Native American Astronomy
For many years astronomers and people alike have constantly heard about the observations and records of the Chinese and Europeans. No other culture can provide as much information as that gathered by the Chinese and Europeans, but there are many other cultures that observed and recorded the night sky, one of those being the Native Americans.
During the last fifteen to twenty years, archaeoastronomers have uncovered much concerning the beliefs and records of Native Americans. Unfortunately, the methods of keeping records of astronomical events were not as straightforward as the Chinese and Europeans.
The Native Americans had to use what they could to record what they observed. Their records were found on rock and cave drawings, stick notching, beadwork, pictures on animal skins, and storytelling. One of the few dateable events among the various records of Native Americans was the 1833 appearance of the Leonid meteor shower.
The most obvious accounts of the Leonid storm appear among the various bands of the Sioux of the North American plains. The Sioux kept records called “winter counts,” which were a chronological pictographic account of each year painted on an animal skin. In 1984 Von Del Chamberlain listed the astronomical references for 50 Sioux, forty-five out of fifty referred to an intense meteor shower during 1833/1834.
He also listed nineteen winter counts kept by other plains Indian tribes, fourteen of which referred to the Leonid storm. The Leonids also appear among the Maricopa, who used calendar sticks with notches to represent the passage of a year, with the owner of the stick remembering the events. The owner of one stick claimed records had been kept that way “since the stars fell.” The first notch on the stick represented 1833.
A member of the Papago, named Kutox, was born around 1847 or 1848. He claimed that 14 years prior to his birth “the stars rained all over the sky.” A less obvious Leonid reference was found in a journal kept by Alexander M. Stephen, which detailed his visit with the Hopi Indians and mentions a talk he had With Old Djasjini on December 11, 1892.
That Hopi Indian said, “How old am I? Fifty, maybe a hundred years, I cannot tell. When I was a young boy eight or ten years there was a great comet in the sky and at night all the above was full of shooting stars. (Stephen 37). During the lifetime of Old Djasini, there was never a great comet and a sky full of meteors in the same year, but he might be referring to the comet in 1843 and the Leonid storm in 1833.
The Pawnee have a story about a person named Pahokatawa, who was killed by an enemy and eaten by animals and then brought back to life by the Gods. The legend goes that he fell to earth as a meteor and told the people that when meteors were seen falling in great numbers it was not a sign that the world would end. When the pawnee tribe witnessed the time the stars fell upon the earth, which was in 1833, there was a panic, but the leader said, “remember the words of Pahokatawa” and the people were no longer afraid.
This shows how powerful a role astronomy played in the Native American culture. Although the Pawnee learned not to be afraid there were Native Americans who feared meteors. The Blackfeet of Montana believed a meteor was a sign that sickness would come to the tribe in the winter the Kawaiisu thought a meteor started high and fell to the horizon was an omen of death.
The Cahuilla thought a meteor was the spirit of their first shaman, takwich, who disliked his people. Takwich wandered the sky at night looking for people far from their tribe. If he found a lost person he steal their spirit and the person’s home and eat them. The Shawnee believed meteors were beings fleeing from the wrath of some adversary, or from some anticipated danger. (Howard 178) Many Native Americans saw the stars as heavenly and mystical.
The Wintu explained meteors as the spirits of shamans traveling to the afterlife. The Chumash referred to meteors as a shooting stars. They believed a meteor was a person’s soul on their way to the afterlife. The Eastern Pomo believed meteors were fire-dropping from the sky. The most widely accepted belief was that meteors were the feces of stars. (Hudson 40).
The Ojibwa of the upper Great Lakes had a story about Genondahwayanung, which meant, “Long-tailed heavenly climbing star.” An Ojibwa says that Genondahwayanung was a star with a long wide tail that would return and destroy the world someday. The shaman said it came down one thousand years ago. He said it was just like the sun, with radiation, and burning heat in its tail.
The comet was said to have scorched earth except for Native Americans, who were warned by a Holy Spirit, Chimantou. The animals were killed off it was so hot stones were said to have melted. It is said the comet came down and spread for miles. Another form of record keeping was rock petroglyphs or pictures carved into the rock. The western part of the United States is filled with these pictures, but any dating is virtually impossible.
It is very difficult to determine whether or not the object drawn is a meteor or a comet. The most common petroglyphs are a circle with wiggly lines coming from them. Various archaeologists have interpreted these as meteors, comets, and snakes Records were also kept in the form of pottery. A Hopi jar that was found had a scene that had mountains, stars, and three objects falling toward the ground.
This scene implies a meteor shower or a meteor that broke up as it fell. It may be possible that this jar depicts the Leonid storm of 1833. (Hudson 41) Native Americans also attained their records by building structures that would observe the sun. the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming dates from AD 1400 to 1700.
Lines are drawn between major markings on the wheel point to the location of solstice sunrises and sunsets and also toward the rising point of the three brightest stars that rise before the sun in the summer. About fifty medicine wheels have been discovered, several are thousands of years. Many of them have the same alignment as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico two spirals carved into the rock by the prehistoric Anasazi can be used as a calendar.
A dagger of light penetrates the shadow of adjacent rocks. The dagger moves with the sun to different locations on the spiral. the full pattern also reflects the 18.6-year cycle of the moon as well as the yearly cycle of the sun. The ancient Native Americans were not sophisticated astronomers in the sense of coherent theory behind the movements of heavenly objects, their level of understanding of the time cycles of the sun, moon, and planets was great. The methods for recording and keeping track of the seasonal movements were clever and displays a cultural richness that varies from tribe to tribe.