Many of the most familiar constellations were handed down from the ancient Babylonians, who lived in what is now Iraq, the Greeks and Romans. No doubt some of these star groups go back even further. Nowadays we speak of Orion, the zodiac constellations, the Dippers and bright stars like Sirius and Vega thanks to storytelling and later through writing. More recently, all this wisdom has been converted into strings of ones and zeros and packaged for mobile phones and iPads.
Other civilizations and human tribes recognized their own sets of constellations. Some are similar to ours, others completely different. The Chinese had their Firebird and Crooked Running Water while the Australian aboriginal peoples recognized a great Emu among the starless patches dotting the length of the Milky Way.
Several weeks ago, my friend Eric, a fellow member of the Arrowhead Astronomical Society, presented a short program on star charts. One of the pictures showed a wonderful American Indian star chart with clearly recognizable constellation patterns.
After a bit of research I discovered it was made around the year 1700 by the Skidi Pawnee tribe in central Nebraska. The chart measures 22 x 15 inches and is part of the collection at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It was included in a collection of objects sacred to the Skidi they called the Big Black Meteoric Star bundle. The buckskin map may have been used to wrap a meteorite according to some sources.
The chart seems simple at first glance but includes many aspects of the sky. At either end are the warm orange tones of twilight that may indicate the east and west directions. The tiny stars running down the middle represent the band of the Milky Way which the Skidi saw as the Pathway of the Departed Spirits, the road walked by the souls of the dead. It divided the sky into two halves.
At the center of the chart to the left of the Milky Way is a large semi-circle of 11 stars called the Council of the Chiefs. It’s a dead ringer for our familiar Northern Crown or Corona Borealis. The chiefs watched over the people from the sky. The North Star, depicted directly above the semi-circle, watched over them both in turn.
From the North Star, you can follow the outline of the Little Dipper and below it, the Big Dipper. The North Star’s importance in Skidi religion is reflected in its bigger size despite being the same brightness as the stars of the Big Dipper.
They called it The Star That Does Not Walk Around, one of the best names for this special star I’ve ever come across and a reference to its stationary position in the sky at the end of Earth’s imaginary north polar axis. The bowls of the two Dippers were stretchers carrying gods who took sick during the ordering of the heavens and Earth at the beginning of time. Each is trailed by made a Medicine Man, his wife and an Errand Man – what we see as the Dippers’ handles.
Near the bottom of the Milky Way is a pair of stars thought to represent the two stars forming the “Stinger” in tail of Scorpius the Scorpion, a constellation pictured as a snake by the Skidi. It’s the gently bent line of stars below the double star
The opposite half of the sky features the six brightest stars in the Pleiades or Seven Sister Star Cluster and near it the V-shaped Hyades Cluster and bright star Aldebaran. Several other additional groups are shown on the labeled map below.
The sky and stars were extremely important to the Skidi. The doors of their lodges faced east to the morning sun and the round smoke hole in their dwellings ceilings was symbolic of the Council of the Chiefs star group. They believed their people were descended from the stars and the lodges in each village were arranged in a pattern that reflected particular star groupings above.
The star chart was a sacred object conferring knowledge of the sky and important traditions across the generations. Since the individual stars and groups were symbolically important, we shouldn’t be too concerned if the layout doesn’t exactly match what we see in the sky. For me, the connection this map makes between two very different cultures reminds us of our common humanity and fascination with the sky. And while science concerns itself with the positions and physical properties of stars, giving us many reasons to stand in wonder and awe under the firmament, myths and stories add another layer of understanding. Our ancestors looked to nature near and far not only for instruction but to imbue life with meaning and purpose. We still do today.
If you’d like to delve into Skidi Pawnee astronomy and myth in more depth, please check out my sources for this article: