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In the 1930s, dust storms filled the horizon and rain was sparse across the Plains. A prolonged drought had gripped the parched farmland including the ancestral homelands of the Gros Ventre, whose people suffered greatly through this period, even in the fertile Missouri River Valley. But the people on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation now had hope that the drought would finally come to an end as a sacred bundle, long missing from the tribe, was returned and a guardianship had been established. The Thunderbird, an ancient drought buster, had been returned and carefully laid away.

In Plains Indian mythology, the belief in a Thunderbird was widespread and it was so named because it created the thunder as it broke through the clouds. The Chippewa believed that the Birds eyes were fire, his glance was lightning, and the motions of his wings filled the air with thunder. In the words of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux Holy Man, they believed that "when a vision comes from the thunder being of the west, it comes with terror like a thunderstorm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for whatever the truth of the vision comes upon the world, it is like rain."

Arthur Mandan, one of three elders from Elbowoods who retrieved the scared bundle from the Heye Foundation Museum in New York City, where it had been since 1907, stated the bundle consisted of two skulls, one a Gros Ventre Indian and one of a fallen leader from another tribe. According to tribal mythology the skulls are reincarnations of the bird.

Three of the tribal members, Drags Wolf, Foolish Bear and Mr. Mandan traded a buffalo horn and an oddly shaped rock for the bundle and returned the scared bundle to the tribe where Daniel Wolf, a reservation judge, was chosen as guardian on this date in 1938. The Thunderbird spirit is symbolic of the seasons and of a fertile country and it was hoped that through the return of this item, rain and prosperity would return to their people.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Jamestown Sun, February 4, 1938

Black Elk Speaks, as told to John G. Neihardt, University of Nebraska Press 1961