Standing under the night skies of North America pointing at stars with Arabic names and constellations that fit Greek mythology – many derived from Babylonian and Egyptian knowledge of the stars – it seems rather strange. After all, the indigenous people of North America have been stargazing for many thousands of years.
Full moon names like the “Hunter’s Moon” and “Wolf’s Moon” might be familiar to many as ways for various tribes to keep track of the seasons for farming, hunting and gathering, but since there are hundreds of different tribes indigenous to North America, both contemporary and historical, creating a list of official names for anything is perhaps little more than picking cherries.
Related: What can you see in the night sky tonight [maps]
Revival of Indigenous Astronomy
Indigenous interpretations of the night sky in North America are not only extremely varied across the region, but these oral traditions have suffered over time (although there are many lost constellations also in Western astronomy).
However, there has been a resurgence of Indigenous interest and scholarly work in recent years astronomyespecially the Native Skywatcher’s project. Led by native Annette S. Lee, a professor of astronomy and physics at St. Cloud State University (SCSU), it seeks to revitalize indigenous astronomy through the resurrection of unique star charts for communities including the Ojibwe, D/Lakota, and Cree.
Other resources include Navajo skies led by Nancy C. Maryboy of the Indigenous Education Institute (IEI) and free and open source planetarium software Stellariumwhich integrates Indigenous Sky Cultures for the Navajo, Dakota, and Ojibwe cultures.
It just scratches the surface, but here’s a tiny sample of some of the star shapes of indigenous North American communities to look for in the night sky:
First revolving male, first revolving female and central focus
Perhaps the best known indigenous mythology of the night sky refers to the stars of the north.
For the Navajo and some other indigenous cultures Ursa Major, Cassiopeia and – between the two – Polaris, the north star, are thought of as a huge constellation. THE Big Dipper is called Náhookòs Bi’kà’ (First male in rotation), Cassiopeia is Náhookòs Bi’áád (First female in rotation) and Polaris is Náhookòs Bikò’ (the central fire). This depiction of husband and wife around a hearth works well because both constellations are circumpolar, so they revolve around Polaris.
However, Dakota culture sees Dipper as Manka/Maka (Skunk) and her bowl as both To Win (Blue Woman) and Tun Win (Birth Woman). The Ojibwe interpret it as Ojiig (Fisher).
The Winter Maker
The three bright stars that make up the famous Orion belt not only are they spectacularly aligned, but they are surrounded by many other bright stars.
Many indigenous cultures see Orion as a male figure, just as Greek mythology does, including the Navajo for whom the stars are Átsé Ets’ózí (First Slim One). In Ojibwe culture, the stars Procyon in Canis Minor and Aldebaran in Bull are added to create a vast figure – Biboonkeonini (The Winter Maker) — so named because Orion’s stars are best seen in December and in the winter months. The Ojibwe and other tribes only tell stories during the winter months when the Wintermaker was visible.
Curly tail, the great panther
The Ojibwe culture sees Gaadidnaway, Mishi bizhiw (Curly Tail, The Great Panther) while the Greeks saw Leo, the lion.
It might seem like a similar interpretation, but the two forms are distinct. The Lion’s Sickle, the lion’s head – a question mark pointing backwards with the bright star Regulus as a point – is instead interpreted by the Anishinabe and Ojibwe cultures as the curled tail of a panther that has its head in the faint stars of the Hydra constellation. In Ojibwe culture, there are four main constellations — The Wintermaker (winter), Curly Tail (spring), Nanaboujou (the stars of Scorpio in summer) and Moose (the stars of Pegasus in autumn).
Hole in the sky
An open cluster of stars, many names. They represent the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology and are found in the constellation of Taurus, the stars of Pleiades (M45) have dozens of different indigenous names.
Ojibwe culture calls it Bugonagiizhig (Hole in the Sky) and it tends to be thought of as a sort of spiritual door between Earth and sky while in Dakota, Lakota and Nakota culture it is Wiçinyanna Sakowin/Wiçincala Sakowin (Seven Girls) and the head of the buffalo-like constellation Tayamni. Both cultures also call it Madoo’asinik (sweat stones).
The Navajos call it Dilyéhé and associate it with the planting season. This is because it disappears from the night sky in the spring when the seeds are to be planted, and reappears at harvest time in the fall. The other cluster visible to the naked eye in the northern sky, the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer, is in Navajo culture called Tsetah Dibé (mountain sheep).
The first big one and the man with his feet apart
Look south after sunset in summer from the northern hemisphere and you will see the stars of Sagittarius, Scorpio, Virgo and Corvus, but in the Navajo sky tradition there are two figures. Átsé Etsoh (First Big One) sees Scorpius’ upper body as a bust of an old man with a walking stick and basket. To his left, beyond the brilliant star Spica in Virgo, among the stars of Corvus, is another figure called Hastiin Sik’aí’ií (Man with feet apart).
The salamander, the crane and the skeleton bird
The Greek constellation Cygnus, the swan, is sometimes read backwards and called the Northern Cross, but in Dakota culture, this same shape – evident to astronomers worldwide during summers throughout history – is called Ahdeska/Agleska (Salamander). For the Ojibwe, it is Ajiijaak (The Crane), one of the the leaders in the Ojibwe clan system – and Bineshi Okanin (The Skeleton Bird).
The Sacred Circle
Go out in January and look south and you will see the most amazing and huge shape of the stars around the constellation of Orion.
There are seven bright blue stars forming a hexagonal shape around Orion and the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. Dakota culture has a variety of names including Çan Hd/Gleska Wakan (Sacred Loop), Inipi/Initipi (Sweat Lodge), and Ki Inyanka Ocanku (Racetrack).
The scheme is very similar to the Winter Circle or Winter Loop, but with one key difference: instead of Aldebaran as the constituent star, Pleiades is used.
If you’re curious about Native American constellations and want to learn more about the star lore behind them, be sure to read Nancy C. Maryboy’s Navajo skiesTHE Native Skywatcher’s project, First Person Stars: Native American Star Myths and Constellations AND They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths.
A Collection of Curricula for the STARLAB Navajo Skies Cylinder, Nancy C. Maryboy, Ph.D. of the Indigenous Education Institue (IEI) https://www.raritanval.edu/sites/default/files/aa_PDF%20Files/6.x%20Community%20Resources/6.4.5_SD.10.NavajoSkies.pdf
Home. Stellarium laboratories. (nd). https://stellarium-labs.com/
King, B. (2014, November 12). Make way for the Wintermaker. Sky and telescope. https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/make-way-wintermaker11122014bk/
LeMay, K. (2014, August 13). “Native Skywatchers” revives indigenous star knowledge. Lake Superior Magazine. https://www.lakesuperior.com/the-lake/natural-world/native-skywatchers-revives-traditional-constellations/
The lost constellations. Personal website of John C. Barentine. (nd). https://www.johncbarentine.com/the-lost-constellations.html
Minnesota Skies: September 2020. Bell Museum. (2020, August 28). https://www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/blog/minnesota-skies-sept-2020/
Native Skywatchers – resources. Native sky watchers. (nd). https://www.nativeskywatchers.com/resources.html
Ominika, W. (2020, March 18). Ojibwe astronomy. Guide to the Great Lakes. https://greatlakes.guide/ideas/ojibwe-astronomy
Star Lore. Myths about the constellation Orion Part 1. (nd). http://judy-volker.com/StarLore/Myths/Orion1.html
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