CODY, Wyo. — When Bonnie Smith first saw three golden eagle nests on a cliff above an ancient American Indian thunderbird petroglyph, she had to wonder if there was a connection.
“Was that intentional?” she thought. “It seems so obvious.”
That question has launched her on a search across the Bighorn Basin for other rock art sites depicting eagle-like creatures close to eagle nests, eagle capture sites and fasting beds used by native people before the Euro-American migration west.
“I’m looking for positive ways to make the correlation in the Bighorn Basin,” said Smith, the curatorial assistant at the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming.
The work ties in nicely with her boss’s research. Charles Preston is studying golden eagles in the area. He has identified 70 nest territories occupied by golden eagles at least once since 2009.
Folklore and myth across many cultures have long conveyed special powers to eagles because of their size, hunting prowess and flying ability.
Descriptions of Sioux tribes building pits to capture eagles for their feathers have been recorded by historians. The feathers were valued for headdresses and were seen as symbols of power for those who possessed them.
“They are a pretty special bird,” said George Frison, archaeologist emeritus at the University of Wyoming. “It was a rite of passage to trap an eagle.”
Smith said historical accounts point to the activity as male only, with purification rituals before the hunt began.
“This was a holy activity,” she said.
“Eagle feathers, since they were part of an eagle, aka the thunderbird, were considered a special item, something you’d earn the right to use, wear or touch,” said Rebecca West, curator of the Plains Indian Cultures and the Plains Indian Museum in Cody. “It was not done by just anyone.”
West said although some people may look at a feather bonnet as a piece of clothing, it was actually an earned right for a leader, spiritual leader, healers and medicine man or woman.
“So it’s a lot deeper than people think,” she said. “It’s not just for warriors. That’s why it’s so controversial today when a New York fashion model wears a feather — because it’s an earned right.”
Likewise, eagle-like birds — such as the thunderbird — are depicted across North America, from Alaska and the Northeast to the Southwest. The paintings or etchings often show the bird in profile with wings outstretched and claws extended.
“Stylistically they are similar with regional variations,” Smith said. “Which makes sense when you consider artistic variation in people — differences in technical ability — and the way people view the world is very different.”
The thunderbird is so named because the flapping of its wings caused thunder, lightning flashed from its eyes and wind roared from its rapid flight.
“The thunderbird is an ancient symbol that goes way, way back with Plains Indian cultures,” West said. ”It’s considered to be one of the most powerful creatures. It controlled the weather, thunder and lightning in the skies, and is often shown with symbols of lightning coming out of its talons or eyes.”
West said the bird was also seen as a messenger between humans and spirits in the heavens.
“So it’s pretty special and super powerful,” she said. “It appears on shields and clothing. There are lots of references to the thunderbird.”
Places depicting thunderbirds as well as other rock art were spiritual sites where people would go to make offerings to the gods through rituals, ceremonies and the creation of rock art in hopes of earning favor or goodwill.
“I can see people going to Legend Rock, asking for help from the gods,” Smith said. “They went close to the eagle nests to guarantee they got the message.”
Legend Rock is a state park located about 40 miles southeast of Meeteetse, Wyoming, along Cottonwood Creek. Amid the dry, rolling sagebrush hills, sandstone cliffs rise as high as 90 feet above the stream for about three-quarters of a mile. Pecked and incised into the soft rock is a collection of 300 figures, animals, humans and horned, wide-bodied creatures in a style termed Dinwoody. Conservative estimates date some of the artwork to 6,000 years old while others consider the oldest to date back 10,000 years.
“You have to look at Legend Rock as a place of power, where people were seeking power,” said Julie Francis, an archaeologist for the Wyoming Department of Transportation who has co-authored books on rock art.
Other art at the site dates to as early as 100 years ago, Francis said. The Eastern Shoshone are some of the oldest inhabitants of the region, but the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa and Sioux would have also visited the region. The Crow Tribe, relatives to the Hidatsa tribes along the Missouri River, migrated to the region possibly in the late 1600s.
“It was a place people repeatedly came back to,” Francis said.
West said rock art sites are often associated with lone males who have fasted as part of a vision quest, but not always.
“To commemorate a successful vision or give thanks to the spirit world, the supplicant then painted pictographs of the guardian spirit or other dream subjects,” write James Keyser and Michael A. Klassen in their book, “Plains Indian Rock Art.”
Mythical looking creatures might refer to Water Woman or water monsters, female spirits that hid in the water and would harm humans, West said.
“Even inanimate things like rocks have a life — a life breath and spirit to them,” West said. “That’s why some images emerge from cracks in the rocks. It was thought that spirits emerge out of these rocks to reveal themselves.”
“In aboriginal societies, many pictorial expressions were produced and used as parts of rituals and ceremonies,” write Keyser and Klassen. “Indeed, the process of making rock art may often have been more important than the images themselves.”
Francis doesn’t discount Smith’s theory that thunderbird depictions might be related to eagle nesting or capture sites, even if no eagle capture or fasting sites have been located near Legend Rock.
“They could have gone there to seek power even if they captured eagles somewhere else,” she said.
Another site that does combine eagle traps, established occupation dating back 10,000 years, rock art and nearby eagle nests is Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site near Hyattville, Wyoming, on the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains.
“There are many closely related sites in that part of the Bighorn Basin,” Francis said. “Such a large concentration speaks to the religious importance of the area.”
Since eagles are picky about where they nest, and will often return to nests again and again, Smith said it makes sense that the same areas may have been used by eagles hundreds if not thousands of years ago. As an example she pointed to a study of gyrfalcon nests in Greenland that showed 2,500 years of occupation.
Although there is still much research to do, Smith said she would like her study to answer questions about what season the petroglyphs were made and document the direction the thunderbirds face. She also wonders how the artists had so much time to create the petroglyphs, which were chipped into the rock in great detail.
Ultimately, by drawing attention to the sites and eagles, Smith is hoping to protect both.