The thunderbird has been one of most dominant icons in Native American art and legends. In fact, concept of thunderbird has been so popular that it has been used in non-Native world to name a classic automobile, liquor, a 1960's children's adventure television show (and subsequent recent movie), a US Air Force squadron and is referenced in pop music (remember word 't-bird' in 1950's rock and roll?). The thunderbird is one of few cross-cultural characters in Native American mythology since it is found in legends of Pacific Northwest, Plains, and Northeastern tribes.
The Native Indians of Pacific Northwest Coast always lived along shores and never ventured inland to mountains. Legend has it that thunderbird, a mighty God in form of a giant, supernatural bird lives in mountains. The Quileute tribe of Washington state considered a cave on Mount Olympus as home of thunderbird while Coast Salish believed it is located on Black Tusk peak in British Columbia. It is thought that thunderbird never wants anyone to come near its home. If Native hunters get too close, thunderbird will smell them and make a thunder sound by flapping its wings. It would also roll ice out of its cave and down mountain with chunks breaking up into many smaller pieces.
Some tribes such as Kwakwaka'wakw believe that their people once made a deal with thunderbird for its help during a food crisis and in return, tribe agreed to honor thunderbird for all time by making its image prominent in their Northwest Native American art. This is why West Coast art totem poles are often carved with thunderbirds with outstretched wings at top.
The wingspan of thunderbird was described to be twice as long as a Native Indian war canoe. Underneath its wings are lightning snakes which thunderbird uses as weapons. Lightning is created when thunderbird throws these lighting snakes or when he blinks his eyes that glow like fire. Sometimes these lightning snakes are depicted in Native American art as having wolf or dog-like heads with serpent tongues. They are occasionally referred to as thunderbird's dogs. Native American art portrays thunderbird with a huge curving beak and prominent ears or horns.