong to the dinosaur era and are pterodactyls. Other legends say that the thunderbird is the size of a small plane and can lift a whale with its talons. 

Regardless of its origin, the thunderbird’s symbolic meaning has had a lasting presence.

Why Is Thunderbird Important to Native Americans?

The Native American thunderbird symbolizes power. It creates all kinds of storms, like floods, hurricanes, tornados, whirlpools, blizzards, rain, and lightning. The thunderbird is associated with the changing weather, wind, sky, and air.

The bird is also associated with energy, life, truth, and destiny, but the meanings and symbolism change based on the region and Native American tribe. The thunderbird’s significance has been passed down through oral narratives. The bird is carved as totems, cave art, pottery, etc. 

The earliest records of thunderbird symbolism are traced back to 800 CE and 1600 CE in the Mississippi region. Some tribes portray the thunderbird as a shapeshifter. 

Menominee Tribe

The Menominee tribe from Northern Wisconsin considers the thunderbird a controller of rain and cold. They call thunderbirds the messengers of the Great Sun and enemies of Misikinubik. These tremendous horned snakes devour the earth. This legend shares similarities with the Garuda and Naga enmity in Hinduism. 

Ojibwe Tribe

According to the Ojibwe tribe, thunderbirds protect good people and punish bad ones for the crimes they commit. Nanabozho created thunderbirds to fight underwater spirits. The birds live in all four directions and arrive every spring. They fight the snakes in the fall and rest in the south to regain their strength by spring. 

thunderbird meaning
JULY 29, 2018: Unidentified Native American family during 40th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Powwow.

Algonquian Tribe 

For the Algonquians, the thunderbird is a ruler of the upper realms. At the same time, a horned serpent/underwater panther rules the underworld. The people use x to symbolize the thunderbird and say it shoots lightning bolts at the horned snakes to prevent them from harming humans. The Algonquians are the largest tribe in pre-colonized America. 

Lakota Sioux Tribe 

For the Sioux tribe, dreaming of the thunderbird implied that the person would turn into a heyoka (a clown/jester). Since the heyoka speaks and acts contrary to the community’s standards, it could be a better sign for them. The heyokas are people with great wisdom. 

Shawnee Tribe

The Shawnee tribe is fearful of the thunderbirds. It considers them shapeshifters that change into young boys to talk to people. They say that the thunderbirds can be identified by their talent to speak backward. 

Thunderbird Meanings

The thunderbird represents the following: 

  • Supreme power 
  • Protection from evil
  • Controller of weather (rains)
  • Creator and provider 
  • Destroyer and punisher 
  • Authority and leadership 
  • Victory 
  • Agricultural abundance 
  • Productivity 
  • Message from the spirit world 
  • Carrier of souls (of the dead) 
  • Emotional security 
  • Empowerment
  • Nobility 
  • Spirituality 
  • Nature 

How to Identify a Thunderbird

The thunderbird is carved at the top of the Native American totem poles to symbolize their spiritual powers. The bird’s head looks to a side (left or right), with its wings folded on the sides.

Another representation is where the thunderbird looks straight and has its wings wide open on the sides. It resembles a spread eagle and has two horns on the head. 

You can also find the thunderbird printed on masks, tattooed on bodies, or on jewelry. Some Native American burial sites have the thunderbird carved on the stones or wood as the bird carries the souls to the world of the dead. 

What Does a Thunderbird Mean in Cherokee?

For the Cherokee tribe, the thunderbird symbolizes tribal wars fought on the earth. The flapping of thunderbirds’ wings produced thunder, an omen of an upcoming war. The thunderbird foretold the future, especially about wars, signaling the tribes to be alert and ready to safeguard their people. 

Is the Thunderbird Sacred?

Yes, the thunderbird is sacred to Native American tribes. The bird is so large that one feather from its wingspan has to be folded in half to fit into a quiver. Thunderbird is not only a symbol of power, energy, and protection. It is also a sign of intelligence. 

The thunderbird is a deity for Native Americans and is respected by all tribes. They believe that the thunderbird should never be angered as it can lead to punishments in various forms. There could be floods that damage the crop if thunderbirds are angry. Some say that the bird lifts humans with its talons and carries them away to punish them for their crimes. 

At the same time, the thunderbird nourishes the earth through gentle rains and helps people grow bountiful crops. In some legends, the thunderbirds have married humans, and the birds can turn into humans and live amongst us undetected. 

thunderbird meaning
Thunderbird transformation mask from the 19th century

Is Thunderbird a Spirit Animal?

The thunderbird is the ruler of the spirit world. For some, it is equivalent to an eagle spirit animal, and eagles carry significance among the Native American community. Syamisen is the spirit that the thunderbird totem represents. It brings power, glory, authority, and an indomitable spirit to a person.  

The thunderbird is also considered a messenger between heaven and the earth, or the spiritual and physical realms. The thunderbird spirit and totem represent victory, as well as a solar animal that guides the sun’s path from dawn to dusk. 

Overall, the thunderbird is a powerful creator and destroyer. Let the thunderbird take the reins and guide you if it appears in your life as a spirit animal. 

If you found this article helpful, check out this post on the fox symbol.


Vanessa's liberal arts background has prepared her well for Symbol Scholar. A self-proclaimed theology nerd, Vanessa has interests in world religions, Reformation theology, history, and more. When she's not working, Vanessa enjoys spending time with her family, reading, exercising, and watching professional basketball.

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