A battle between two prehistoric monsters is a widespread motif in Amerindian mythology. For Plains Indians, for example, the Water Monster and the Thunder Bird were eternal enemies. George Bird Grinnell (known to the Cheyennes as Wikis, “Bird,” because he came and went with the seasons) recorded myths about these warring creatures among the Cheyennes of western Nebraska and Kansas in the 1890s.
“Thunder often appears as a great bird, somewhat like an eagle, but much larger,” wrote Grinnell. Thunder Birds shoot arrows of lightning, which can kill people and animals. Sometimes, noted Grinnell, the Cheyennes find “stone arrow points, which some people think is the head of the Thunderbird’s arrow.” These stone objects may have been fossil belemnites, whose resemblance to pointed missiles made them valuable fetishes for the Zunis and other nations.
Many stories refer to battles between sky or thunder beings and water monsters. In the Great Plains, the idea of primal conflicts between water monsters and giant birds was influenced by discoveries of the striking remains of huge flying reptiles, Pteranodons whose wings spanned twenty feet, lying in the ground near the skeletons of thirty-foot-long marine creatures such as mosasaurs. As noted above, these bluish-gray fossils are often well articulated in the Niobrara white chalk beds of Nebraska and Kansas. Skeletons of the great diving bird, the toothed Hesperornis, have even been found inside skeletons of mosasaurs and long-necked elasmosaurs and plesiosaurs. Such finds would further animate the idea of hostility between gigantic birds and water serpents.
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Some Sioux imagined that the large boulders on the northern prairies were the spent ballistics of the Water Monsters, hurled up at the Thunder Birds who struck back with lightning. Lame Deer remarked that in places where the bones of the Thunderers and Water Monsters were very thick, you could find “many kangi tame, bolts of lightning which have turned into black stones shaped like spear points.” Pointed belemnite fossils, common in the Badlands, do resemble blackened stone missiles, and they are abundant in the sediments where mosasaurs are found. And of course, a severe thunderstorm would wash away soil, revealing fossils that were not visible before: hence the common association of fossils with Thunder Beings.
I had heard that Thunder Bird footprints were impressed on certain big rocks in the eastern Dakotas and Minnesota, so, in July 2000 before setting up camp on the Missouri River, I searched out several of these sacred boulders in the Coteau des Prairies in northeastern South Dakota. This is where the midwestern prairie begins to slope upward into the High Plains. Looking west from these grassy hills, one can appreciate what the Cheyenne elder John Stands In Timber called the “blue vision” of distant time and space. In the words of George Catlin, the Coteau des Prairies offered “the most unbounded and sublime views of—nothing at all—save the blue and boundless ocean of prairies that vanish into azure in the distance.”
This tall-grass prairie is dotted with great boulders, glacial erratics that traveled south from Manitoba, Canada, during the Ice Age. Similar landscapes exist further west, too, in northwestern Montana, for example, where scientists note that “every rock, without exception, moved east. . . miles from where it formed.” Geologists developed the theory of glacial transport of erratic boulders and moraine gravels in the 1870s, but the reality of traveling boulders and stones was already acknowledged in ancient Sioux belief. The concept was first recorded in writing in 1834 by the missionary Samuel Pond in Minnesota. Some granite boulders were thought by the Sioux to “possess the power of locomotion,” even to be capable of leaving tracks or furrows.
In the 1830s, the French explorer Joseph Nicollet recorded Dakota Sioux legends about Thunder Birds. Their original nesting ground was said to be the Coteau des Prairies, but their dwelling place was the Black Hills (thunderstorms here typically arrive from the west, and large birds often soar on thermal updrafts in front of approaching storms). I visited the three Thunder Bird track and nest sites marked on Nicollet’s old maps. Reading Catlin’s memoirs, I learned that when he visited a mound called Thunder’s Nest in the Coteau des Prairies in 1832, Sioux medicine men told him the Thunder brood was hatching whenever “the skies are rent with bolts of thunder.” The Thunder Bird’s gigantic nest was said to be a pile of serpent bones, and the hatchlings were often “destroyed by a great serpent.”
Catlin also viewed some deeply impressed footsteps in solid rock, identified as the tracks of a huge bird that—long before the creation of man—had devoured the first buffaloes. Some Sioux believed that the great bisons’ blood had stained the red catlinite rocks (named after Catlin, commonly known as pipestone) quarried at a sacred site in southwestern Minnesota (other legends said pipestone was red with the blood of primal human ancestors).
I talked with Clifford Canku, a teacher of Dakota Sioux culture at Sisseton-Wahpeton College (South Dakota), about the ancient prints on the boulders I had come to see. Canku referred to them as “dinosaur tracks,” and he identified the Unktehi monsters as “dinosaur-like reptiles.” Since fossil dinosaur footprints are geologically unlikely in this area, these tracks were carved on granite boulders by medicine men, perhaps to illustrate tales of Thunder Birds. The petroglyphs may have represented the three-toed dinosaur footprints observed further west in the Lakota Formation near the Black Hills, the dwelling place of Thunder Birds. Moreover, fairly well preserved Pteranodons. We in the Pierre Shale Formation around the Black Hills and would have bolstered tales of Thunder Birds in the Black Hills.
Adrienne Mayor PhD
Fossil Legends of the First Americans
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