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When the world was new, there were few stars in the sky and corn was the staple of the Cherokee people.
One morning, an elderly couple discovered that a giant spirit dog has been eating their cornmeal during the night. The next night when he appeared, the people jumped out from hiding, beating drums and shaking rattles, and chased the dog into the sky.
As he flew away, cornmeal dropped from his mouth and became the stars of the Milky Way, called Gil'liutsun stanun'yi", or "the place where the dog ran" in the Cherokee language.
A Milky Way Story from The Cherokee Nation
The Milky Way: Late at night, as the coals of the fire deepen into black, we tell of our great souls. Silent were their footsteps through the pine forests, across buffalo grass, and into the canyons. Steadfast in their teachings, with their lives they blazed a trail for our people to follow with honor. And when their footsteps brought them to that chasm beyond which men venture only once, they vanished from our midst. It is likely that we shall never see their equal again.
But as they left their work and spirit forever with us, their people, so even now as they journey on, they leave an imperishable mark upon the sky. For there, arching across the heavens is the pathway of the souls.
We do not know where their journey now leads them. Nor do we know what sights they may behold. And in the night each bright star is a campfire blazing in the sky where they have paused in their journey to look down on us, their people, as we huddle for warmth around the campfire.
Adapted from an Algonquin myth from Mark Littman’s The People.
Morning Star: Old chief Morning Star had only one son. Young Morning Star took a strange path northward. This path crossed high over the sky. It was the spirit’s path -- the Milky Way. When the old chief set foot upon the sacred path, suddenly he could not see or hear. When he opened his eyes, he was in a land of strange glowing lights. There the people all were wearing belts of a rainbow light and colored lights upon their heads. All through the night they played a game with a ball made of changing colors.
As the old chief watched the players of the north dodge and leap and chase the ball, he saw his son, Young Morning Star, foremost among the players. He was wearing the most vivid colors. When the game was over, Young Morning Star went home with his father and all his people were glad because Morning Star was with them again -- brightening the colored skies of dawn. And when Morning Star cannot be seen, the people know that he is in the northern land of color. So when the special game with the lights is played, and the Northern Lights leap and dance about the sky, the people know that Morning Star lives on and will return.
Morning Star and The Northern Lights: Two Stories from The Woodland Peoples
In seven days, after seven girls had been abducted, he arrived. He shot the eagle and placed the seven girls in the sky as stars. The Lakota call this constellation “wicincala sakowin” meaning Seven Little Girls. We know it as the Pleiades.
Lakota people call the Milky Way Wanaghi Tachanku or "trail of the spirits." It was "the trail all Lakota people must take when fate overtakes them." (This is another interesting cross-cultural 'coincidence,' because among the Indians of South America, the Milky Way was also thought to be a "road of the dead" or "way of souls.") They claimed that at the point where the Milky Way splits, a divine Arbiter stood ... people who lived an immoral life were forced to head down the part of the Milky Way that ends in a nebula, tumbling through space forever. Those who lived a proper life took the other road to Wanaghiyata, the promised home of departed souls.
The myth ends this way, at least according to the translator: "Today, somewhere near the Trail of Spirits, known to others as the Milky Way, Fallen Star sends rays of hope for his earth people." This suggests Fallen Star might be one of the stars found near the Milky Way. Which one can't be determined from the story, but it could be the one of the ones in the Big Dipper. Based on the legend, it would have some special relationship to the Pole Star.
The star world was beautiful. The young women, who were soon to become mothers, were warned not to dig any wild turnips. One of the women was fond of turnips and began to dig them anyway.
When she pulled out a turnip, a hole opened. She could look down to see the Earth and her village. She was homesick and wanted to go home, so she braided the turnip plants to make a rope. She let herself down through the hole. But the braid didn’t reach to the Earth and she crashed to the ground. When she landed, her baby was born.
A meadowlark raised the baby, named Fallen Star. Fallen Star grew up in days instead of years. He was taller than other men and light shone from him. He traveled around Lakota country, and wherever he went, he was anticipated and treated with respect.
