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.
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.
According to USA Today, if you live in Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities, then you observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of (or in addition to) Columbus Day. To the others, including the U.S. government, it’s still Columbus Day.
When I went to the post office in my small Texas town to mail some books on that day it was closed. I mentioned this to a friend, but referred to it as Indigenous People Day. His response was a crack about revisionists. That got me thinking.
There’s been a lot of ruckus this year about discrimination, racism, and the darker side of United States history. Destroying national monuments and tearing down statues because some group finds them offensive as part of a violent protest of the past reflected in the present displays generations of anger and righteous indignation.
But it doesn’t change a thing.
Most law-abiding white people see only violence, disrespect, and lawlessness.
They don’t get the concept of generations of visceral resentment.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It’s important to consider the context of those times. With 20:20 hindsight it’s easy to see how events and situations that were acceptable centuries ago are now recognized as barbaric and reeking of white supremacy.
More often than not, this is a factual statement.
By today’s standards they were wrong.
Please pause a moment to watch the following video of Marlon Brando saying it far more eloquently than I ever could.
When I was in school many decades ago history class provided biased information. Any journalist knows that a story must contain who, what, when, where, why, and how. Back then history textbooks left out a critical element:
We were taught to regurgitate events and dates, perhaps the location, but that was it. BORING! Furthermore, we were not taught to think about what happened, much less why, but simply to accept it as fact.
Let’s talk about facts.
We had one side, that of the victors. The Baby Boomer generation grew up thinking Native Americans were savages who were simply in the way. This was further reinforced by movies and westerns on TV to say nothing of backyard games of cowboys and Indians.
History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.
Can you begin to see how offensive a holiday celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of American would be to First Americans after generations of oppression in the supposed “land of the free and the brave?”
At the time of westward expansion–Manifest Destiny, if you will–these atrocities reflected the prevailing attitudes of the western world. The deeds and behavior now recognized as evil were considered normal, even heroic. And sadly, still are, in some parts of the world.
In many cases, Native American cultures were more advanced back then than the United States is today. Granted some were barbaric by western standards, such as the Maya and Aztec, but it’s important to remember that we invaded their land. Most tribes in North America were far more peaceful.
Treaties with First Americans were (and still are) broken as a matter of course. Chiefs would sign a document in good faith, often having no idea what it said, only to have what they thought was agreed upon never occur because Congress refused to ratify it. As far as they were concerned they had agreed to its terms and couldn’t understand why the white men who signed the document didn’t have the proper authority to guarantee their side of the agreement.
And it’s obvious that when indigenous people refused to give away their country, then genocide became the logical alternative.
Did you know that the Pope granted explorers permission to kill or enslave indigenous people? To the Catholic Church’s credit, this opinion eventually switched to missionary and education efforts, except the intent initially was to annihilate their culture and Anglicize them by forcing Native Americans to cut their hair and punishing them for speaking their own language. Thankfully, that has changed. Today’s curriculum includes respect for their culture and history as well as retaining their native languages. The private schools today are doing penance for the past, which is more than can be said about anyone else.
Indigenous people in the United States were murdered and those that remained driven off their land, usually to reservations in locations no one else wanted. At least until gold or silver was discovered, in which case they were driven off again. Many today live in conditions comparable to those of a Third World country.
How is this okay?
Consider this: The USA helped Europe defeat the Nazis in World War II. Our troops decimated Germany in the process, but we helped them rebuild. Adolph Hitler was a vile threat and avowed enemy. We bombed the hell out of them.
Then stepped in after the war and helped them recover! And did the same thing for Japan, who attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor!
Yet, for First Nation people, from whom we literally stole this country, we do little to nothing. Rather, we continue to steal and desecrate their sacred sites, then hover somewhere between ignoring their situation and the typical narcissistic response of placing the blame on them.
“Sorry, guys. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
How would today’s Americans respond to Chinese hoards swarming their borders? How would you respond? Would you welcome them with open arms? Or defend your country by embracing your 2nd Amendment rights?
Columbus should be remembered. The sea voyage alone at that time was incredible. He led the way for Europeans to be free and escape oppression. Ironically, this came with a price that imposed far worse circumstances on the First Americans, when millions were slaughtered and brushed aside as vermin. Columbus belongs in the history books, but the effect his “discovery” had on the First Americans needs to be told and acknowledged (as well as some of his less than stellar personal deeds).
The USA has a long way to go before they quit being defensive and admit this behavior was antithetical to what was supposed to be a Christian nation espousing “liberty and justice for all.” We must balance the history books and acknowledge the darker side. It takes a big person (or country) to admit when they were wrong. It doesn’t change the past, but it could heal the present and certainly the future.
Meanwhile, the least we should do is eschew Columbus in favor of Indigenous People Day.
“The Enlightenment” era did more to stop people from being enlightened than achieve it. True, when Galileo et al succeeded in disproving the solar system is geocentric, that was a good thing. Some things deserve scientific scrutiny. However, even to this day, hundreds of years later, there are phenomena many have experienced to be true while those blinded by science debunk them.
That attitude has done more to destroy faith and spirituality than Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It took decades before technology advanced enough to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Just because it can’t be proven in a lab doesn’t mean it’s not true. Having an open mind is the most scientific thing you can do. My ongoing criticism of skeptics is that they don’t have to prove anything. I think they should have the same standards imposed on them as they expect of others.
Don’t believe astrology works? Prove it.
Don’t believe in telepathy? Prove it.
Don’t believe in past lives? Prove it.
Indigenous people as a rule believe in animism, i.e. that everything has an innate soul. We are all brothers and sisters. Everything and everyone is connected. We all came from the Earth, are part of her, and will return there. Having such beliefs, they’re in tune with their surroundings. Situational awareness at its best. Like the Navajo shown in the picture on the left. We grid-searched the fields outside of Hemphill, Texas together, picking up debris from the space shuttle, Columbia. Men and women who could spot a copperhead sunning on a rock from fifty yards.
Do you have a question? Pay attention. “Ask and ye shall receive” or perhaps, “The truth is out there” are valid principles.
One way Indigenous people find answers is through Spirit Animals. This goes beyond identifying with one particular animal, such as a wolf, lion, bear, mountain lion, etc. Admiring and assimilating the qualities of any animal you encounter can teach you something about
yourself or your situation.
How do you know what they are teaching you? Often it’s intuitive, because you’re already looking for an answer. Charlie Littlewolf, the main character in “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits” knows this. Coupled with prayer, fasting, and traditional rituals his grandfather taught him, he’ll find answers.
If you prefer more specific help, an excellent book on the subject is “Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies.”
The stories in particular are delightfully reminiscent of Aesop’s Fables and most are suitable to read to young children. They explain the traditional meaning of various animals, indigenous archetypes, if you will.
But first you have to pay attention.
Since expanding my awareness to this hidden realm I have encountered numerous valuable insights, from birds in particular. A small flock of sparrows and a single male cardinal at my feeder. Two bald eagles soaring directly above my house. A raven squawking from the top of a phone pole. Hundreds of white pelicans circling above my house as they arrive at their winter home.
What are the odds? Those birds are not out there whenever I happen to look up. We have buzzards galore, but that is not what I have seen when I was pondering an issue. Buzzards, too, have meaning, but when they’re out there most the time, there’s far less meaning unless they do something unusual that catches your attention.
How do these animals know when to appear? Pure coincidence? Or, as part of this web of life, are they drawn to us by our asking to provide an answer only they can deliver?
Many would declare such beliefs in the realm of superstition. Have you ever noticed that superstition has the same root as supernatural? The world of the unseen?
There is so much that fails to meet the untrained eye.