The Thunderbird (Cee’niibee-t nii’eihii) is a supernatural eagle and central to many Arapaho ceremonies and narratives. The blinking of its eyes produces lighting and its calls produce thunder. The Thunderbird is an intermediary between the Creator and the Arapahos, providing visions and power to those participating in the Sun Dance or vision quests. (Arapaho Stories, Songs & Prayers: pg. 3)
The Thunderbird was an important source of power and protection to the Arapaho people. In the early 1900’s, Cleaver Warden, a Southern Arapaho, recited a Arapaho prayer where he invokes the Thunderbird’s name as well as that of Jesus Christ.
“My Father Christ God above us, My Father Creator! Thunderbird!” (pg. 457)
Other ways the Arapaho acknowledged the Thunderbird in their ceremonies was by building a nest structure on the Center Pole of the Arapaho Sun Dance Lodge. This nest symbolizes the nest of the Thunderbird (Dorsey 1903: 114). The bull-roarer is a toy noise-maker that was used to create a buzzing sound during the Ghost Dance. It was believed that playing with this toy could bring rain and thunder and thus the Thunderbird. (Hilger 1952: 93-94)
In Gros Ventre tradition, it was the Thunderbird (Bha’a) who gave the sacred pipe to the people. Some Plains tribes associated thunderbirds with the summer season and in Arapaho mythology, Thunderbird was the opposing force to White Owl, who represented winter. (Pg. 68 – Arapaho Historical Traditions: Hinono’einoo’itoono by Paul Moss)
The varying colors of clouds – yellow, white and black – were often associated with thunderstorms and the Thunderbird. In another account, the Thunderbird appeared in a black storm when angry that her chicks had been killed. (Tangled Hair legend)
Mixing was not allowed and especially dangerous during thunderstorms when the Thunderbird was active. According to older Arapahos, boys and girls were told to sit apart from each other during this time. Otherwise, the Thunderbird would be jealous and strike.
The sound the Thunderbird makes is the same as thunder and the Arapaho word also represents a human who is hollering. (‘to holler’ – niitouuhu-etouuhu)
The following story relates just one way of how the Thunderbird is our protector.
“Alligator” or, as it is more commonly known, the “Water Monster”
There are two different kinds of Water Monsters. Some were furry, and others were not furry. Under the water is where they live. And under the ground in spring water is where others live.
They have horns. They have cloven hooves and some have claws. They have short, flat faces. They have large bodies. They have long, snakelike bodies. Wherever they are found, then the Thunderbird comes and strikes with his lightning.
That rainbow, the Thunderbirds are the ones who own it. It is his fishing line. Whenever the Thunderbird flies under the rainbow, the Thunderbird catches things. Wherever he catches a Water Monster, those springs dry up and disappear. These lakes disappear too.
The Thunderbird eats these Water Monsters.
The Water Monster has metal horns. And its eyes have a glimmering, variegated color much like the sun shining on an oil slick. The color varies with the perspective and from any angle tends to be multiple.
The Water Monster harms people from within springs and lakes. It drowns them and that’s why the Indians fear it.
This story was collected July 1927 in Wyoming by Truman Michelson and retold in the Arapaho Stories pgs. 238-240
To read this story and others for yourself, refer to Arapaho Stories, Songs and Prayers by Andrew Cowell, Alonzo Moss, Sr. and William J. C’Hair.