Salish Tribe – Thunderbird and Spirit of the Water

Informant: We also have to talk about the myths of the Salish people, particularly the Thunderbird and the Spirit of the Water. I don’t know them that well, I just know that the Thunderbird is the bird that makes the thunder in the sky with the clap of his wings, and the Spirit of the Water is the Orca. He’s like… a brother. Someone who protects you and watches over you. 

Me: Where did you first hear about them? 

Informant: I grew up with them. The Swinimish tribe was just down the road in La Conner. We’d play them in sports all the time, the kids in the tribal school, so we were always over there. I think they were called The Braves. They hosted a basketball tournament every year, and it was a big deal, to go to the Swinimish Basketball Tournament. But you would always be – you’d always learn about their history. That was just the way it was. And it was really considered a good thing. You’d go to their school, and they’d have a giant Orca in their gymnasium. It was everywhere! That was just kinda what it was. And the totem poles, and you’d learn the history of the totem poles, how to read them and what they were and what they represented and things like that. 

My informant is my father. He is in his mid-fifties, and grew up in a rural farm town in Washington State near some Native American tribes. As he described in the piece, he played sports with kids from their tribal school, so he was exposed first hand to Native American history as opposed to learning about it in school. The myths of the Salish people are pretty well known in the general Seattle area, and many have been turned into children’s books you might find in school libraries or bookstores. (While that’s not how my father learned the stories, I think it’s important to bring it up for context of the area he grew up in)


While the stories of the Thunderbird and other characters in these myths are widely known across Washington, I personally didn’t know that the Orca was the Spirit of the Water. It made a lot of sense, and made me rethink if that’s why Washington is so protective of their Orcas. I always thought it was because they aren’t very common, and that made having them nearby a source of pride; however, now I’m wondering how much of Washington’s attachment to the animal has to do with the myths that say the Orcas will watch over us and protect us. It’s a perspective I’d never thought about before, and I found it to be really interesting.