Quillayute - How Thunderbird Helped The People
Long ago, there was a sad time in the land of the Quillayute. For days and days, great storms blew. Rain and hail and then sleet and snow came down upon the land. The hailstones were so large that many of the people were killed. The other Quillayute were driven from their coast villages to the great prairie, which was the highest part of their land.
There the people grew thin and weak from hunger. The hailstones had beaten down the ferns, the camas and the berries. Ice locked the rivers so the men could not fish. Storms rocked the ocean so the fishermen could not go out in their canoes for deep-sea fishing. Soon, the people had eaten all the grass and roots on the prairie; there was no food left. As children died without food, even the strongest and bravest of their fathers could do nothing. They called upon the Great Spirit for help, but no help came.
At last the Great Chief of the Quillayute called a meeting of his people. He was old and wise. "Take comfort, my people," the Chief said. "We will call again upon the Great Spirit for help. If no help comes, then we will know it is His will that we die. If it is not His will that we live, then we will die bravely, as brave Quillayute have always died. Let us talk with the Great Spirit."
So the weak and hungry people sat in silence while the Chief talked with the Great Spirit who had looked kindly upon the Quillayute for hundreds of years.
When his prayer had ended, the Chief turned again to his people. "Now we will wait for the will of the One who is wise and all-powerful."
The people waited. No-one spoke. There was nothing but silence and darkness. Suddenly, there came a great noise, and flashes of lightning cut the darkness. A deep whirring sound, like giant wings beating, came from the place of the setting sun. All of the people turned to gaze toward the sky above the ocean as a huge, bird-shaped creature flew toward them. This bird was larger than any they had ever seen. Its wings, from tip to tip, were twice as long as a war canoe. It had a huge, curving beak, and its eyes glowed like fire. The people saw that its great claws held a living, giant whale.
In silence, they watched while Thunderbird - for so the bird was named by everyone - carefully lowered the whale to the ground before them. Thunderbird then flew high in the sky, and went back to the thunder and lightning it had come from. Perhaps it flew back to its perch in the hunting grounds of the Great Spirit.
Thunderbird and Whale saved the Quillayute from dying. The people knew that the Great Spirit had heard their prayer. Even today they never forget that visit from Thunderbird, never forget that it ended long days of hunger and death. For on the prairie near their village are big, round stones that the grandfathers say are the hardened hailstones of that storm long ago.
Thunderbird is a very large bird, with feathers as long as a canoe paddle. When he flaps his wings, he makes thunder and the great winds. When he opens and shuts his eyes, he makes lightning. In stormy weather, he flies through the skies, flapping his wings and opening and closing his eyes.
Thunderbird's home is a cave in the Olympic Mountains, and he wants no one to come near it. If hunters get close enough so he can smell them, he makes thunder noise, and he rolls ice out of his cave. The ice rolls down the mountainside, and when it reaches a rocky place, it breaks into many pieces. The pieces rattle as they roll farther down into the valley.
All the hunters are so afraid of Thunderbird and his noise and rolling ice that they never stay long near his home. No one ever sleeps near his cave. Thunderbird keeps his food in a dark hole at the edge of a big field of ice and snow. His food is the whale. Thunderbird flies out of the ocean, catches a whale and hurries back to the mountains to eat it. One time Whale fought Thunderbird so hard that during the battle, trees were torn up by their roots. To this day there are no trees in Beaver Prairie because of the fight Whale and Thunderbird had that day.
At the time of the Great Flood, Thunderbird fought a long, long battle with Killer Whale. He would catch Killer Whale in his claws and start with him to the cave in the mountains. Killer Whale would escape and return to the water. Thunderbird would catch him again, all the time flashing lightning from his eyes and flapping his wings to create thunder. Mountains were shaken by the noise, and trees were uprooted in their struggle.
Again and again Killer Whale escaped. Again and again Thunderbird seized him. Many times they fought, in different places in the mountains. At last Killer Whale escaped to the middle of the ocean, and Thunderbird gave up the fight.
That is why Killer Whales live in the deep oceans today, and that is why There are many prairies in the midst of the forests on the Olympic Peninsula.
Adapted from Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark, University of California Press, 1953.