Night Skies in Diné Bikéyah

The Navajo (Diné) have a rich tradition of starlore that maintains everything is connected. The stars above, the Earth below, and every plant, animal, and human. All are an integral part of nature and the Creator’s greater whole.

To Diné, the night sky is a sacred place. One does not speak of sacred things casually. Talk of the stars only takes place between October and February in Winter Stories, told when bears, insects, and plant life are resting. The only exception is limited discussion around the summer solstice

Starlore has been passed on through oral tradition and differs slightly from region to region. Such knowledge is mostly held my elders and medicine men. Certain parts of the sky relate to healing and societal messages, such as the importance of family. Many parts of the sky are too sacred for discussion among the uninitiated.

The Big Dipper, Casseopeia and Polaris are known to the Diné as one constellation known as Náhookǫs. It is perceived as a male warrior (Big Dipper) facing his female companion (Cassopeia) with the central fire (Polaris) between them. These circumpolar stars remain in the sky all year and represent the eternal nature of the family. During the course of the year, the Big Dipper portion changes orientation as it revolves around Polaris, its position indicative of the seasons.

Waxing Crescent Moon

The Pleiades are known as Dilyéhé, which translates as “seed-like sparkles.” Their appearance in early May on the western horizon indicates the time to plant crops. When they disappear later in June, it’s considering too late to plant and still harvest before the first frost. Orion is known as Átsé Ets’ózí, a young, strong warrior responsible for protecting his family and people.

His association with Átsé Etsoh (Scorpio) has an amusing story behind it. These two constellations are never seen in the night sky at the same time.  Their story declares the wise admonition that a mother-in-law and son-in-law should not see one another in daily life. A traditional Navajo mother-in-law might even wear a bell to warn that she is in the area. How much easier would life be if that were the case in all cultures?

Predawn is an important time that’s considered the beginning of a new day, not midnight as it is for western cultures. The Navajo month begins with the first sliver of a crescent moon. The young moon, combined with the first star or constellation seen in the eastern predawn light in the days following, indicate the beginning of a new month.

More delightful information accompanied by beautiful illustrations can be found in “Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy” by Nancy C. Maryboy, PhD and David Begay, PhD available from the Southwest Indian Foundation here as well as on their website www.sharingtheskies.com.

As a side note, astronomy plays an important role in “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits.” It was something Charlie and Bryan shared as teens and helps solve the mystery.

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