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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.2 > Pterosaur Thunderbird

Pterosaur Thunderbird

The Origin of a Fake Native American Legend with an Anti-Evolution Agenda

PTEROSAURS BECAME EXTINCT OVER 60 MILLION YEARS ago. Nevertheless, anti-evolution authors often suggest that the Thunderbird traditions of Native American peoples are based on human encounters with living pterosaurs.1 Those suggestions are part of an attempt to dispute the separation of humans and pterosaurs so as to cast doubt on the passage of tens of millions of years, which in turn, is meant to cast doubt on the evolution of all organisms from a common ancestor. It’s a standard creationist tactic.

The anti-evolution Thunderbird effort began with a very detailed story that was narrated in the film The Great Dinosaur Mystery, hereafter called the Taylor film after its writer and director, Paul S. Taylor.

The film was first released in 1979, and Eden Publications still sells a DVD of it.2 The film and a children’s book3 based on it are widely cited as authoritative sources by anti-evolution authors.4 The Taylor film contains a plethora of alleged accounts of encounters between humans and dinosaurs or pterosaurs, most of which have since been investigated and shown to be misrepresentations of ancient and medieval art and folklore.5 According to the narrator: The folklore of the Sioux Indian tribe tells of a party of Sioux warriors who were out hunting during a thunderstorm.

They saw a huge, flying, bird-like creature get hit by lightning and fall to the ground. After several days of searching, they found what was left of the creature [at this point the movie shows the skeleton of the pterosaur Pteranodon]. It had large claws on its feet and its wings, and its beak was long and sharp. There was a long, bony crest on its head, and it had a wingspan of over 20 feet. The description perfectly matches the extinct Pteranodon. The Indians had never seen a bird like it before. They called it the Thunderbird, and it has appeared in Indian tales ever since.

Is the Taylor film’s Thunderbird story a genuine Native American legend? And is it an eyewitness account of a live pterosaur? To answer those questions, I investigated the folklore of the Native American people from whom the Taylor film’s story allegedly came, whom the film called the “Sioux.” The name “Sioux” is derived from an abbreviation of Nadowe-is-iw-u?g (“lesser enemy/snake”), a pejorative term used by the Chippewa to denote traditional enemies.5 Among the peoples to whom they applied the term were a population that before the arrival of Europeans called itself the Oceti Šakowin: the Seven Fireplaces (hereafter abbreviated SF). The SF peoples spoke three similar dialects: Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota.7 The SF people themselves had no term in any of their three dialects that designated the entire population, and they adopted the word “Sioux” for that purpose,7 although their present-day descendants often abhor that term because of its derogatory origin. Nineteenth-century anthropologists commonly used the term Dakota to designate the entirety of the SF. The SF lived in the forests of what is now Minnesota in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the end of the 18th century, Lakotaspeakers had moved west of the Missouri River and reached the Black Hills.9 Nakota- and Dakota-speakers remained further east (Figure 2). The Lakota-speaking group is often called the Lakota or Teton, and one of its sub-groups is the Oglala.

The descent of the Thunderbird to the ground is central to the Taylor film’s Thunderbird narrative. I therefore conducted a literature search for 19th- and 20th-century narratives of Thunderbirds descending to the ground and accounts of the SF Thunderbird concept.

I also conducted a literature search for 19th- and 20th-century narratives with phrasing similar to the Taylor film’s Thunderbird story. Here are the results.

SF Conception of the Thunderbird

Thunder-beings figured prominently in the folklore of 19th-century Native American peoples from coast to coast. Such beings, which were said to live in the sky and produce thunder and lightning, were often described as anthropomorphic beings that could take the physical form of a bird or a human.10 The SF thought of these beings in this way but also spoke of them as having the forms of horses or dogs in addition to humans or birds.11 The SF name for the Thunder-beings is Wakinyan, which is often translated “Thunder bird” but does not specifically connote a bird. Rather, it is a term used for thunder and for any flying being and is therefore more accurately translated simply as “fliers” or “thunderers.”12 Nineteenth-century scholars produced a rich record of SF Wakinyan traditions. According to those traditions, the Wakinyan are immense beings that live in the sky and are hidden from mortal view by clouds.13 The sound of thunder begins with the loud voice of an old Wakinyan and continues with the softer voices of several young Wakinyan. The old Wakinyan is wise and does not harm humans, but the young ones are mischievous and cause human deaths by lightning.14 The Wakinyan created wild rice and gave the SF the spear, the tomahawk, and pigments to make them impervious to weapons.15 The Wakinyan keep their eyes closed most of the time, and lightning shoots forth when they open their eyes.16 Lightning and the sound of thunder may also be expressions of admonition toward humans.17 The Wakinyan hurl lightning bolts at their enemies, aquatic monsters called Unktehi.18 The 19th-century SF identified mastodon bones as the remains of vanquished Unktehi.19 The SF produced numerous stories of encounters between humans and Wakinyan, but only five 19th-century stories involve a Wakinyan physically landing or falling onto the ground. In all five cases, physical traces were said to have been left behind: footprints in stone in one case, footprints in snow in another, a carcass in the third, rising floodwaters in the fourth, and eggs in the fifth.

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About Skeptic

THE EXISTENCE OF EVIL AND GOD COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Laser Therapy: Hope or Hype and Hokum?, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Sisyphean Challenges of Skepticism or, Start by Disbelieving, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES Pterosaur Thunderbird: The Origin of a Fake Native American Legend with an Anti- Evolution Agenda • Conversations with My Dead Mother: Why We See Signs and Omens in Everyday Events • Is Cousin Marriage Dangerous? • Therapeutic Touch Redux Twenty Years After the “Emily Event”: Energy Therapies Live on Through Bad Science • What Can Science Learn from Religion? Steven Pinker on Religious Beliefs and Rituals • Becoming Fantastic: Why People Embellish Already Accomplished Lives with Incredible Tales of UFOs and Other Phenomena • 1984 in 2019: The New Privacy Threat from China’s Social Credit Surveillance System SPECIAL DEBATE SECTION Michael Shermer v. Brian Huffling: Is the Reality of Evil Good Evidence Against the Christian God? REVIEW Graham Hancock’s “America Before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization” reviewed by Jason Colavito JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Colossal Case of the Cardiff Giant: One of America’s Greatest Hoaxes