- The Fifth Poem in My Native American Series -
Long, long ago,
When the great buffalo herds roamed the vast Illinois plains
A hideous creature lived in a deep dark cave above the river
Devilishly stalking its prey in both the darkness and the rain
When it’s thirst for flesh and blood grew strong
It would soar high above the river in the sky
Hungrily scanning the fertile earth below
With its piercing evil monstrous red eyes
No earthly creature was safe from its terror
The great buffalo herds trembled at its sight
For this winged Evil One would often devour
Terrified newborn calves in the dead of night
This evil Storm Bird was gigantic
It took no mercy on any living thing
And great terror death and destruction
To the Illiniwek people it would bring
For one sad day it lost its taste for buffalo
And it began to hunger and thirst only for men
Very soon it began snatching Illiniwek people
It began raiding their villages again and again
The people’s lives were now in constant jeopardy
They pleaded with Chief Ouatoga to devise a plan
But their leader was as mystified as the rest of them
“What am I to do, my people? I, too, am just a man.”
Finally in desperation Chief Ouatoga meditated and prayed
Imploring The Great Spirit for help in defeating this Storm Bird
And one very dark and stormy night the chief had a great vision
He revealed to his people what he had learned in these epic words
“The Great Spirit answered my prayers last night,
He told me Storm Bird is vulnerable in his chest,
Tonight, my people, with twenty poison arrows,
We shall finally send this evil monster to its rest.”
And so it came to pass high atop a steep rocky river bluff
That the Illiniwek people sent Storm Bird to its bloody end
As the great monster’s evil body plunged into Great Father River
The people cheered loudly and Storm Bird was never ever seen again
And so the Illiniwek people would never forget their great deliverance
They soon painted an image of Storm Bird high above the ancient river bed
And being a most grateful nation of people it soon became their most sacred tradition
That whenever they passed this painting they thanked the Great Spirit that it was dead
©2005, Ed Kostro
The Story of Storm Bird, or as many call it, ‘Piasa’ Bird, is a very ancient one.
When Europeans first arrived in the Mississippi River Valley in the 1600s, they found a well established confederation of twelve native groups who called themselves the Illiniwek (Men). The French explorers called them the ‘Illinois,’ and their ancient homeland eventually became the state of Illinois.
‘Piasa’ is an Illiniwek word that has been translated to mean ‘bird that devours man,’ or ‘bird of an evil spirit.’
It was first historically recorded in 1673 when Father Marquette, in documenting his famous journey down the Mississippi River with Explorer Louis Joliet, described what he saw high on the limestone river bluffs near the present day city of Alton, Illinois:
"While skirting some rocks which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them a painted monster which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dared not long rest their eyes.
It is as large as a calf, has horns on it like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and a tail so long that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail.”
- Father Jacques Marquette -
The original Piasa Bird painting that Marquette described was an ancient petroglyph (a prehistoric carving gouged deep into the limestone cliff surface) that is now sadly lost to modern day man.
The 1854 engraving above depicts the Illiniweks pointing at the gigantic petroglyph on the rocks above the river. (From Henry Lewis, The Illustrated Mississippi Valley, Dusseldorf, 1854.)
I first learned of this legend when I was about six years old. A kindhearted nun in my Catholic elementary school read Father Marquette’s very intriguing journal entry to me, and I’ve been fascinated by Native American legends and lore ever since.
I also soon began pestering my father to take me to the river cliffs where the giant bird monster had once lived, and dear old Dad grudgingly complied.
Could this Piasa Bird have been a dragon of ancient mythology? Or perhaps, it was a flying saurian, one of the last remaining flesh-eating dinosaurs.
And today, whenever I travel the Great Mississippi River Road at night, I always peer skyward, soon envisioning this ancient Storm Bird silently soaring somewhere overhead.