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Star Stories, part 20: The Great Thunderbird That Dwells Among the Stars

Updated: May 10, 2023

Onaabani-giizis/Onaabdin-giizis (Snowcrust Moon), March 3, 2022



Aabiji-waasamoog igiweg manidoog ba-ayaawaad

"The thunder spirits keep coming flashing their lightning"


Boozhoo, aaniin, bindigen! Hello and welcome!

In today's story we will be dwelling on the phenomenon of the Thunderbird, whose supernatural presence is not only to be found in the earth's natural phenomena – in the form of thunder, lightning, rain, tornadoes, and hurricanes – but also in the night sky.

The Binesi (Thunderbird) motif figures prominently in several Ojibwe Anishinaabe stories, ceremonies, and depictions on rock, tree bark, animal hide, metal, and canvas and is the overall symbol that unifies all Anishinaabeg.

As “spirits of the sky realm,” Thunderbirds are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the aadizookaanag – Spirit Grandfathers, Supernatural Makers of Stories – that guard the cardinal points of the Universe. They are related to water and to the south and the summer – which is the time of year when the storms rumble over the Gichigamiin (the Great Lakes). The peal of thunder echoing from every side of the lakes – often surrounded by dense forests and bordered by rocks – makes it impossible to be unaware their powerful presence.

The Binesiwag leave their homes among the stars and on high cliffs and mountain peaks in the west in the beginning of spring and come to Earth in different forms and guises and sizes – as winged beings, or sometimes even in human form – to visit the Anishinaabeg and also to drive off the (possibly malevolent) underground spirits from the Earth and the waters of lakes and rivers. They are in charge of the warm weather and procure and maintain the warm seasons on Earth, which is why they migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall. Their thunder claps herald the presence of powerful manidoog or Spirit Beings, and their lightning arrows carry strong Medicine.

According to traditional Anishinaabe anang nibwaakaawin (Ojibwe star knowledge), Thunderbirds are part of the great gathering of all beings. They came to Earth to help out the anishinaabeg (humans) as well, which is still reflected in the Binesi Doodem, the Ojibwe Thunderbird clan. Whoever is born in the Thunderbird Clan knows that their origin lies somewhere with the Thunderbird constellations in the Great Galaxy.

Some depictions of the Thunderbird star formations are equivalent to the constellation of Ajijaak, the Sandhill Crane; named Cygnus on Western star maps. In the Anishinaabe clan system Ajijaak(we) is both associated with "Crane" and "Thunder"; sometimes the Crane/Thunder clan is described by its metaphorical name Baswenaazhi or "Echo Maker." To the Anishinaabeg, both Binesi and Ajijaak are ogimaag or leaders; where crane is the first in council, the Thunderbird is a leader in the spiritual and ceremonial domain.

One only has to look at the known traditional constellations to see that the constellations surrounding the north celestial pole correspond precisely to the main odoodemag (clans) of the Anishinaabeg and Ininewak Peoples. Large and smaller land animals and birds, such as makwa (bear), ma’iingan (wolf), bizhiw (lynx), mooz (moose), amik (beaver), ajikaak (crane), and maang (loon) are imagined to have their counterparts in the night sky in the form of those constellations; their movements on earth as well as in the depths of the earth and the lake are mirrored and emulated in the night sky, and vice versa. This, of course, also goes for the Thunderbird, which is a supernatural version of the taloned birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, and falcons, and is, as such, also represented in the Great Galaxy.

As said before, it has been suggested that some depictions of the Thunderbird star formations are equivalent to the constellation of Ajijaak, the Sandhill Crane (Cygnus). Other sources mention a cluster of zodiac constellations as being a stellar representation of the Thunderbird. Both constellations, along with the planet called Gichi-ogimaa Wasomaad Aki (The Great Bright Leader; literally: "Great Chief Lightning World"; known as planet Jupiter in Western astronomy), were placed in the above-world to remind us of the Thunderbirds' arrival in the spring season.

Illustration: The Birth of Thunder, digitized pen and ink drawing by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2022.


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