Seeing stars the American Indian way

Our familiar star patterns have ancient origins in Near East, Greek and Roman mythologies.

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.

The Skidi Pawnee star chart made using mineral pigments on tanned elk skin depicts star patterns important to the tribe's religion and culture. At the end of this article, I've included a labeled version of the chart.

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.

The Skidi Pawnee Council of the Chiefs appears to be a perfect match to our own Corona Borealis or Northern Crown

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.

The Hyades Star Cluster and Aldebaran form the face of a bull in our constellation Taurus.

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.

To help you out, here's a labeled version of the Pawnee star chart. Coma stands for Coma Berenices, a large faint star cluster/constellation in the spring sky. Bright stars Capella, Sirius, Vega and Antares had special status because they held up the roof of the sky. Antares is on the chart; perhaps the other three are too.

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.

Pawnee lodges at Loup, Nebraska with a family standing at a lodge entrance in 1873. Credit: William Jackson

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:

* Stars and Constellations of a Pawnee Sky Map by Ralph Buckstaff
* Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian by Ray Williamson
* The Cosmology Bus blog entry on the topic

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

22 thoughts on “Seeing stars the American Indian way

  1. Bob, very interesting. had never given much thought to how other cultures might have “pattered” the nighttime sky. just returned from a trip to Vegas. got a feel for how bright the stars are in a desert sky. all the best.

  2. Your blog continues to be an inspiration for me to teach astronomy to groups, particularly Cub Scout and summer camps. What a great post. I recently read a fairly dense but interesting book called “Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths.” It was a tedious read at times, but was broken down by North American region, and then down to the tribe level, and shared the legends of various constellations and asterisms in each.

    I found it fertile ground for interesting anecdotes to share.

    For example, I truly had no idea how many cultures see a Great Bear to the North. Truly surprised me, as I still don’t see Ursa Major as very bear-like in shape.

    For another example, I now tell groups that Orion’s belt and sword were also considered canoes of hunters in some Native American cultures. The prey? A herd of elk, or deer, which is the Pleaides.

    Judging from this blog post, you’d really like the book. It’s not a captivating cover-to-cover read (to my taste), but is an excellent reference title. The author seemed to have down significant research tracking down myths, many of which seem to be oral history.

  3. Bob,

    The Pleiades are particularly revered by cultures all around the world. Some cultures recognize six while others seven (the Navajo, for instance, call the cluster the Seven Sisters). And let’s not forget that the islands of the South Pacific were colonized by peoples who were keeping a very close eye on the stars (as well as wind and ocean currents, cloud formations, and flocks of birds) as a navigational aid.

    Great post. Many thanks,
    Travis

  4. am told that Sabaru (as in the name of the car with what looks like an astronomical logo) is the Japanese name for the Pleiades? is that true?

  5. Very interesting feature – I like that different cultures, over time, can enjoy the night sky – it is a almost something that binds us all.

    A quick question, where is Regulus right now relative to Mars?

    Thanks,
    Tim

  6. I need to sew my seats on my ’56 pontiac star chief with patterns from N.A. Indian star charts. doing them in black with silver studs for stars and stitching lines between. do you have patterns?? also Is there a link between Chief Pontiac?? can you help please.
    Gary.

    • Gary,
      Pontiac cars are named after Pontiac, Mich. where the cars were produced. The city itself is indeed named after Chief Pontiac. I don’t have patterns, only the photos you see in the blog. Perhaps you can work off them? Here’s the best version I have: http://bit.ly/PuSxRc
      You might also find the book “Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations” here: http://amzn.to/POwJnF

  7. Thanks Bob, This reinforces how western/European our education system is biased. There is another whole world out there we have to expose or make our kids aware of.
    Ed

  8. I am very interested in Native American cosmology. Can you are anyone else out there recommend any thorough academic books on the subject. As an artist my interests involve converting sky imagery into GPS earth imagery. I am going to the Native American Museum in DC next week (051555) to see a show on the subject of Native American constellations. I am also planning to visit Nebraska and South Dakota for research. I just found your sight and will check out more of your blogs. Thank you for the information. The elk skin is incredible. Anything or anyone you can send my way will be greatly appreciated.

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