Resources Details

Thunder and Lightning in Native America

This is a language arts lesson that uses native legends about lightning and thunder to show students that story-telling and story-writing are important aspects of human cultures. Students write and illustrate their own stories, after hearing two Yoeme legends about Yuku, the spirit of thunder and lightning, and the Thunderbird legend of the Crow people.

Key Concepts

Physical Science, Electricity


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Earth Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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The Yoeme (Yaqui) people today live in central and southern Arizona and the Yaqui Valley of Sonora, Mexico. Originally residents of Mexico, the majority of the Yoeme still live in Sonora, but those in Arizona are a recognized American Indian tribe. Some live on a small reservation near Tucson called Pasqua Yaqui Reservation. The Crow live far to the north, many of them on the Crow Reservation of southeastern Montana, where ranching, mining, and tourism provide tribal income. Like other Plains tribes, the Crow people were horse owners who primarily hunted animals for food. Until the 18th century, the Crow lived with the Hidatsa people in the upper Missouri River area, but after disagreements arose, the Crow moved westward toward the Rocky Mountains and the Yellowstone River valley.

Lightning in the sky is an electrical discharge that may take place between one cloud and another, between one part of a cloud and another part of the same cloud, or between a cloud and the earth. It may appear in different forms, as a jagged streak, a flash, or as a ball of lightning. Usually heard near a lightning flash, the sound of thunder is caused by the rapid heating and expansion of the nearby atmosphere. If the lightning is near enough, a person who sees a lightning flash can estimate its distance away, by counting the seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the thunder (sound travels about 1 mile in 5 seconds).

We now know that ice is necessary in clouds for a thunderstorm to develop, because ice crystals (like other substances) rubbing together cause molecules to move. Thunder and lightning occur as electrons move from the atoms of one material to atoms of another material. Atoms in this situation can be either positively or negatively charged, depending on the number of electrons (negative) and protons (positive) they possess. Atoms with opposite charges (+ and -) attract while atoms like charges (++ or --) repel each other. When ice crystals collide, those that carry positive electrical charges move to the top of the storm, while those with negative charges move to the bottom. At the same time, positive charges on the surface of the earth are gathering together. The negative particles in the bottom of the storm clouds send out a charge of electricity that travels to the ground through a type of channel, creating temperatures up to 50,000 degrees! The rapid expansion of the surrounding heated air causes the thunder we hear following lightning.

Humans throughout history no doubt wondered about the origins and powers of lightning and thunder in the sky, as evidenced by the existence of so many lightning-related legends among native cultures. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin proved that lighting and electricity are identical in his famous kite experiment, though historians are not certain that Franklin conducted the actual experiment personally. In any case, an iron spike was attached to a kite, which was flown during a thunderstorm while holding the kite string by an iron key in the hand. When lightning flashed, a spark jumped from the key to the hand -- certainly not an experiment we should repeat!

The now-famous kite experiment was one in a long series of scientific inquiries over many centuries, trying to explain natural wonders now attributed to electricity. By the time of Franklin's kite experiment, the early Greeks had already investigated and described static electricity. They found that rubbing a piece of amber with a cloth made the amber attract pieces of straw, the same thing that happens when your clothes cling, your hair is "fly-away," and you feel a small shock after dragging your feet across a carpet and touching someone. The ancient Greek word for amber is elektron, reappearing later in history as "electron" to describe the negatively charged particles of atoms that essentially carry electrical charges. In 1600, an English physician named William Gilbert published an important report on electrical and magnetic phenomena, "On the Magnet" (magnets in compasses were crucial to sea travel and commerce of the day). Based on his own research, Gilbert presented the first clear distinction between magnetism and the amber effect (static electricity). Today all of us are surrounded by examples of another form of electricity called current electricity, in our homes, where we work or when we play. Students see currant electricity at work every day, whenever they turn on their computers, televisions, or lights in their homes. Both static and current electricity involve the movement of electrons, perhaps reminding us of the ancient Greeks rubbing their pieces of amber.


The purpose of this lesson is to make students aware that human societies throughout time have created their own explanations of natural phenomena. Students will not only learn several American Indian stories about thunder and lightning, but develop their own explanations for these dramatic events of nature.


Carol Bird
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

My name is Carol Bird and I am an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. I have lived on the reservation in Browning, Montana for 52 years. In the past 28 years I have been working in the field of education on the reservation. The past 15 years I have worked as a pre-school teacher at the Blackfeet Head Start Program. I shall graduate in December 2002 from Montana State University with a Bachelor of Science degree.


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Learner Outcomes

  • Recognize that many cultures use stories to explain natural phenomena.
  • Create their own explanations for thunder and lightning.

Content Standards

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  • Writing paper and pencils
  • Colored drawing pencils

Lesson Procedures

  • Show students that important stories are told by one generation to another, as so many American Indian stories have been shared through multiple generations of tribal histories.
    • Ask students to tell stories of what their parents say they (the students) did when they were little children.
    • Get students to share stories told them by their parents and grandparents, especially stories about events during the elders' childhoods. Invite a parent or grandparent as a guest to the classroom, to tell stories about when they were young.
    • Explain to students that stories also are used to explain natural phenomena like wind, thunderstorms, and volcanoes.
  • Read to the students the native legends about lightning and then have the class discuss the stories, the different characters in the stories, and how the stories are different.
    Yoovok and Yuku (by Herminia Vanlenzuela) -- In this Yoeme legend, there is a severe drought in the lands of the Yoeme people. The elders send a young boy to plead with Yuku, the rain spirit and the spirit of thunder and lightning. But Yuku tricks the boy and no rains come. The same happens when the elders send the swallow to beg for rain. The third time the elders send Voovok the toad, who himself tricks Yuku into dropping abundant rains on Yoeme lands.

    Yuku, Namu and Suawaka (by Herminia Vanlenzuela) -- In this Yoeme legend, Yuku, the spirit of thunder and lightning, is married to Namu, the rain cloud. Whenever Yuku is angry, lightning flashes from his eyes, and Namu begins to cry raindrops. Yuku and Namu often fight, at times so much that their son-in-law Suawaka leaves their home in the sky and goes to where the Yoeme people live. Sometimes the fights cause too much rain and then flooding on Yoeme land. Tribal elders must entreat Yuku and Namu to stop their quarreling. With peace restored, Suawaka returns home to the sky, carrying his multi-colored bow that shines in the sunlight as a rainbow.

    Thunderbird of the Pryor Mountains --The Crow tribe believes that, when it is cloudy and raining in the Pryor Mountains in southeastern Montana, the Thunderbird is having her children. When she flies above the clouds and flaps her wings, the Crow people hear thunder. When she blinks her eyes, it becomes lightning.


  • Throughout human history, people have used both creative stories and scientific studies to explain things that happen or exist in nature, and have passed this knowledge on to the next generations.


  • Participation in class discussion of native stories
  • Individual stories and drawings about thunder and lightning


  • Have students find native stories about other natural phenomena, using the Internet and/or books.
  • Suggest that students ask their parents and grandparents to tell them more stories about long ago, especially about the ways in which work and play and school were different when the parents and grandparents were children.