—Black Elk, quoted in Neihardt (1959), p160
It started as a sighting that only later took on a great deal of spiritual significance for me.When I saw the Great Bird, I was sure that it was as real as anything I had ever seen. But thinking back on it, I am not sure now if it was a vision in which I entered another space/time dimension or if it really was a part of our own natural world. I don't know if another person standing next to me on that day would have seen the Great Bird as I saw it.
Several years ago, I was working as a counselor in a family mental health clinic in downtown Toledo. I was taking a break, eating my lunch in the car when I noticed a beautiful storm was forming. I love storms and I got out of my car to enjoy the cloud formation and the thunder and lightening. As I was looking off to the west, I noticed a giant bird flying maybe 500 feet above the downtown buildings. I was stunned since this bird was larger than anything I had ever seen in my life. At the time I lived along the banks of the Maumee River, west of Toledo, and I had a few times seen bald eagles. I was always amazed at their massive size. But this bird was so much bigger.
This bird was an extraordinary large bird that looked as big as an air plane. Its wing span looked 2 to 3 times bigger than that of a bald eagle. Now when you are looking in the sky it is very difficult to say for certain how large an object is or how high up it is. But I can say with certainty that this bird was fantastically large.
The Great Bird was all black and it didn't have a teradactyl or prehistoric appearance. It was just a massive bird that was heading west, gliding effortlessly into a storm while barely moving its wings. As I stood amazed at the great bird, a thought came to me. Why is this bird flying into a giant storm? From what I understand of birds, they usually take cover during bad storms. I thought, why isn't it at least flying away from the storm?
Gradually the great bird made its way west as it followed the path along the Maumee River and into the storm. The lightening could be seen in the distance and the bird seemed somehow drawn to it. So as I watched the bird fly into the storm, the weather started to get very bad with the wind blowing and the rain starting. I left the parking lot and headed into the building and I told as many people as I could about my sighting. Obviously, I was the subject of a few jokes and giggles and I decided that the "Great Bird" story had best be kept to myself.
It was right at this time that I was about to experience a life changing event.
I got a call, out of nowhere, from a high school principal on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico to apply for a counseling job there. He said he had been reading my application on an internet site for New Mexico teachers and administrators and he thought I would be good for the job. Well, I told him I didn't remember applying for any jobs in New Mexico. But I decided to go through the interview process and the principal called back after a few days and said that he would like to hire me. But just one thing. He said that he couldn't remember how he found me. I told him that he said he found me on the internet site. He said yes, but he has gone through the site and my application was not there. He told me that I had to go through and fill out the application (quite lengthy) if I were to be hired.
Well I talked to my family and they said they would be willing to make a change. So I filled out the application and in a very few days I was on my way west to New Mexico.
But before I left, the vision of the Great Bird kept going through my mind. Suddenly it hit me like a lightening bolt. That Great Bird was a Thunderbird. It shouldn't have been too hard to figure out since the bird headed into a massive storm with lightening all around it. But something else also struck me, that bird was heading west and in a few days I would also be heading west.
Later, I learned of the great significance of the Thunderbird to the Native peoples of the Americas. The plains Indians believed that if you dreamt or had a vision of the great bird then you were a Heyoka or a contrary. Heyokas do things contrary to established tradition in a way to get people to see things differently in their own lives and in the tribe. They serve as a sacred clown that shows the tribe a better way through their "backward" deeds and actions. They are not afraid to break tradition and the things thought of as sacred. They often use laughter as a way buffer the suffering of life. The Thunderbird represents a powerful spirit and can signify great change. To the plains Indians the Thunderbird is seen as representative of Wakan Tanka or the Great Spirit.
My Thunderbird sighting in a lesser sense signified a time of great change in my life. A time when I would be called to help in some small way the Navajos in Northern New Mexico. In a larger sense, though, the Thunderbird to me signifies a great change and spiritual power that is available to all that seek out the truth and choose to it while honoring the good and the holy. The plains Indians also believed that those that had the Thunderbird vision were called to be holy people. I believe that the Thunderbird represents the Thunder Beings that emanate the spiritual power of the great spirit. I also believe that the Thunder Beings are presently calling all those that have the hearts to hear to become more holy (whole) and to be a contrarian or a Heyoka.
In this age when lies are called truths, slavery is called freedom, war is called peace, and the good and helpful are despised. It is important that a great many are able think, speak, and act contrary to this and live as Heyokas. To live according to the power of the spirit and the power of truth is not easy but it is a necessity to bring some sanity to an insane world. It may mean that we appear funny, odd, or even foolish, but it is the Heyoka spirit that must be embraced now for the benefit of our world.
So now I have settled into a town that is the unofficial capitol of the Navajo people. It has as its symbol the Thunderbird. Whenever I see my former principal he always brings up the fact that he can never understand how he found me. So in my mind it was meant to be. The Thunder Beings had plans for me here. The Thunderbird was their messenger.
But I believe the Thunderbird spirit has a message for all of us. It is time for us to be the great change that we expect others to give us. This requires a great deal of commitment, compassion, and understanding. But I believe that there are those holy ones, like the thunder beings, that are there to help us along the way. Still, ultimately, we are the ones that must begin or continue on with the great spiritual journey.
May the Thunder Beings assist you in your "contrary" spiritual life.