Death & Resurrection of the Thunderbird: A Wichita Legend of Rebirth & Renewal

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The Kirikir?i:s, (meaning: raccoon eyes) most commonly known as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, indigenous to the Southern Great Plains which now make up much of Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Texas, describe their history as a story of endurance and survival despite overwhelming adversity. While examples of adversity are all too easy to find in the centuries since European contact, the traditional mythology of the Wichita tells a cycle of light and darkness, destruction and rebirth:

Wichita legends tell us that the history of our people forms a cycle. With the world’s creation, the gifts of corn and the bow and arrow were bestowed upon the people by the spirits of the first man and woman, Morning Star and the Moon. The cycle is complete with the days of darkness, when the earth becomes barren. Just as disaster seems, imminent, the cycle begins again, and the world is renewed through the new creation.
History – Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, “In The Beginning: 1540-1750”

This cycle is evident in a story masterfully told by Ahahe, a Waco woman living in Nebraska around the turn of the twentieth century. Ahahe tells of a conflict between the Thunderbird and the Water Serpent, old enemies whose struggle is told in stories all across North America. The legend of the Thunderbird Chief, his death, and his resurrection, is filled with distinct elements of Kirikir?i:s culture and universal mythological symbolism; a combination which makes its telling crucial, today more than ever.

Coyote & the Two Chiefs

The Wichita account of history is divided into four ages. First, the Age of Creation, in which the first man, who would become the morning star, and first woman, who would become the moon, wander from village to village teaching the people. Second is the Age of Transformation, filled with fantastic creatures and ending with the Great Flood. We now live on the border of the Third Age, in which humans tell stories of the heroes of the past, and the fourth and final Age of Destruction, in which it is said that the world will grow barren, clearing the way for re-creation as the cycle begins anew.

This story belongs to the Age of Transformation, and is set in a divided village. The East is ruled by the good Chief Thunderbird, where people live in harmony; but no one knows who rules the West, filled with evil-spirited people who make a pastime of gambling, with their lives as the wagers. While most would keep to their side of the village, the Thunderbird’s nephew, Coyote, is captivated by the spectacle of the wagering games, and often crosses over to watch.

Right away, those familiar with Native American storytelling traditions will have an idea of where this will go. Coyote is perhaps the most human of the archetypal figures who appear in stories across North America; like us, he is convinced of his own cleverness and ability to push limits, which brings him into trouble. So of course it is Coyote who crosses town, as though he could be entertained by the dark games played on the other side without becoming consumed by them. But Coyote’s evil-spirited hosts always treat him well, and ask him to one day bring his uncle the Thunderbird along. Chief Thunderbird repeatedly warns Coyote to stay away, that it is a place to lose one’s life cheap. Yet Coyote still goes and still asks his Uncle to join him, until one day Chief Thunderbird agrees:

“All right. if you think the fun is more for your advantage than for mine, I will go along with you to see the game." The Coyote began to think that there must be some danger. He said to his uncle, "What do you mean?" The Thunderbird said: "You will see and you will wish that you had never begged me to go along with you to the hand-game."
The Thunderbird and the Water Monster, told by Ahahe, from The Mythology of the Wichita by George A Dorsey

The hosts celebrate when they see that they have finally lured Chief Thunderbird into their lodge, and give him a reserved seat in a place of honor. Thunderbird watches, not entertained, while the evil-spirited people gamble their lives away, and Coyote grows nervous at his uncle’s stern silence. When the games end, Thunderbird gets up to leave, but he cannot get up from his seat. The wet ground below him collapses, as his seat begins to rise, revealing itself to be a great water monster.

As the monster drags the Thunderbird to a deep lake, Coyote panics and cries for his uncle to fight back, but Thunderbird does not strike back:

There were a great many of the people who followed the monster to the shore to see what it was going to do. The Coyote was right by the side of the monster, talking to his uncle, and saying: "You have great powers, why do you not free yourself from the monster? You can do it." But the Coyote was then told that it was all his fault that he had lost his uncle. The Coyote would then cry out fearfully for his uncle, but there were a great many people who mocked the Coyote and were glad to see his uncle die. The monster reached the lake and went into the water. He went to the bottom of the lake instead of swimming, and they kept going down and down…
The Thunderbird and the Water Monster, told by Ahahe, from The Mythology of the Wichita by George A Dorsey

He is pulled under the water and killed by the serpentine monster. Coyote is overcome with guilt, and the residents of Thunderbird’s village either join their evil-spirited neighbors or flee to find new homes. Generations pass, and the village is nearly deserted, with only an old man, and old woman, and their grandchildren remaining.

