Thunderbirds in Canada – Part 2
Contrary to popular perception, the traditional belief systems of Canada’s First Nations are as many and varied as the native languages once spoken across the Great White North. Every tribe had its own mythology, customs, and conceptions of virtue. The Cree and Ojibwa of the Canadian Shield generally abhorred the idea of cannibalism, certain that those who engaged in such activity made themselves vulnerable to possession by an evil spirit called the Wendigo. The Slavey and Sahtu Dene of the subarctic forests lived in perpetual fear of the Nakani, a red-eyed, man-eating wildman which haunted the boreal wilderness. Despite their many differences, and the thousands of miles of rugged wilderness which often separated them from each other, various native cultures across the continent shared a handful of inexplicable similarities. The most pervasive of these is a belief in the Thunderbird – a huge eagle-like monster responsible for the creation of thunder and lightning.
Thunderbird on the Columbia River
The first Thunderbird legend we will explore in this piece is not native to Canada, but rather connected to a short-lived fur trading enterprise, many members of which went on to enjoy prominent careers in the Canadian fur trade. The enterprise in question was the Pacific Fur Company, founded in 1810 by a German-American businessman and Great Lakes fur trade magnate named John Jacob Astor.
In the early 1800s, during a period of fierce fur trade competition, Astor had ambitions to exploit the hitherto-untapped furry resources of the lower Columbia River, which didn’t have a white presence at the time. In 1811, he sent out two expeditions to the region bearing trade goods, one by land, and the other by sea. The sea-going crew left New York in a ship called the Tonquin, sailed all the way down the Atlantic Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, sailed to Hawaii, and then on to the mouth of the Columbia. After establishing a trading post called Fort Astoria on the Columbia delta, a portion of the crew sailed north to the west coast of Vancouver Island, where they started trading with the local Nootka Indians. After the ship’s captain insulted a Nootka elder, the natives massacred the entire crew, sparing only the interpreter. Shortly after the massacre, the natives boarded the ship to plunder the remaining trade goods. One of the American sailors, who was still alive but mortally wounded, set fire to the gunpowder supply, and the ship exploded, killing about 200 natives.
The land expedition, on the other hand, made their way up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains. They had a few near-disastrous encounters with the Sioux along the way, and lost several members to starvation, drowning, and vanishing in the wilderness.
In 1813, after establishing a handful of fur trading posts throughout what is now Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia, the Pacific Fur Company was obliged to sell its assets to its main competitor, the North West Company, destroyed by a series of unfortunate accidents and the War of 1812. Decades after the folding of his auxiliary venture, Astor commissioned the famous American novelist Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, with writing a history of the Pacific Fur Company. The result was Irving’s 1836 book Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.
After describing the overland party’s eventual arrival at Fort Astoria, Irving included some ethnological information on the natives of the Lower Columbia River, whom he identifies as the Chinooks, the Clatsops, the Wahkiacums (who were probably the Klickitat and Yakama), and the Kathlamet. Regarding the native’s belief in the Thunderbird, Irving wrote:
“They had an idea of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, the creator of all things. They represent him as assuming various shapes at pleasure, but generally that of an immense bird. He usually inhabits the sun, but occasionally wings his way through the aerial regions, and sees all that is doing upon earth. Should anything displease him, he vents his wrath in terrific storms and tempests, the lightning being flashes of his eyes, and the thunder the clapping of his wings. To propitiate his favor they offer to him annual sacrifices of salmon and venison, the first fruits of their fishing and hunting.”
Thunderbird on the Prairies
As mentioned in a previous piece on this topic, the Blackfoot Nations of what are now southern Alberta and northern Montana also told tales about a huge thunder-making raptor which could sometimes be seen soaring above the mountains, which they called the Omaxsapitau, or ‘Big Golden Eagle’. American anthropologists Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall included two old Blackfoot stories featuring this legendary monster in their 1908 essay, “Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians.”
“The Indians were moving camp,” the first story beings. “They found that some of their young men and horses were lost, and did not know how this could have happened.” A white shepherd who lived in the area offered the natives his unsolicited advice, suggesting that the missing horses and their riders had probably been taken by a strange bird he had seen. He offered to kill the creature for a price.
“The Indians paid no attention to the White man,” the folklorists wrote. “An Indian went out alone to fight the monster. He saw it flying; it looked like a large dark cloud. He shot at it, but could not hurt it. It caught him and flew home.
“The next day, two men went out with their guns. They separated at a little distance. When they saw the monster flying, they shot at it. Again the monster snatched them up and took them home. Then all the Indians said, ‘Perhaps the White man will kill it.’ They killed thirty head of sheep, took off their hides and gave them to the sheep-raiser. He put them all on, took a stick and went looking for the monster-bird.
“The giant bird swooped down on the White man and carried him home, but could not kill him. The black monster’s son came home and wanted to eat the sheep-raiser. The White man said, ‘You won’t eat me.’ Then he grasped his stick and knocked down father and son. He killed both of them. The monster had a beautiful tail. The sheep-raiser cut off its tail feathers and brought them home.”
This same creature, which Wissler and Duvall’s informants called Nu’neyunc, appeared in another story about two Blackfoot brothers who made a great journey west to the Pacific Coast. There, one of the boys was swallowed by a water-buffalo – in this context, a preternatural swimming ungulate which also appears in the folklore of the Navajo and Apache. With the help of a local hunter, the other boy shot and killed the beast, and rescued his unfortunate brother from its belly.
No sooner had the Blackfoot crawled from the monster’s stomach than the two boys were snatched up by a Nu’neyunc. The giant bird carried the brothers to its nest on a distant island, where it attempted to feed them to its mother. Before they could be devoured, one of the boys slayed their huge abductor with an obsidian knife. Then, with the assistance of the mother bird, the two boys returned to the mainland.
