Astronomical Wisdom of the First Nation Peoples
with a collection of Native American Myths and Legends concerning the Sun, the Moon and Stars
Scroll down for "Astronomy Wisdom of the First Nation Peoples"
and a collection of Native American Myths and Legends concerning the Sun, the Moon and Stars
Month of the Bear
Month of Rabbit Conception
Month of the Crane
Month of the Broken Snowshoe (Ojibwa)
Month of the Strawberry
Month of the Turtle
Month of the Young Corn
Month of the Middle Days
Month of the Rice Moon (Ojibwa)
Month of the First Frost
Month of the Turkey and Feasting
Month of the Small Spirits Moon (Ojibwa)
The most immediate (and therefore the most important) celestial movements were the phases of the Sun and the Moon and its association with seasonal cycles like planting and harvest time. Noting the ascension of the sun as the year progressed, many tribes created solar based landmarks as a way of acknowledging the passage of the seasons... which often incorporated spiritual visions and ideals. The different moods of the Moon highlighted the more mystical part of the natural order, like reproduction and return. For many tribes the masculine half of the universe was associated with the Sun and the feminine side the Moon, while other tribes reversed the gender association. Here are the various moon phases and what the Algonquin peoples associated them with.
Between 70 and 150 medicine wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Most are found in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The oldest "authenticated" medicine wheel is believed to be the 5,500-year-old Majorville Cairn in southern Alberta.
Going Back in Time With the Medicine Wheel
Some people believe the most ancient wheels might be 10,000 or more years old!
On top of the Bighorn Range in Wyoming, a desolate 9,642 feet high and only reachable during the warm summer months, lies an ancient Native American construction -- an 80' diameter wheel-like pattern made of stones. At the center of the circle is a doughnut-shaped pile of stones, a cairn, connected to the rim by 28 spoke-like lines of stones. Six more stone cairns are arranged around the circle, most large enough to hold a sitting human. The central cairn is about 12 feet in diameter and 2' high.
The wheel was constructed by Plains Indians between 300-800 years ago, and has been used and maintained by various groups since then. The central cairn is the oldest part, with excavations showing it extends below the wheel and has been buried by wind-blown dust. It may have supported a central pole. The star alignments are most accurate for around 1200 AD, since slight changes in the Earth's orbit have caused perturbations since. The solstice alignments remain accurate today.
The Bighorn wheel is part of a much larger complex of interrelated archeological sites that represent 7000 years of Native American adaptation to and use of the alpine landscape that surrounds Medicine Mountain. Numerous contemporary American Indian traditional use ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars offering locales and fasting (vision quest) enclosures, can be found nearby. Ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and archeological evidence demonstrates that the Medicine Wheel and the surrounding landscape constitute one of the most important and well preserved ancient Native American sacred site complexes in North America. Between 70 and 150 wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
From: Ancient Observatories Timeless Knowledge
The Royal Alberta Museum (2005) holds that the term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn medicine wheel in Wyoming, the most southern archeological wheel still extant. The term "medicine" was not applied because of any healing that was associated with the medicine wheel, but denotes that the sacred site and rock formations were of central importance and attributed with religious, hallowed, and spiritual significance.
The revisionist and culturally congruent English nomenclature is "sacred hoop".
A 2007 Indian Country Today article on Indigenous American hoop dancing defines the hoop this way:
The hoop is symbolic of "the never-ending cycle of life." It has no beginning and no end. Tribal healers and holy men have regarded the hoop as sacred and have always used it in their ceremonies. Its significance enhanced the embodiment of healing ceremonies.
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Animals are no less important than humans, and plants are no less important than animals. Water and wind, sun and moon and the changing of the seasons are all related to each other and to humans. We are all part of one great whole. As this awareness dictates a vision of the world as a whole, traditional Aboriginal thinking concludes that life forms maintain their health and balance through a focus on harmony as opposed to individual wants or needs. I would like to offer a type of "sacred space" that is steeped in 1st Nation tradition and part of the essential essence of Turtle Island. The construction of a Medicine Wheel is a perfect way to unite family, friends and neighbors in an endeavor that has the beauty of being long term... something that conceivably will become multi-generational.
