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February 17, 2003

Thunderbirds and Fireflies

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KEYWORDS: thunderbird legend ojibwe legend ojibwa legend ojibway legend Anishinaubeg legend Indian legend oral story oral history myth firefly legend limited edition art prints art print Indian art print

AUTHOR: Ojibwe Oral Story

Thunderbirds are not like other birds. Oh, to be sure, they have feathers-but they are feathers that shine with many, many colors too bright for the human eye to see.

Nor do thunderbirds sing like songbirds. Their song rumbles and echoes from cloud to cloud until it becomes a booming mountain of sound that shakes the ground below. What is more, lightning flashes from eyes of thunderbirds in fiery orange or in glowing sheets.

Yet in autumn when the cold sets in and the drumming rains dull the bright leaves, the thunderbirds fly south to the sunny skies just to cause wild, noisy storms.

When the thunderbirds return in spring, long before the first robin, the storms that follow them are milder. Last year’s mischievous nestlings are older now and less playful. They think only about building their own nests in the northern sky.


Cecilia Henle - Fire Thunder

Fire Thunder


Cecilia Henle


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One spring when the world was young, all the thunderbirds flew north as usual. In their nesting grounds they shaped their nests from scraps of clouds woven around spring ice and sleet and sealed with night mists and late frost. Then the female thunderbirds laid their snowy, gold- flecked eggs on beds of sparkling breast feathers.

Once the females were settled comfortably, the male thunderbirds began to race through the sky. They talked to one another about the south and warm, lazy days in the sun.

They talked even more about something strange they had seen on their way north. Their flight had taken them across what would one day be Michigan. There they had seen great eagles dipping their beaks to the earth and producing very powerful whirling winds-much more powerful than any winds the thunderbirds have ever created.


Kathy Cooney - Whispering Smoke (S)

Whispering Smoke (S)


Kathy Cooney


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The thunderbirds had been awed, and jealous as well. As they talked about tornadoes, they grew so excited that they created a terrifying thunderstorm.

The females were very upset and rumbled and squawked among themselves. They simply could not leave the eggs they were sitting on. At last, however, their loud and urgent calls brought the males back to the nest.

There the females stroked their mates ruffled wing feathers until the males were quiet and calm again.

Perhaps it was the thunderstorm that caused the young to hatch early that year, and a noisier, rowdier group of nestlings had never been seen. They clambered over one another, chirping in high and noisy bumps of thunder.


Peter Kitchell - Under Thunder

Under Thunder


Peter Kitchell


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They demanded food, food, and more food. Their worried parents flew back and forth, back and forth, to bring the nestlings all the food they wanted.

When the offspring left the nest-actually they kicked one another out-the tired parents breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the little thunderbirds could feed themselves, the parents expected to be able to relax and enjoy some quiet.

That year they had no time to rest. No sooner had the little ones taken the clouds than the fights began. As their parents watched in growing alarm, they fought over wisps of delicious black cloud.

When they came to the nests, they battled about positions near their mothers’ warm breasts. They tweaked out tail feathers, just to tease. They were always wrestling. The nests were very noisy and very uncomfortable for all the thunderbirds.


Doug Oliver - Silent Thunder

Silent Thunder


Doug Oliver


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Not only were the young birds nuisances at home they looked for trouble in the sky. Their favorite trick was to pile cloud upon cloud until the bottoms of the lowest clouds turned into heavy black cumulonimbus clouds of great power.

Then the little bird sputtered out rolling grumbles of thunder and their eyes shot out tiny chains of lightning. The clouds tumbled down upon another until the whole sky was a mottled grey. Then, of course, the naughty birds swooped back to the nests and their parents had to end the storm.

The fathers did not know what to do about their troublesome children. At last they decided to teach them to play lacrosse. They hoped that the young would tire themselves out. Then order could be restored to the sky.

The little thunderbirds learned fast. As you would expect, however, they were careless and thoughtless in their play. Some cut their beaks and others had all their tail feathers pulled out. Still they wanted to play lacrosse. They played from horizon to horizon, from sunrise to dusk, all day, every day.


Richard Kaylin - Front Range Thunder

Front Range Thunder


Richard Kaylin


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Their wings grew sore from throwing the big ball their fathers had made for them from the lightning of a tremendous storm. The little thunderbirds did not complain, nor did they rest. They became stronger as they grew older.

Soon the little thunderbirds could throw the ball farther and farther and the game grew more interesting. Although they were strong and quick, they were also very rough.

One day a little thunderbird took a mighty sweep and bounced the ball across the goal line, past the line of clouds building up on the horizon, down, far down, to the earth below.

No matter how fast the small thunderbirds chased, swooping and diving, they could not catch it. One of them hurried to the parents for help, but they could do nothing. Before their horrified eyes, the ball plunged to the earth below, crashing with a roar that shook the skies.


Jack Sorensen - Thunder and Mud

Thunder and Mud


Jack Sorensen


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The ball scooped out a huge, irregular basin, which we now call the Hudson Bay. As the ball broke into pieces, it created all the little lakes in northern Ontario. What a roar of thunder and flash of lightning followed!

There was so much noise and brightness that several stars slipped from their places in the sky. They recovered, hung for a moment, and then fell headlong to the earth below. There they broke into thousands of pieces, which blinked on and off, on and off. The fall had changed the stars into fireflies.

To this day the fireflies can still be seen blinking on and off. People sometimes call them lightning bugs, and so they are, since they were created by thunder and lightning which shook the stars form the sky.

Ojibwe / Chippewa Legends
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