Western Slope Skies - Astronomy in Indigenous North American Cultures

Feb 7, 2020

The Sacred Hoop (Lakota)

The night sky is mystical to many cultures. Untouchable, seen only part of the day, changing from month to month, yet it clearly has an impact on life on the earth in terms of agriculture, weather changes, and navigation.

Today we discuss s few aspects of how indigenous North American cultures perceive the night sky and how it was and is intertwined in their lives. This is a formal area of research called archaeo-astronomy. It twins closely with ethno-astronomy – the study of astronomy in modern indigenous cultures.

Remember that while these cultures did not always have the sophisticated technologies of today, they have centuries of observation in DARK skies.

While the formations that various cultures perceive in the sky often vary among cultures, almost all assign high importance to Polaris. The Navajo tribes call Polaris The Central Fire. The Pawnee of Nebraska call Polaris The Star That Does Not Walk Around. They also call Polaris the Chief Star, as its stationary position represents stability and control of life. Along with Polaris, the Pawnee see a semi-circle of stars they call the Great Council of Chiefs. We know is as Corona Borealis.

To many cultures, the constellation Ursa Major is perceived as a bear. To the Iroquois, the seven brightest stars, which we call the Big Dipper, are hunters pursuing a bear all summer long. Eventually, as the stars dip low in the north, the hunters kill the bear and the blood turns the trees red in the fall.

The Navajo call the Big Dipper the Male Revolving One. Visible throughout the year, he represents the ideal father and leader. Across the Central Fire from the Revolving One is his companion: the Female Revolving One. We know this as Cassiopeia. She represents peace in the home, regeneration, and the strength of motherhood.

Together, the two revolving figures and the Central Fire make up an enormous Navajo constellation called Nahookos.

It is impossible to cover the rich night sky heritage of indigenous North American cultures in a few minutes. If you are interested in learning more, your local library is an excellent starting point, as is the internet. In two weeks, we will delve into a specific portion of the sky called the Sacred Hoop with significance to the Lakota.

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Bryan Cashion.

Additional resources:
Background and links to archaeo-astronomy
"Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy" Maryboy and Begay
Native Americans Myths of Ursa Major
"They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths" Williamson
Science Friday article: "Relearning the Star Stories of Indigenous Peoples"