Thunderbird on Southern Vancouver Island
Another reference to indigenous belief in the Thunderbird appears in British Army officer Captain Charles William Wilson’s 1866 report on the natives who inhabited the 49th parallel, or the U.S.–Canada border, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. On the subject of the Cowichan Indians, a Central Coast Salish people who once reigned over the southern end of Vancouver Island, Wilson wrote:
“The religion of these Indians, and their ideas about it, are now so confused and mixed up with the Christian doctrines and traditions they have learnt from the Roman Catholic priests, that it is very difficult to find out anything reliable about it… They appear to have had some vague idea of a great spirit, represented on the tombs as a large bird having some fantastic resemblance to an eagle, to whom they made offerings, and who showed his displeasure by thunder storms and lightning.”
Another Cowichan Thunderbird legend appears in the 1901 book History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians, written by Martha Douglas Harris, the Metis daughter of British Columbia’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, and the first female author to be born in British Columbia.
“On Valdez Island,” Harris began, “there lived a large family. The eldest brother was married, but had only one child – a boy, a most strange child. As soon as he was able to walk, he went by himself, into the forest, and would remain away all day and return at night. His mother would place the choicest pieces of meat before him, but in vain; a morsel of deer’s fat would last him a week. His mother asked the child why it was he had no appetite for the good things she laid before him. He replied: ‘The lovely, sweet smell of the morning wind, full of the odor of sweet flowers and trees, is food enough for me.”
One day, this strange boy inexplicably vanished. Although his family searched high and low for him, no trace of the missing child, nor the slightest hint of his fate or whereabouts, could be found. When it became clear that the boy was lost for good, his grieving mother developed a habit of heading into the wilderness alone to mourn for him.
Five years after her son’s disappearance, while she was out mourning for him as was her custom, the boy’s mother heard her son’s voice on the air. The voice told her that he would return to her the next day, before dawn, and that they should await his arrival from the forest.
Sure enough, the following morning, the son walked out of the woods, to his parents’ unspeakable delight. His appearance had changed considerably since his disappearance. He radiated a shining light, wore a curious cap adorned with four eagle feathers, and kept his eyes closed at all times. When his parents asked him why he kept his eyes shut, the boy replied, “If I opened my eyes, the lightning would strike and kill you. I dare not show my eyes, and if I take off my hat the thunder comes.”
He went on to relate his adventures of the past five years.
On the day of his disappearance, while wandering alone in the woods, the boy was snatched up by a monstrous Thunderbird. The creature carried him back to its nest, where it replaced his eyes with Thunderbird eyes, which shot lightning whenever they were opened. The monster bird also gave him a cap which, when doffed, created thunder. The Thunderbird then gave the boy the name Scallighan, which means ‘Powerful One’. After spending five years with the huge bird, learning his ways, Scallighan returned home to his people.
Desirous of having his own home further away from humans, Schallighan asked his family to help him build his own longhouse atop a mountain on Salt Spring Island, a large isle off Vancouver Island’s southeastern shore. When his new home was built, he asked his father to go in his stead to Nanaimo, a native village to the northwest, and ask the chief for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Handing him his magic cap, he instructed his father to keep the mysterious article of apparel concealed at all times, and to give the chief a brief glimpse of it if he refused his proposal.
“So the father and uncles went off in their canoes to Nanaimo,” Harris wrote, “to ask the Chief there for his daughter.
“When they asked for the young girl, the Chief was very angry, and demanded why the son did not come himself to ask for his daughter. They might go away again. Then Scallighan’s father said:
“‘Here is my son’s hat; if I show it to you, there will be much danger. You had better let the maid come with us.’
“The Chief was enraged, and scoffed at the power of the hat.
“So the father uncovered a little of the hat, and then the thunder and lightning came and burnt up the Chief’s house; and the old father quickly covered the hat, lest the people should be killed. How frightened were all around, and the Chief at once gave his daughter, and told them to be gone. So they went home and took the bride with them. The father restored the hat to Scallighan, who was rejoiced with his bride.”
Hearing of Scallighan’s terrible power, representatives from neighbouring tribes descended on Salt Spring Island, bringing their daughters with them as peace offerings. When they saw that lightning issued from the young man’s eyes whenever they were opened, the natives were terrified, and resolved to kill him lest he ever decide to go to war with them in the future.
“At last, Harris wrote, “two brothers who lived in Cowichan determined to rid the land of thunder and lightning, and made preparations for their warfare. They put on their war dresses, and each carried a magic sword, made out of elk horn. It had wonderful powers.”
Warned of the warriors’ coming by whispering spirits, Scallighan prepared himself for battle. When the two brothers approached his longhouse, the Thunder man opened his eyes and removed his cap, causing a terrible storm to descend upon the mountain. The younger brother was killed instantly by a lightning bolt. Using his brother’s corpse as a shield, the elder brother engaged Scallighan in hand-to-hand combat. “At last,” Harris wrote, “the magic sword struck Scallighan and killed him, and his spirit flew off as a great bird. The young conqueror released all the wives from this huge lodge, and they all went to their old homes.”
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Thunderbird on the Columbia River
Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), By Washington Irving
Thunderbird on the Prairies
“Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians,” by Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall, written in September 1908 and published in Volume II of the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (1909)
Thunderbird on Southern Vancouver Island
“Report on the Indian Tribes Inhabiting the Country in the Vicinity of the 49th Parallel of North Latitute,” by Captain Charles W. Wilson in the 1866 Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London
History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901), by Martha Douglas Harris