Thursday, October 17, 2013

Native American Skies: Cosmic Revolution

Because the stars and constellations in the night sky revolve around the North Star, it has been considered the center of the cosmos for many ancient cultures.  And those constellations near the North Star often hold a special place in their cosmology.  For the Navajo, for instance, the two neighboring constellations and the North Star form a unit.

The Navajo call the unit Nahookos (Na hoe kos).   The North Star is Nahookos Bikq (Na hoe kos Bih kwo), which means “Central Fire”.   Picture a Navajo hogan with the hearth in the center of the room.   Sitting next to the fire would be the father and mother (or grandfather and grandmother).   Likewise, next to the Nahookos Bikq are the constellations Nahookos Bika (Na hoe kos Bih kah) which means “Revolving Male” and Nahookos Bi’aad (Na hoe kos Bih aad) which means “Revolving Female”.
The position of the Nahookos group enabled the Navajo astronomers to predict the seasons just by checking the position of Nahookos Bika in relation to Nahookos Bikq every night at the same time.  If the three stars that make up what we now call the “handle” of the “Big Dipper” are pointing up, then it was summer.  When the handle was pointing down, it was winter.  When Nahookos Bika was above Nahookos Bikq it was spring, and when it was below it was  autumn.

Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay [Sharing the Skies] describe the constellation as follows:

“Nahookos Bika … is considered to be a male warrior, a leader and father, and sometimes a grandfather, who provides for his family.  He protects his family with weapons such as the bow and arrow.  He reflects the ideal characteristics of a provider and protector for his family, people, and home.

Nahookos Bika and Nahookos Bi'aad

“Nahookos Bi’aad … is considered to be a mother, and sometimes a grandmother, who exemplifies strength, motherhood, and regeneration.  She reflects the ideal characteristics of stability and peace in the home.  She also provides for her family through her female weapons of a grinding stone and stirring stick, used to fight off hunger and ensure good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle for her family.”

Nahookos Bi’aad is the constellation we call Casseopeia today.

Tribes that lived below the 34th parallel, saw a different phenomenon—the Big Dipper drops below the horizon as it revolves below the North Star.  This prompted an interesting story by a tribe living in Alabama.  Here is an excerpt from “The Celestial Canoe”, from the book “They Dance in the Sky” by Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson:

“ Back in the days when stars were people, they could travel back and forth between the earth and sky.  Some of these sky people regularly came down to earth in a canoe.  While on earth, they played a ball game on a large, grassy field and then, when they were finished, they went back to their canoe, began singing, and rose to the sky.

“One time, as the sky people played on earth, a man was hiding nearby … when a beautiful sky woman ran after the ball, he leaped from his hiding place and grabbed her.  Frightened by the man, the other players jumped in their canoe, started singing, and returned to the sky.  The man took the beautiful woman home and married her.  In time, they had two children.

“After several years the mother became homesick for the sky and soon devised a plan to return.  She told her children to ask their father to go hunting and bring home meat to eat … and their father set off to hunt.

[but the first time they were unsuccessful]

“In the weeks that followed, the woman made another canoe, a small one, and put it in a safe hiding place.  Before long, her husband went out hunting again.  The woman got in one canoe and put her children in the little one.  She began singing and they all started to rise.  The father again ran back, but this time he managed to stop only the little canoe with his children.

“The children missed their mother very much and begged their father to let them follow her.  He gave in finally, and they all got in a canoe, sang, and began to rise just as she had.”

From the beginning of time, the beautiful patterns of stars in the sky have stirred man’s imagination.  I know how much I enjoy showing my children and grandchildren the wonders of the sky.  I’m sure it has been the same for fathers and grandfathers  over the ages.
By Courtney Miller

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