I'll begin with a description of the Wheel that was given to us by a great Medicine Man and spiritual icon for the 1st Nation people...
"The Medicine Wheel is the circle of life (sometimes referred to as the Scared Hoop), starting with birth and continuing through out our lives until death, when we have gone full circle. The Medicine wheel has four directions, each direction offering its own lessons, color, and animal guide. There are two paths shown which cross in the center, at which point, for me, is the heart (for when you work from your heart, you can reach all directions). The path from east to west is the path of spirits (the Blue Road).The path from south to north is our physical walk (the Red Road ).
East ... beginnings, purity, family, innocence, amazement of life.
South ...youth, passions of life, friendships, self-control.
West ...adulthood, solitude, stillness, going inside oneself, reflection.
North … Place of the Ancient Ones who have gone over, place of wisdom
Above - freedom of mind, body, spirit.
Below - nurturing, Mother, life."
Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
As a side note, I've also heard certain tribes refer to the West as the place of ending (death) and the North as the home of the Thunders and the “Wisdom Speakers”, a place of Spiritual Truth. This is true for my tribe, the Potawatomi.
When you've decided on a place to construct your Medicine Wheel its customary to “sanctify” the area with prayers and a smudging ceremony. Ideally, each of the participants should be assigned a quadrant of the wheel according to age and their animal totems should be represented in that area. (Kids will have fun making drawings of the animal(s) they sense to be their guides to contribute to this part of the ceremony.) Fetishes and feathers or other symbolic animal representations are also encouraged.
Next, stones should be assembled... and it’s important that the stones be blessed and asked permission to be moved (don’t go out and randomly grab stuff from the environment, make sure there's an acknowledgment to Creator and to the “Rock People”... asking that you be allowed to move these items). The center is where you begin to actually place these components. (I have seen Medicine Wheels made around a tree or other natural part of the environment, incorporating that item as the “heart” or center of the wheel... the place where one dwells with The Great Mystery.) This should be explained so that each participant will identify the center with themselves. For as many people who are involved in the construction of the wheel, a large stone for each person should be contributed and made into a pile or mound as the hub.
Next, a stone should be placed at the 4 cardinal points (East, South, West and North... in that order) and the Thunderbird for that direction should be honored. Tobacco is a good way to honor the Thunders, a small tobacco tie placed under each cardinal (Thunderstone) rock. Do a prayer to honor each guardian as well as Creator. This will determine the actual radius of the wheel, so make sure you have planned appropriately with enough stones to make an identifiable wheel. I would suggest using a minimum of 6 or 8 stones for each quadrant and 4 to 6 stones for the spokes, placed 1 or 2 feet apart. (In addition to the 4 Thunderstones.) Placement of the stones is from east to south to west to north and back to east.
Finally, the spokes are set in place. In my family tradition, the stones are placed from the south to north honoring man’s earthly passage, and then east to west honoring the journey “home”. When the stones are in place, a prayer and blessing should be offered and then feasting and celebration. As a final thought, make sure you explain to friends, family and guests who come to your home that the circle has a sacred meaning for you and those who helped you to assemble it, and ask that it not be disturbed. It's a perfect place to meditate or contemplate one's journey, a place where the union between all aspects of the Wheel of Life is given tangible representation.
The 1st Nation Peoples were in cycle with the moon and the construction of a Medicine Wheel should be done accordingly, with either the full moon or the new moon. Blessings and prayers through the seasons should be done in similar rhythm. Ideally, if you can invite a Native American elder or someone with a Medicine bundle or a Pipe-Carrier to bless the endeavor, you will enhance the ceremony and make the occasion even more enriching for all present. If you have someone attend for the purpose of blessing the event, a gift of some sort should be given to that person as an appropriate way of honoring Native American sensibilities (traditionally blankets are used as an appropriate gift).