At one tipi camp in the Black Hills, every day a red eagle swooped down and stole a young girl to eat. All the men from the camp tried to shoot the eagle, with no success. They prayed for Fallen Star to come.
According to mythographer James LaPointe, "the ancient Lakota wise men said that all heavenly bodies exert influences upon life on Earth, and the destinies of individual life are at all times under the spell of the sun, moon, and stars."
Long ago, two Lakota maidens were outside looking up at the stars. One said: “How pretty the stars are this evening! I wish that big one were a human being and I would marry him.” The other young woman said: “I wish that little star were a man. I would marry him.”
Suddenly two men appeared, saying: “You have just promised to marry us.” The maidens agreed and went with them to the star world, where the two stars became their husbands.
Fallen Star and the Milky Way; Two Legends from the Lakota Nation
The Legend of the Wolf Star from the Pawnee Nation
The Legend of the Great Bear from the Mi'kmaq Nation
In the Cardinal directions of the Plains Indians, the wolf represented the west, while for the Pawnee, it represented the southeast.
According to the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first creature to experience death. The Wolf Star, enraged at not having been invited to attend a council on how the Earth should be made, sent a wolf to steal the whirlwind bag of The Storm that Comes out of the West, which contained the first humans. Upon being freed from the bag, the humans killed the wolf, thus bringing death into the world.
The Pawnee, being both an agricultural and hunting people, associated the wolf with both corn and the bison; the "birth" and "death" of the Wolf Star (Sirius) was to them a reflection of the wolf's coming and going down the path of the Milky Way known as Wolf Road.
One spring day, Mother Bear woke up after hibernating through the winter. Being very hungry, she immediately began to look for food. Chickadee, who was also very hungry, decided to hunt Mother Bear. Too little to hunt on his own, he got six of his friends to help.
After hunting all spring and all summer, the slowest and heaviest hunters beginning with the two owls flew lower and lower until they eventually lost the trail of Mother Bear. Blue Jay and Pigeon were the next to abandon the chase.
By mid-autumn, Chickadee, Robin and Grey Jay caught up to Mother Bear who, having no other option, turned to fight. Robin shot an arrow that wounded Mother Bear; he then jumped on her and killed her. Completely covered in blood, he shook himself near the trees of the forest, colouring them red. That is why, since then, the leaves of the trees turn a vivid red colour in autumn. As much as he tried, Robin was never able to remove all the blood that stained his chest, and he still wears his red marks today.
The three friends ate Mother Bear and left her skeleton there. During the winter, the spirit of Mother Bear left the sky and came to rest within another sleeping bear. The bear awoke the next spring and Chickadee and his friends hunted her too until they killed her in autumn. The story has repeated itself every year since then.
This legend reveals how the change in position of the Great Bear constellation in the sky serves to mark the beginning of autumn.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the aboriginal peoples of the Americas saw the starry sky as a place full of characters and stories. Many of the peoples believed that everything found in nature was a living entity, even celestial objects like the Moon, the Sun and the stars.
In the Native American belief system, the Earth is flat and the celestial objects revolve around it. The planets in the solar system are not thought of as planets, but rather as large stars that are simply brighter than the rest. The Sun and other stars are seen as lights that move across a solid celestial canopy. For the majority of American Indian societies, each star is a spirit – a powerful and sacred being.
The North Star, which always remains in the same position in the sky, was well known to North American peoples, and they would often rely on its constant alignment with the North Pole to help them navigate during their travels. The Iroquois even oriented their long houses according to the four cardinal directions so that the Sun would shine onto the entrance at dawn, and set in the direction of the exit.
The Indians grouped many of the stars into constellations, and most of these are associated with stories that serve as a lesson to their youth. Some of the constellations, like Pleiades or the Great Bear, were also used to mark the seasons. This is the case for one of the Mi’kmaq legends of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The Sun Moon and Stars were an integral part of the lives of the First Nation Peoples
The Moon is the Sun's wife. You know that the Sun goes early to bed, and that the Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.
This big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch the Moon in the sky. He was in love with her, and she knew it; but she paid no attention to him. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him at all. The Snake thought maybe the hill wasn't high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched the Moon pass, from the top. Every night he climbed this high hill and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to the big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun's lodge, and left the Snake.
