Seeing stars through Navajo eyes


STEVE LEWIS/Durango HeraldNancy Maryboy, who is Navajo and Cherokee, says Navajo Sky allows Native Americans to “examine their own astronomy from inside their culture.”
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Nancy Maryboy, who is Navajo and Cherokee, says Navajo Sky allows Native Americans to “examine their own astronomy from inside their culture.”

Traveling planetarium brings folklore, science into focus

By Ann Butler Durango Herald staff writer

February 07, 2014

Studying the world – and skies – around us isn’t just the purview of Western science.

On Thursday, a traveling planetarium exhibit called “Navajo Eyes” made a stop at Durango Discovery Museum. In it, two Navajo scientists, Nancy Maryboy and David Begay, shared the results of more than 25 years of research into how their ancestors studied and learned from the stars.

It was the first step in what the museum hopes will be an ongoing look at science as practiced by the first people in the Southwest, from astronomy to irrigation and agricultural techniques.

“We want to expose people to the kind of science and experimentation that was happening here,” said Nathan Schmidt, marketing and communications manager at the museum. “At the same time the Greeks were looking at the stars, Native Americans were, too.”

Maryboy and Begay, under the auspices of the Indigenous Education Institute and in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, have spent four years under a grant from NASA creating several modules about the Navajo, or Diné, understanding of the cosmos.

They collected numerous oral histories and used friends and family members to help with the voice recording.

“We had an advantage over most archaeoastronomers,” Maryboy said, “because David’s so fluent in Navajo and it’s all so embedded in the language. Navajo is a quantum language, and we had to go through layers to fully understand.”

A relative of Maryboy’s, Kenneth Maryboy, read the voice of Coyote, whose mischief disturbed the harmony of the cosmos. In his day job, he’s a county commissioner in San Juan County, Utah.

Begay and Maryboy have been invited to set up their planetarium at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian in addition to smaller museums across the country.

The similarities and commonalities between the different cultures was striking. The Greeks called the Pleiades the “Seven Sisters,” the Navajo call them the “Seven Little Boys.” When the constellation lies on its side so that the “rabbit tracks” show, it’s all right to begin hunting because the fawns are old enough to survive if they lose their parents. The seven stars also refer to the dots on the hind quarters of a fawn, reinforcing the hunting schedule.

“It’s easy for people to hear about this and think about it as folklore,” Schmidt said. “But the way it was explained to me, and it makes sense, is by looking at Chimney Rock. It required incredibly precise measurements and knowledge of the stars to so perfectly align with the summer and winter solstice. It may have been used for religious purposes, but it’s pure science.”

An incorrect address for the Navajo astronomy research project was given in an earlier version of this story.

Professor helps students, community see sky as Natives did

Is it the Big Dipper or a fisher shining in the night sky?

Annette Lee sits in the planetarium with constellations behind her at Cloud State University. (Photo by Stacy Thacker/St. Cloud Times)
Annette Lee sits in the planetarium with constellations behind her at Cloud State University. (Photo by Stacy Thacker/St. Cloud Times)

Source: The Buffalo Post

According to Native lore, the constellation of stars is a fisher that jumped into the sky while chasing its dinner. A professor in Minnesota is helping tell the story of Native stars and stories.

Ann Wessel of the St. Cloud Times has the story about Annette Lee’s work.Lee, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, explained to a room full of teachers attending a summer conference at St. Cloud State, that in Ojibwe culture the fisher is a clever, fierce and brave animal and a good fighter. It climbed a pine tree and jumped through a hole in the sky to bring back the birds and, therefore, the spring. Fishers are constantly on the move, sleeping for only a few hours before returning to the hunt. Like the fisher, the Big Dipper is constantly on the move in the sky.

On the Dakota star map, the Big Dipper contains the Blue Spirit Woman, who helps newborns pass from the star world to Earth and back again.

Through the Native Starwatchers Project, Lee has introduced audiences in Minnesota and throughout the U.S. to some Dakota and Ojibwe constellations and the stories they carry. Minnesota teachers are tuning in because state science standards require instructors to show how people from other cultures, including the state’s American Indian tribes, have contributed to science.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that although the mainstream science uses European and Greek (constellations), it’s important to know it comes from a certain culture,” Lee said later. “There are many ways of knowing, and that’s just one way.”

Lee said she hoped her efforts would give native people a better sense of their own history — a history that is being lost in a culture where stories were spoken, not written.

“Part of it’s recognizing all different cultures. We all have our connection to the stars, and that’s one of the few things in this day and age that connects us,” Lee said.