Walk in Beauty.
Cahokia Mounds in southern Illinois near East St. Louis has a circle of postholes interpreted in 1970 as an astronomical indicator of summer solstice sunrise, winter solstice sunrise, and equinox sunrise. Monk's Mound is the central focus of this great ceremonial center. A massive structure with four terraces, it is the largest man-made earthen mound in North America. One of the greatest cities of the world, Cahokia was larger than London was in AD 1250. The Mississippians who lived here were accomplished builders who erected a wide variety of structures from practical homes for everyday living to monumental public works that have maintained their grandeur for centuries.
According to archaeological finds, the city of Cahokia was inhabited from about A.D. 700 to 1400. At its peak, from A.D. 1050 to 1200, the city covered nearly six square miles and 10,000 to 20,000 people lived here. Over 120 mounds were built over time, and most of the mounds were enlarged several times. Houses were arranged in rows and around open plazas, and vast agricultural fields lay outside the city.
The site is named for the Cahokia subtribe of the Illiniwek (or Illinois tribe, a loose confederacy of related peoples), who moved into the area in the 1600s. They were living nearby when the French arrived about 1699. Sometime in the mid-1800s, local historians suggested the site be called "Cahokia" to honor these later arrivals.
In the bottommost corner of the village was a shrine to a special star and in the west was another shrine to a second important star. The doors of the lodges always faced east to the rising stars and the Sun, and four posts representing the four important directions (northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast) were used to hold up the lodge. The domed roof of their dwellings represented the sky. Part of their creation myth says that Mars, the red morning star warrior, mated with Venus, the female evening star being, to produce the first humans. To the Pawnee, the solstices were not that important, although they, like other ancient civilizations, measured the seasons purely for planting and harvesting.
All their ancient records show an obsession with the Pleiades and they instead worshipped a star that appears to be located near the Pleiades star cluster. Their ultimate star was considered to be a chief protecting the stars and the people.
The Pleiades were often depicted as a circle of five or six stars with one in the middle of it much like the Hebrew and Maya traditions. The most famous ancient ceremonial drum skin seen here is well known in Pawnee historical research to have accurately depicted their sacred stars in the sky.
Most American Indian tribes used the stars as indicators of the time for seasonal ceremonies and their positions were referenced when traveling across the land.
One tribe, the Pawnee (descendants of the Caddo people), was called Awahi, the Star People. These people were descendants of the Mound Builders who worshipped the Serpent and the Star.
The Caddo, as well as the early Pawnee, may have been influenced in their stellar cosmology by the more southern tribes, including the Maya.
The Pawnee recorded the positions of the stars on buffalo hide which was used as drumheads. They reflected their star knowledge even in the way they laid out and built their communities.
Star Maps and Landmarks Denoting Equinoxes and Solstices
In addition to the obvious correlation between Medicine Wheels and the equinoxes, solstices and other stellar phenomena, a multitude of other relics and archaeological and sites show that the First Nation peoples had a very clear and comprehensive understanding of the movement of the sun, moon and stars. The Native Americans called it “Star Knowledge” which included the ability to mark events based on celestial alignments.
Cahokia: An Ancient Sun Centered Civilization
A written "How-to" by Onefeather
One of the characteristics of the tribal/indigenous peoples is their awareness of the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. Recognizing that the idea of mankind being separated from the earth and the heavens is illusion, they learned to read the "signals" encoded in the various elements surrounding them. Different tribes had unique constellations that aided them with migration as well as seasonal shifts. Not unlike the Middle Eastern and other cultures that relied on planetary and star configurations, the aboriginal peoples of North America created both a cosmology and mythology based on creation stories, epic deeds and major events that inspired social transformations.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1 - 8
1 To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Acknowledging the Seasons: The Names of the Moon Cycles
in Potawatomi or Ojibwa
Fajata Butte: Fajata Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico boasts a chamber in which a spiral petroglyph may be found. The glyph is surrounded by stone slabs allowing only scant light to penetrate into the darkness, and as the sun makes its appearance, a slit of light climbs the wall arriving at the center of the petroglyph at noon at the time of equinox. A number of artistic depictions of celestial phenomenon can be found as well, left behind by various tribes, indicating that even if they were not predicting the movements of the stare, they were intently contemplating the evident motions of the celestial bodies which corresponded to their various mythologies. This also marks a 19-year lunar cycle as the spiral has 19 rings.