The next morning very early she saw the Snake again, and this time she stopped a long time -- so long that the Sun had started out from the lodge before she reached home. He wondered what kept her so long, and became suspicious of the Snake. He made up his mind to watch, and try to catch them together. So every morning the Sun left the lodge a little earlier than before; and one morning, just as he climbed a mountain, he saw the big Snake talking to the Moon. That made him angry, and you can't blame him, because his wife was spending her time loafing with a Snake.
She ran away; ran to the Sun's lodge and left the Snake on the hill. In no time the Sun had grabbed him. My, the Sun was angry! The big Snake begged, and promised never to speak to the Moon again, but the Sun had him; and he smashed him into thousands of little pieces, all of different colors from the different parts of his painted body. The little pieces each turned into a little snake, just as you see them now, but they were all too small for the Moon to notice after that. That is how so many Snakes came into the world; and that is why they are all small, nowadays.
Image by Jo Ann Tomaselli
The Dancing Children (The Pleiades) A Story from the Iroquois Nation
A legend of the Sun: In the old days people were not the chiefs and did not hunt animals. Animals were the chiefs and hunted people. They killed all the people except one girl and her little brother who hid in a cave.
The boy learned to kill snowbirds with a bow and arrow and made a robe from the feathers. They made soup from the bodies of the birds and that was the first time people ate meat. The bright sunlight eventually ruined the robe and the boy swore revenge.
His sister helped him fashion a snare. He traveled to the hole in the ground where the Sun rises every morning. As the Sun rose he snared it and tied it up so that there was no light or warmth that day.
The animals were afraid and amazed by the boy. They sent the biggest and most fearsome animal to try and free the sun. This was the dormouse, which in those days was as big as a mountain. The mouse chewed through the snare freeing the sun but meanwhile the intense heat shrunk him down to his present size. Since that time the people have been the chiefs and the hunters.
A long time ago, there was no moon. There was only the sun. The Creator had messengers who helped him in his work. One of these was the Caretaker of the Sun. He had two children, a boy and a girl. All three lived in the Sky World. They were very happy.
The daughter looked after the camp. She kept it clean and tidy. When she shook the feather bedding, the feathers would fall to the earth as snow. The son hunted and fished. When he hung his nets to dry, droplets fell to earth as rain.
The father would be away. All day he kept the great fire burning on the sun. He was very old. Soon he would leave his children, never to return. He said to them, "When I die, you must keep the fire burning, or else the people and animals on earth will die."
One day when the fire was low on the sun, the father came home tired. He said, "Children, my children, my children. I have to go. I will never return." The children cried and mourned. They knew he would die.
Day after day, the old man came to warn them until one evening, the children suddenly found themselves rising up into the air. The children were scared at first, but began to enjoy the feeling and continued to dance. They soon realized, however, that if they stopped, they would fall back to the ground.The old man shook his head and thought, “If only they would have listened to me.” Not long after, the people of the village saw the children floating high in the sky. One of the children recognized his Father’s voice and stopped dancing, but quickly fell like a shooting star to the ground. Ever since then, the other seven children have never stopped dancing in the sky.
Once the sky had no day. When the sky was clear there was some light from the stars but when it was cloudy it was very dark. Raven had put fish in the rivers and fruit trees in the land but he was saddened by the darkness. The Sun at that time was kept in a box by a chief in the sky.
The Raven came to a hole in the sky and went through. He came to a spring where the chief's daughter would fetch water. He changed himself into a cedar seed and floated on the water. When the girl drank from the spring she swallowed the seed without noticing, and became pregnant.
A boy child was born which was really Raven. As a toddler he begged to play with the yellow ball that grandfather kept in a box. He was allowed to play with the Sun and when the chief looked away he turned back into Raven and flew back through the hole in the sky, bringing the sun to our world.
The Fox and the Moon: A Legend from the Snoqualmie Nation
In the morning, it was time to start the sun's fire. The children began to quarrel over who would do the task. "I will tend the fire, I am older," said the sister. "No, I am the man, I will do it," said the brother. They yelled thus to each other.