Beyond the Grave

The two young boys spend their days venturing through the abandoned lodges, searching for anything valuable left behind, and hunting for birds on the shore of the deep lake. But when the boys are on the lakeshore, they hear more than the familiar calls of birds; they hear a voice singing a melody. They try to follow the sound to its source, but cannot find it, so they return home and tell their grandparents about the strange song.

Their grandfather thinks for a silent moment, and asks the boys where they heard the singing. When they tell that it was by the deep lake, their grandfather tells the boys the story of the Thunderbird, the great Chief of good character, who was lured to a lodge where evil-minded men bet their lives on the hand game, was taken by the water monster, and was drowned in the deep lake. It must have been the Thunderbird that they boys heard, for as long as even the smallest piece of flesh remains on the great Chief’s bones, there will still be life in him. The boys’ grandfather teaches them how to stack wood to build a fire, and the boys build their fire on the lakeshore, heating rocks and throwing them in the water.

The boys return the next day to a dry lake, with the corpse of the water monster at the bottom. With their grandfather they cut up the beast and search through the bones of the Thunderbird, and find a small piece of flesh remaining on one finger. They take the bones back with them, and grandfather arranges them inside a small grass lodge that grandmother builds. When they have finished the preparations, grandfather sets the lodge aflame. Four times (one time for each direction, as well as one time for each age in the cosmic cycle) he calls out, “Thunderbird, get out of the lodge, it is on fire!” And at the final call, the Thunderbird rises from the flames, resurrected.

The Thunderbird’s first concern is for his people, and where they had gone. The grandparents tell how the people went away, some saddened, and some happy to learn of his demise. The Thunderbird brings the boys on the hunt, and has the elders spread the word of his return.

With the Thunderbird’s guidance the boys become legendary hunters who would never return without a feast, and as the elders spread word, a small band of those who were loyal to Chief Thunderbird arrives some days later, led by his nephew Coyote. Coyote is overjoyed at the return of his uncle; and the Thunderbird does not punish Coyote, but rather gives him a place of honor, serving as the village’s Second Chief. Perhaps Coyote suffered enough in his guilt, or perhaps having learned his lesson he is now able to guide at his uncle’s side. In either case is the mystery, that through the Thunderbird’s death and resurrection, even the foolish Coyote is raised up.

Conclusion: Hearing The Call

The death and resurrection of the Thunderbird presents universally-applicable symbolism alongside depths only accessible with a traditional Wichita view of the world. Like the two villages, our societies and our minds are split between forces which are happy to be led by the virtue personified in Chief Thunderbird, as well as the evil-minded who scoff at the idea of a life lived in service of something greater, and those who, like Coyote, cross between the two realms. The Thunderbird’s resurrection is a testament to the lasting power of timeless virtues which can never be eliminated. There is a place for the young and the old in restoring what is truly good; for the young to hear and take up virtue’s call, and for the old to recognize the song that the young hear and teach them how to act on it.

And another level of meaning appears when the story is approached with the traditional cycle of birth, destruction, and rebirth in mind. The death and resurrection of the Thunderbird is, indeed, a microcosm pointing toward the death and rebirth of all creation. And as we have discussed, the of today have experienced the heights and depths of this cycle in a historical sense.

When the Waco woman Ahahe told her story over a century ago, it was already believed among the Kirikir?i:s that the world was nearing the end of the third age, in which stories were told, and transitioning into the fourth, the age of destruction. Animals were beginning to disappear, and the Kirikir?i:s themselves had drastically declined in numbers following European contact.

Over a century after Ahahe told her story, it is hard not to see this cycle in action through another Wichita woman. In 2016 Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, the last fluent speaker of the Wichita language, died in Oklahoma at the age of 89. A prayer service was held at the Wichita Tribal Community Center, and her nephew asked the world to say a prayer for the Wichita tribe.


But in the cyclical Wichita view of history, every age of destruction is followed by a new creation; a cycle that has happened many times before and will happen many times again. And like the Thunderbird, as long as the smallest bit of flesh remains on the bones, there is still life.

For forty years Doris Lamar worked with the University of Colorado to document and preserve her language; and as we have a photograph of Ahahe and the written stories that she shared, we have videos and recordings of Lamar speaking her language; though they are now gone, we can still hear their voices. And in 2018, the Wichita Tribal History Center was opened in Anadarko, Oklahoma to share history and culture, and is open to all. If this is indeed the Age of Destruction, the seeds of rebirth are already planted.

The Kirikir?i:s are not the only people that have been to the brink, and we all have traditions dear to us that we wish to preserve. The story of the Thunderbird‘s death and resurrection shows us how: for the elders, to teach the young, and for the youth, to listen, and recognize the call.


Date: 2024-01-08 18:01:15 - Views: 145