Thursday, March 27, 2014

Native American Skies: The View from Down Under

Last Sunday we watched the very popular new show, Cosmos, which is a remake of the famous Carl Sagan series from the 1980’s.  In this episode, the astronomer Haley sailed south to chart the stars of the southern hemisphere in the 1600’s.  Have you ever wondered what the sky down under looks like?  Do they see any of the same constellations we see at night?
Well, actually, they see most of the same constellations we do, but sort of upside down.  Here are snapshots from my amateur astronomy software, Starry Night.
Starry Night - Sleeping Bear 3-27-14

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Native American Skies: Perceiving Spring

Native American Skies: Perceiving Spring

Crestone Equinox
Twice a year, a day comes along where the length of daylight equals the length of darkness.  Today we call that day the “equinox”.  We recognize the vernal equinox as the first day of spring and the autumnal equinox as the first day of fall.  These two days have always been important indicators for man since even ancient times.
Sangre de Cristo Calendar
Before Europeans came to America, Native Americans did not have bankers, insurance agents, or real estate agents so where did they get their calendars?  How did they know when spring or fall arrived?  They had someone more important to them than our bankers or agents are to us, they had astronomers.
This is a preview of Native American Skies: Perceiving Spring. Read the full post (830 words, 6 images, estimated 3:19 mins reading time)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Native American Skies: Sacred Caves of Machu Picchu

Mausoleum“Suddenly, without any warning, under a huge overhanging ledge the boy showed me a cave beautifully lined with the finest cut stone.  It had evidently been a royal mausoleum.  On top of this particular ledge was a semicircular building whose outer wall, gently sloping and slightly curved, bore a striking resemblance to the famous Temple of the Sun in Cuzco.”  Hiram Bingham’s first encounter with Machu Picchu in 1911, was the mausoleum cave and the Temple of the Sun or Torreon built above it. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Native American Skies: Machu Picchu Obelisk

Mt Huayna Picchu from Machu Picchu“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it.  Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead and gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.  One is drawn irresistibly onward by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ancient Art: Decoding Rock Art

Pictograph Arizona spiral
Courtney Miller
Throughout the southwest, Native Americans have left images pecked or painted on canyon walls, caves and large stones.  Like so many others, I wonder whether these images represent stories or just graffiti.  Were the artists just doodling in their idle time, or were they leaving a message for their friends and posterity?
I am convinced that most of the petroglyphs and pictographs were, in fact, messages and stories.  I say this because although there are many recognizable depictions of animals, people, reptiles, etc., that could be just random doodling by bored children or adults to pass the time,  there are also many abstract symbols that, like our alphabet, have no likeness in nature and therefore must represent a common concept.

Native Americans of the Northwest: Chinook Winds

Chinook Wind
Chinook Wind

My wife and I lived in Denver, Colorado for many years and occasionally experienced a phenomenon called the “Chinook Wind”.   These winds,  blowing over the Rocky Mountain Front Range, could actually raise the temperature from below freezing to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours.  Chinook winds can occur in many areas of western North America and certainly are not unique to Colorado.  In fact, the term and the original Chinook winds originated in the northwestern coastal area.

The term “Chinook” comes from the Pacific Coast Chinook tribe that lived along the lower

Native Americans of the Northwest: The Potlatch

Passing out gifts at a Potlatch
Passing out gifts at a Potlatch

Imagine being invited to the house of the wealthiest person in town so that he could demonstrate his wealth by giving away expensive and prized gifts.   The Native Americans of the Northwest called this a “Potlatch” and it was practiced “religiously” before the Russians, British, and Americans moved in.

Part 2: Quanah Parker, Diplomat and Businessman

Quanah Parker c1890
Quanah Parker c1890

“Courageous and strong-willed, he was also a natural diplomat.  Traveling numerous times to Washington D.C. to represent the Comanches, he became a familiar figure in Congress.  He became a successful farmer and rancher and became a major stockholder in the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railway.  His beautiful two story home, complete with veranda and star emblazoned roof, was built at the foothills of the Wichita Mountains.  He had vital interest in educating the young and became president of his local school board.  He was appointed presiding judge in the Court of Indian Offenses and numbered statesmen and ambassadors among his friends.  In 1905 Quanah rode in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.  In a special report to the President, it was stated of Quanah “If ever Nature stamped a man with the seal of headship, she did it in his case.  Quanah would have been a leader and a governor in any circle where fate may have cast him.” [Vincent L. Parker]

Part 1: Quanah Parker, Comanche Warrior

Comanche Territory
Comanche Territory

Recently, my wife and I drove from our home in southern Colorado through the Panhandle of Texas on our way to San Antonio.  As we passed through the little town of Quanah, Texas, I was reminded of its namesake, Quanah Parker, who was one of the last Comanche Chiefs.   Having grown up near Quanah, I have heard many stories about the great chief and the Comanche and his story is worthy of retelling.

