Native American astronomy - Its importance and history

This article gives a quick overview of Native American astronomy.Every culture has its own beliefs about the night sky and every tribe, group, and nation has had its own beliefs as to what the stars are and what they mean. The Native American tribes had their own beliefs regarding what the stars signified and these beliefs varied from tribe to tribe.

Who was watching the sky?

Native American astronomy was something that was often left to the elders of the tribe, or those who were concerned with spiritual or religious affairs. Much like in the west, some tribes believed that the motion of the stars would affect the way things turned out on Earth, whether that meant predicting a terrible drought or whether a raid would be successful. Several Native American tribes held the four cardinal directions, north, south, east and west, as sacred and said that there were stars that presided over each one as gods.

Some of the astronomical events were observed by everyone. The stars were used to navigate, and, in the sense that the stars could be observed by everyone as a way to coordinate travels. For the Native Americans, astronomy was another important factor of day to day life.

The Stories

Native American tribes had different explanations for why the stars moved and were grouped the way they were, and these stories were quite different, indicating the vast variety of beliefs that were found among the various tribes. For example, the Western Mono tribe of California believed that the Pleiades were a group of six women who had been evicted from their homes due to having bad breath from eating onions, while to the Blackfoot tribe of Montana and South Dakota, the Pleiades were six orphaned brothers who had become stars due to the neglect of their clan. The stories that are found in Native American astronomy do their best to explain what the stars were and the explanations were as varied as eyeballs, dogs, spider gods and grizzly bears.

It is always interesting to note similarities between cultures. For instance, the West has long thought of Canis Major and Canis Minor as the dog stars. For the Cherokee of Tennessee, the stars were also the two dogs that one needed to journey past to enter the afterlife.

The Importance of Native American Astronomy

Native American astronomy was very important in a number of respects. The stars provided a method of navigation to those traveling at night, and for nomadic tribes or tribes that often participated in long raiding trips, this as quite important. Similarly, the stars also served as a method of time management. Unlike the present day, where time is kept to the precise minute, most of the Native American tribes saw time as divided into segments of action. Their actions were directed by things like the flow of the tides, the changing colors of the leaves and by the movement of the stars across the sky. For many Native American nations, the year was counted by the number of full moons that had passed.

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