Thunderbirds and Medicine Men 

"If you find fear in your heart, go into the mountains. Stand high on the peak and watch the storm come from the horizon. See the lightning and hear the thunder and know that all this power is small compared to the power of the Great Spirit with which he has to protect you."  Algonquin Proverb. 

Thunderbird Medicine ways were practiced by my KitchiZibi Algonquin ancestors: The Old Ones. But sadly, during the destructive times of the Christian missionaries, our benevolent Thunderbird Medicine ways were judged as being Indian Sorcery. Thunderbird Medicine was mistrusted.

Not too long ago every medicine man, holy man, healer, tent shaker or root doctor in Algonquin territory was negatively called a sorcerer. And because the egocentric domination of Christianity still exists, so does the misnomer. A memory of this remains yet: The Mattawa River, which flows right into the KitchiZibi, is still called "The Valley of the Sorcerers."

Some of our KitchiZibi medicine men were called Thunderbirds. They worked to rid the earth of negative and intentionally malevolent spirits symbolized by big snakes and monstrous serpents. So the Thunderbirds practiced 'snake medicine' ways to purposefully attract the great powers of thunder and lightning to help people heal. But due to the ill beliefs of Christian missionaries, our Thunderbirds were perceived as being evil.

A spiritual helper to a Thunderbird medicine man is often the snake. But in Euro-Christian beliefs, snakes and serpents were always seen as evil manifestations of the devil itself. So, because of this, our Thunderbird medicine men were persecuted as evil sorcerers and it is no surprise they began to practice their mysterious medicine ways in secrecy. 

Perhaps if we take a closer look at a KitchiZibi allegorical legend we'll gain a better understanding about the sacred role of the snakes, and also the Thunderbirds, from a traditional perspective. In the old times legends were told about 'manitou' spirits who lived here; the Snakes, the Monster Snakes, the Serpents and the Thunderbirds too:

"It is said that long ago the little green snakes were the guardians of Mother Earth. The job of the snakes was to protect all the medicines so that all the beings of the earth would live strong and be healthy. It was seen that one day the snakes might become aware of their power. And when this happened, the snakes lost their way. They began to take their power not only from Mother Earth, but also from the very beings the Great Spirit had assigned them to protect. The snakes fed on the spirits of all the beings. The more spirits the snakes took, the more they grew. Soon they became monstrous snakes and giant serpents. The beings of the whole earth came to fear the power of the giant serpents. So, to try to fix this big problem, Kitchi-Manitou - the Great Spirit - called for the Thunderbirds. When the Thunderbirds arrived, they were tremendously hungry. They used the power of their own lightning to rid the earth of the giant serpents. As they destroyed them, they ate them. The bad power of the serpents became the good power of the Thunderbirds."

Although in severe contrast to Christian ways of believing and worship a Thunderbird medicine man was a very secretive, spiritual holy person. They preferred to work alone when they sought medicine and guidance from Thunderbirds. They used 'snake medicine' to attract the electrical power of the Thunderbirds. This infuriated the Christian missionaries. The missionaries quite disliked and mistrusted the Thunderbirds. They wanted the Thunderbirds and their potent medicine ways to be gone.


But by using their sacred snake medicine ways, it was the Thunderbird medicine men who worked to eliminate the Giant Serpents - the big human egos - of the Christian missionaries who, with views of spiritual superiority, manipulated and intentionally consumed the spirits of our people like serpents themselves to promote their own doctrine. Quite naturally this saddened, disturbed, offended and even angered our own traditional holy people: the Thunderbird medicine men.

With the arrival of Christianity the Thunderbirds, who used their snake medicine ways, were greatly feared for their knowledge, wisdom and power. So fear itself was intentionally utilized by the early missionaries in attempts to dispel the Thunderbirds. In 1625 Brother Gabriel Sagard, a Recollet missionary, wrote of them:

"They were sorcerers, holding intimate converse with the devil. Their ability to cast spells and inflict diseases was notorious among the neighboring peoples. But apart from their magic spells and their communications with demons, I found them very kindly and polite."

But soon our Thunderbirds' beliefs and medicine ceremonies began to disappear all along the KitchiZibi (Great River) due to being replaced by the 'new religion' of Christianity. As a result, to protect their ancestral beliefs the Thunderbirds carried their ancient knowledge high into the mountains far above the KitchiZibi. They built great stone Thunderbird nests atop the highest places. The Thunderbirds placed their knowledge into these Thunderbird nests like eggs to preserve the medicine ways of their profound but benevolent way of life. In his 1965 book, "Legends of my People", the Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau wrote of them:

"It is known that the Thunderbirds had a huge nest made of stones on the mountains of the earth and large blankets of clouds were always seen to cover the nest. Although the Thunderbird was never seen to come and go from its nest, it was known to be there. Lightning and thunder were heard only at these places." 

As Christianity ate the peoples' spirit the Thunderbirds were forgotten. And because of this, the serpents grew even bigger and stronger. It is believed our world is out of balance today due to the absence of the Thunderbirds and their powerful medicine ways to allay the serpents.


The good news is that the Thunderbirds are still here. They never left. The Thunderbirds are coming down from their nests in the mountains. Today they desire to share their medicine; their teachings and wisdom. Thunderbirds share their knowledge to enlighten and empower others. 

Ancient, sacred medicine sites still exist here in KitchiZibi territory. For example Pinesi-Asin or Bird/Oiseau Rock is a huge cliff face overlooking the KitchiZibi (Ottawa River) which is still considered a nesting place of the Thunderbirds and Thunderbird medicine men. There are red-ochre pictographs painted at the base of the cliff face and traditional people still journey to the top of Pinesi-Asin to do their fasts and vision quests.

There is old traditional knowledge here about our original big manitous: Thunderbird, Turtle, Serpent and the Underwater Panther. Many people today are seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder... We're waking up from hearing the voices of our ancestors who still exist in our blood. In a kind way the Thunderbirds are guiding us back up the trail to the top of the mountain. They're helping us know who we are and they're reminding us how to live in a good-hearted way. Many people are now embracing the practical, benevolent teachings of Thunderbird Medicine.

Today we can trust Thunderbird Medicine people to help us find the lost trail to the nest and the wise teachings found there; human teachings to help us see and accept the reality that we're all Native to the Earth.