Native American Skies: Orion

OrionIf you are able to see the southern sky tonight (January), the constellation we call “Orion” is prominent.   It is one of the easiest constellations to pick out because of the 3 horizontal bright stars that form Orion, the hunter’s, belt and the three vertical stars that represent his sword.  Located on the equatorial, it is visable to all parts of the world in both hemispheres. 

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 10: Cherokee had their own constitution

Cherokee Council House, 1827
Cherokee Council House, 1827
We, the Representatives of the people of the Cherokee Nation, in Convention assembled, in order to establish justice, ensure tranquility, promote our common welfare, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty; acknowledging with humility and gratitude the goodness of the sovereign Ruler of the Universe, in offering us an opportunity so favorable to the design, and imploring His aid and direction in its accomplishment, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Government of the Cherokee Nation.

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 9: The Cherokee had Leprechauns?

Leprechaun posterWhen the Irish came over to America, I’m sure they were surprised to learn that Native Americans had a version of the leprechaun in their lore.  And there are many similarities.
Despite colonial biases, the Cherokee did not copy the Irish Leprechaun.  The Cherokee Yunwi Tsunsdi (Little People) was part of ancient legend and myth.  As Will Rogers might have said, “The Little People didn’t come over with the colonists, they met the boat.”

These interesting “Little People” figure prominently in many old Cherokee stories, including origin stories.  They were probably introduced to non-native Americans by James Mooney in his monumental work “Myths of the Cherokee” published in 1900.  The Cherokee medicine man, Swimmer, related to him the following:

Read the full article...

Courtney Miller

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 8: Feathered Headdresses

Ancient Cherokee Dress, TE MailsWhen we think of Native American clothing, we often picture colorful, feathered costumes.  Although some Cherokee may have worn feathered headdresses to show off for tourists, their ancestors did not.  The spectacularly colored feathered costumes seen at Pow-wow’s and Native American festivals or dances are based on ceremonial costumes worn by the Plains Indians that were made popular in the early Wild West shows and, of course, in Hollywood movies.
In ancient times, Cherokee men might pull their hair through a short, hollow deer  bone and attach beads or a feather or two to the bone. 
In his wonderful book, “The Cherokee People”, Thomas E. Mails described the “ordinary Cherokee men”:
Winter Dress [TE Mails]
Winter Dress [TE Mails]
“… In winter, it was common for men to wear either an otter-skin headband or an oter-skin cap that was slightly conical in shape and had a front appendage of white opossum hair dyed red.  The brim was cut almost round and was decorated with loops or disks made of lead.
“… [they] wore belted skin robes that were fashioned from the tanned hides of bear, deer, otter, beaver, and mountain lion, and winter moccasins made of beaver skins.  Other male garments consisted of long-sleeved, hip-length hide shirts; tubular-style, fringed hide leggings that had no seat to connect them and were secured to the belt by means of straps; and breeches-like hide breechclouts.  The breechclout consisted of two formfitted aprons, one in front and one behind, that were tied above the hips to the same narrow buck-skin belt that held up the leggings, and which extended halfway down to the knees.  The aprons were tied together at the man’s sides, and the middle of each apron was drawn up between the legs until the two ends could be tied together with thongs.  When necessary, the thongs were untied for hygienic purposes.  The breechclouts were often dyed, and in the case of the war leaders, were a vivid red.  A colorful, broad–woven belt with tasseled yarn ties, made by female finger weavers, was worn over the breechclout, and from this belt at the right side was hung the knife and sheath and at the front by means of thongs, a midsized, painted buckskin pouch that was used to carry miscellaneous items such as smoking tobacco, pipes, flint, bullets, patches, mending supplies, glue sticks.”
John Howard Payne, who travelled among the Cherokee in the mid-1800’s learned that “in more ancient times, Cherokee men wore beards that seldom exceeded six inches in length.  Some men let their beards fall loose, but others plaited them, with one braid hanging from each side of the mouth and one from the chin.  The mustache was either pulled out or trimmed to where it did not hang over the mouth.”
Women's dress [TE Mails]
Women's dress [TE Mails]
Mails described the women’s dress:
“Women wore short, sleeveless, close-fitting deerskin dresses and used fishbone needles to sew them together with deer sinew.  The dresses were belted at the waist with broad, woven belts and fastened at the bosom with hasps or broaches made of bone.  There was also a hide handkerchief that was worn around the neck and tucked down into the bosom.  A bell was attached to the handkerchief.  Under the dress was a petticoat that was woven or knitted from wild hemp.  This extended down to the knees and had a long fringe tha reached the ankles.  Women of status were permitted to weave colorful beads and feathers into the fringe and into the body of the dress itself.  Women wore no leggings but had deerskin moccasins that were made like half boots, came up to the knee, and had small bells attached at the ankles.  These bells worn by the women tinkled as they walked and filled the air with soft music.”
Cherokee London delegation
Cherokee London delegation
A lot changed after European colonization.  After a Cherokee delegation sent to Europe was encouraged to cover their tattooed heads with muslim-like turbins, it became a hit with Cherokee men back home.  But the feathered headdress of the Plains Indians never caught on with the Cherokee.

by Courtney Miller
author of "The First Raven Mocker"