A December 1914 newspaper article bemoaned the fact that 12 million soldiers involved in the Great War in Europe adorned their uniforms or marched behind flags with birds depicted in spread-eagle positions. Angel DeCora was interviewed for the article because she had studied the thunderbird at great length. By delving into Indian legends, she learned that the thunderbird or equivalent has been a mark of distinction and authority for many thousands years. She learned the Winnebago version of the thunderbird story and believed it to be as old as the legend of the last mammoth.

According to legend the spirits that dominated land, water and air were in a balanced state for ages with each spirit roughly equal to the others. Clans associated themselves with patron spirits for purposes of recognition and occupation. The thunderbird, apparently an air spirit, was observed in deadly combat with a water spirit by an exhausted warrior of the thunderbird clan as he lay next to a precipice looking down on the still waters below. When the spirits tired they each asked the warrior for help. The warrior, the only human ever to see the spirits, assisted the thunderbird and the water spirit sank, never to be seen again.

To Indians, the thunderbird represents authority, dignity, arbitration and, most important of all, peace. Many believed the emblem of a bird with wide-spread wings was misappropriated by Europeans from ancient America perverting a symbol of arbitration and peace to war and devastation.

Carlisle Indian School and the Society of American Indians both adopted the thunderbird as their emblem. The thunderbird designed by Angel DeCora for the school’s use is at the bottom of this message. The September 4, 1914 issue of The Carlisle Arrow announced that the Alumni Department would adorn various items with the thunderbird. The April 30 blog includes the Alumni Department’s masthead featuring a thunderbird that I mistakenly thought looked more like a bat.

I have a soft spot for Thunderbirds having owned them for over 40 years. I bought a rust-bucket ’56 in 1965, nursed it along for a decade and bought a solid ’57 in 1976 and have kept it all this time. I finally broke down and had it painted. So, it will be out on the road in all its glory soon.

Thunderbird by Angel DeCora

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