Chaco Canyon was an important Anasazi cultural center from about 900 through 1130 AD. About 30 ancient masonry buildings, containing hundreds of rooms each, attest to Chaco's importance. Some structures are thought to serve as astronomical observatories or calendars. At noon on the summer solstice, a dagger of sun penetrates the center of the spiral. On the autumnal equinox, a sun dagger passes through the center of a small spiral on the left, and another passes on the edge of the large spiral. At the Winter Solstice, a big sun dagger passes on either side of the large spiral.
A strange circle formation discovered at the mouth of the Miami River could be signs of an ancient culture. Archeologists have discovered a perfect circle measuring 38 feet in diameter, with 24 irregular cut basins, ranging in size from one to three feet. Some experts believe the basins depict the images of sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees, shrimp and other marine animals. At present, two radiocarbon date determinations have been completed. Charcoal samples collected from within one of the Miami Circle's cut basins and from the midden within the Miami Circle both dated to circa 100 A.D.
Mainstream opinion says it was the “Tequesta Indians," a group of Southern Florida Native Americans who inhabited the area from about 2000 years ago to after the Spanish arrived, spanning roughly the same dates as the artifacts recovered from the Circle’s "holes”. A minority opinion says MUCH older ... by a sophisticated people who lived here long before the Tequestas were in the area ... perhaps as much as 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.
The Miami Circle
There is a star grouping in the southern sky. It depicts a brother and sister who climbed a low hill at Fallen Star's urging to avoid a pursuing bear. Fallen Star (a voice of power) made the hill rise, taking the children out of reach of the bear, who clawed futilely up and down its sides. The scoring from its claws can still be seen in what is called today as Devil's Tower in Wyoming.
Another story recorded in the stars is the story of Wicincala Sakowin (seven girls) camped near what is now called Harney Peak. Over seven days, each was taken off to the sky by an eagle. Fallen Star defeated the bird and returned the girls to earth but left their spirits in the sky.In the Lakota star field, Tayamnicankhu (Orion's Belt) is the spine of a bison. The Tayamnitucuhu is the bison rib structure (Greek's Betelgeuse and Rigel) in that constellation. The six-star cluster Pleiades in what the Greeks saw as the constellation Taurus, is the bison's head and Tayamnisinte (Sirius) is the tail.
Those stars and others low on the winter sky also depict Ki Inyanka Ocanku (a racetrack) surrounding He Sapa (the Black Hills.) The Black Hills is the heart of everything that is. On this racetrack course, all the birds and animals raced four times around the Black Hills. The winner would decide if humans would remain on earth or would be swept away by the Thunder Beings.
The race was won by a bird, the long-tailed, black-and-white magpie, a creature viewed as only slightly better than a pest species by most people today. It should be held in higher regard; the magpie decided that humans could stay. Its great gift to mankind is memorialized in Lakota astronomy.
Among the plains people Lakota scholars and elders brought together observations marking the summer solstice where the sun-path will be at its northern most point, the days are longest. The Sun Dance (one of their most sacred ceremonies) is held "when the sun is strongest and the power of growing things is greatest".
Lakota Stellar Theology has added new dimensions to our understanding of how the People generated the mentality for experiencing the sacred. It shows that they felt a vivid relationship between the macrocosm, the star world, and their microcosmic world on the plains. There is a constant mirroring of what is above by what is below. Indeed, the very shape of the earth was perceived as resembling the constellations.
