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The Thunderbird

"Ford Division's personal luxury car, the Thunderbird, is named for the legendary bird known to the American Indians as a good luck omen.  The mythical bird was supposed to have caused thunder, lightning, and rain.  It symbolized, among other things, power, swiftness, and prosperity.

Students of Indian lore say the Thunderbird is used more than any other symbol in Southwestern Indian art.  It is represented as the figure of a bird with outstretched wings, and is common in aboriginal North American Indian art.

The Thunderbird was called the helper of man because, by flapping its huge wings, it was believed to cause thunder and lightning and bring rain to patched deserts and fields.

No man, say the Indians, could see the Thunderbird except in flashes as it flew swiftly through the clouds with arrows of lightning bolts its wings."

From a FORD MOTOR COMPANY news release

The Puget Sound Early Birds are based on the eastern portion of the Olympic Peninsula in the State of Washington. Although the Thunderbird legend common to the North American Native Americans, it is most often associated with the Pacific Northwest.

The following is adapted from Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark, University of California Press, 1953.

The Quillayute is a Chimakoan tribe living along the Quillayute River, a six-mile river on the Olympic Peninsula. The fishing village of Lapush is at its mouth.

This story is adapted from Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark, University of California Press, 1953.

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.