Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Thunder Boy.

I don’t post much on Native American stories.  I have some good reasons for that.  The tradition of Native American oral stories grew out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the pre-Colonial Americas.  This tends to be something very distinct from the tradition of European and Asian folk tales that grew out of agrarian feudal societies.  Also, while some of the Native American stories are merely folk tales, others are sacred.  It’s best not to tell these tales without permission from someone in that culture.  If told out of context or with important details altered, you could risk a major cultural snafu.

However, this is the week of Thanksgiving here in the US.  Despite the questionable aspects of Thanksgiving’s history, the overall legend that preaches brotherhood and cooperation between Native peoples and us pasty White folks endures.  So, I will try my best to promote this story and if someone from the First Nations out there notices any big problems with it, please let me know.

This story comes from the Haudenosaunee.  Haudenosaunee is basically what most Americans these days call the Iroquois.  The Iroquois, it should be noted, is not a tribe exactly as much as a collection of tribes who would meet in confederacy frequently.  The tribes that made up the Haudenosaunee were the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga with the Tuscarora joining later.  Some say the Iroquois Confederacy was the inspiration for modern organizations like the United Nations.  The reason I’m choosing a story from this specific confederation is because they were native to the same place I am: Upstate New York.  I should also note that despite this being my Thanksgiving post, this group didn’t really have anything to do with the first Thanksgiving.  That was the Wampanoag tribe who I don’t really know any stories from.  Also, this story may qualify more as legend than folk tale and if it is a folk tale it’s more pourquoi than fairy tale.  But what the heck!
The basic territories of the Haudenosaunee peoples circa 1720

The story of “Thunder Boy” starts out with a man and wife who live alone with their daughter.  The family raised the staple crops of the Haudenosaunee: corn, beans and squash.  One day, they were working in the fields as the sky started to grow dark.  The father shouted to his family to get inside before the rain came.  The parents made it back to the longhouse as the rain started to fall and lightning split the sky.  But where was the daughter?  No one knew.  She had disappeared.

The truth is that the daughter had heard her parents yelling for her.  As she tried to return home, a misty had gathered around her and she started to feel dizzy.  Suddenly she felt herself being lifted up and soon found herself in a new land high above the Earth.  There she found herself with a little man who led her to a council house.  In the council house, there were numerous other little men and the chief of them was not pleased.  You see, it was his son who had brought her here.  The son explained that he had fallen in love with the young woman when he saw her working in the fields.  The chief scolded his son and told her that he shouldn’t have done it because the Earth people could not eat the same food as the Thunder People.  However, the chief said that if he insisted on having her with him, he would have to go to Earth and gather food for her.
A longhouse, traditional home for Haudanosaunee people.
The woman stayed for a year with her new husband among the Thunder People.  Then one day the chief came to her and told her that she would soon give birth to a son.  He then said that she must return home because her son should not be born in that land.  He also warned her that after the boy was born, no one should ever strike him for fear that she would lose him forever.  Soon a heavy mist gathered around her and she found herself once again in her homeland.
The flag of the "Iroquois Confederacy".
Now, as you have no doubt learned, this is where the story really starts to get interesting so it is also where I’m going to leave you hanging.  I do quite like this story.  It has fantastical aspects that we recognize from a wide range of traditions including a race of little people and a world up above the clouds.  You can read the rest of the story on the homepage of the Oneida Nation, right HERE.  I should also note that the Seneca Nation have a different story about a different Thunder Boy right HERE.  Also, while you’re at it look up some more Native American tales because these stories are terrific and deserve to be known even if those of us from outside those cultures need to be careful how they’re told.  You can find some at FirstPeople.us and at American Folklore, as well as at Native-Languages.org.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg too.  There are Native American stories on various sites and numerous books out in the world, so get reading!  So, to my fellow Americans, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and I’ll see you next time!


  1. I grew up in Upstate New York too! Syracuse, to be specific. Never heard any Native American folktales, though, so this is pretty cool :)

    1. I actually know a storyteller who specializes in Native American stories.