To the Lakota, the stars of the Big Dipper signify the Seven Council Fires. One story tells of a Lakota woman who went to the sky to marry a star, then fell to her death from a rope of braided timsila ‘turnip’ stems as she was trying to return to her village on earth through a hole in the constellation. Even as she died, her child was born, and Fallen Star became the hero of many Lakota myths associated with the stars.
The Lakota Star Knowledge Book
Image of Wukoki by Stan Honda
The site potentially qualifies for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. If Florida fails to preserve the Circle, a priceless, untouched example of a previously unsuspected sophistication in "archaic North American architecture," as well as important new clues as to the reasons for astronomically-based indigenous ceremonial centers will be lost. The Miami Circle, though architecturally unique (carved basins in the limestone bedrock), has at least one other potentially significant analog in North America: the ancient circle of wooden post holes called "Woodhenge 2" placed on the summit of a massive earthen "Indian Mound" known as Cahokia.
Fascinating information about the people who once built the great prehistoric city of Cahokia was revealed accidentally during excavations in the early 1960s. Professional archaeologists were trying desperately to save archaeological information which was to be destroyed by the construction of an interstate highway, which was later rerouted. After a summer of intense excavation, Dr. Warren Wittry was studying excavation maps when he observed that numerous large oval-shaped pits seemed to be arranged in arcs of circles. He theorized that posts set in these pits lined up with the rising sun at certain times of the year, serving as a calendar, which he called Woodhenge. More post pits were found where predicted, and evidence that there were as many as five Woodhenges at this location. These calendars had been built over a period of 200 years (A.D. 900-1100). Fragments of wood remaining in some of the post pits revealed red cedar had been used for the posts, a sacred wood.
The most spectacular sunrise occurs at the equinoxes, when the sun rises due east. The post marking these sunrises aligns with the front of Monks Mound, where the leader resided, and it looks as though Monks Mound gives birth to the sun. A possible offertory pit near the winter solstice post suggests a fire was burned to warm the sun and encourage it to return northward for another annual cycle and rebirth of the earth. This probably marked the start of the new year.
The fate of the prehistoric Cahokians and their city is unknown, but the decline seems to have been gradual, beginning around the 1200s. By A.D. 1400 the site had been abandoned. Exactly where the people went or what tribes they became is yet to be determined.
Depletion of resources probably contributed to the city's decline. Climate change after A.D. 1200 may have affected crop production and the plant and animal resources needed to sustain a large population. War, disease, social unrest, and declining political and economic power may have also taken their toll.
Pawnee Star Maps
Pathfinder: The diversity of rock art styles in the Purgatoire Valley of southeastern Colorado near La Junta indicate that many different peoples inhabited this land at different times. Many different styles of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are found in the area, including abstract, representational, calendrical, parallel lines, and what may be epigraphic inscriptions in Old World scripts. Petroglyphs were created by pecking or abrading images into flat rock surfaces with worked stone, bone, or antler. Rock art styles found in Southeast Colorado include 100 year old cowboy pictures and writing, 400-year-old Plains Indian petroglyphs, a 1,000-year-old pictorial style, and a 4,000-year-old abstract style. Modern-day graffiti also is present at many sites. The proximity of the area to Folsom, New Mexico means that even earlier inhabitants of North America, creators of the famous "Folsom points" more than 8,000 years ago may have also used the Purgatoire River valleys as hunting grounds.
For more information on Pathfinder:
Centuries or millennia after its creation, the formation still seems sacred because of its apparent function as a temple or astronomical device. The structure has 41 potholes on each side of the circle's center along the east-west axis. It measures the precise outlines of the autumnal equinox (the time when the sun crosses the equator, making night and day equal in duration) and the summer and winter solstices (the northern and southern extremes of the sun's seasonal travel through the sky). Experts familiar with the Miami Circle say it may be an astronomical observatory. But they also note it could have been the foundation of a sacred temple with no connection to the stars.
The Miami Circle archaeological site is regarded as being of local, regional, and statewide significance. It might also be of national significance, as it is believed to be the only cut-in-rock prehistoric structural footprint ever found in eastern North America.