The people on earth began to worry, saying, "Why is the sun so late? It should be up by now!" Wesakechak went to the sun to see what the matter was. When he arrived, the boy and his sister were still quarreling. Wesakechak was angry. "The People and animals will perish," he said to them. "It is up to you! You keep the fire burning," he told the boy. "Your name from now on will be Pisim."
To the sister he said, "You, too, will work as hard as your brother. You will keep the fire in another place. You will work at night. You will be Tipiskawipisim, the Moon. The two of you did not get along. As a punishment, you will see each other once a year. For all time, you will see each other from across the sky." And so it happened. Even now it is so.
Rabbit raced back to tell his grandmother (who was a wise old woman) what had happened. She told him that he must return at once and see who or what he had caught. Rabbit, who was very frightened, wanted to wait for daylight but his grandmother said that might be too late, so he returned to his trap line.
When he came near his traps, Rabbit saw that the bright light was still there. It was so bright that it hurt his eyes. He bathed them in the icy water of a nearby brook, but still they smarted. He made big snowballs and threw them at the light, in the hope of putting it out. As they went close to the light, he heard them sizzle and saw them melt. Next, Rabbit scooped up great pawfuls of soft clay from the stream and made many big clay balls. He was a good shot and threw the balls with all of his force at the dancing white light. He heard them strike hard and then his prisoner shouted.
Then a strange, quivering voice asked why he had been snared and demanded that he be set free at once, because he was the man in the moon and he must be home before dawn came. His face had been spotted with clay and, when Rabbit went closer, the moon man saw him and threatened to kill him and all of his tribe if he were not released at once.
Rabbit was so terrified that he raced back to tell his grandmother about his strange captive. She too was much afraid and told Rabbit to return and release the thief immediately. Rabbit went back, and his voice shook with fear as he told the man in the moon that he would be released if he promised never to rob the snares again. To make doubly sure, Rabbit asked him to promise that he would never return to earth, and the moon man swore that he would never do so.
Rabbit could hardly see in the dazzling light, but at last he managed to gnaw through the bowstring with his teeth and the man in the moon soon disappeared in the sky, leaving a bright trail of light behind him. Rabbit had been nearly blinded by the great light and his shoulders were badly scorched. Even today, rabbits blink as though light is too strong for their eyes; their eyelids are pink, and their eyes water if they look at a bright light. Their lips quiver, telling of Rabbit's terror.
The man in the moon has never returned to earth. When he lights the world, one can still see the marks of the clay which Rabbit threw on his face. Sometimes he disappears for a few nights, when he is trying to rub the marks of the clay balls from his face. Then the world is dark; but when the man in the moon appears again, one can see that he has never been able to clean the clay marks from his shining face.
Two Stories from the Blackfoot Nation
Long ago, Rabbit was a great hunter. He lived with his grandmother in a lodge which stood deep in the Micmac forest. It was winter and Rabbit set traps and laid snares to catch game for food. He caught many small animals and birds, until one day he discovered that some mysterious being was robbing his traps. Rabbit and his grandmother became hungry. Though he visited his traps very early each morning, he always found them empty.
At first Rabbit thought that the robber might be a cunning wolverine, until one morning he found long, narrow footprints alongside his trap line. It was, he thought, the tracks of the robber, but they looked like moonbeams. Each morning Rabbit rose earlier and earlier, but the being of the long foot was always ahead of him and always his traps were empty.
Rabbit made a trap from a bowstring with the loop so cleverly fastened that he felt certain that he would catch the robber when it came. He took one end of the thong with him and hid himself behind a clump of bushes from which he could watch his snare. It was bright moonlight while he waited, but suddenly it became very dark as the moon disappeared. A few stars were still shining and there were no clouds in the sky, so Rabbit wondered what had happened to the moon.
The Origin of the Moon: A Legend from the Cree Nation
Long ago, Snoqualm (Man in the Moon), had a spider make him a rope out of cedar bark and stretch it from the sky to the Earth. One day Fox and Blue Jay found the rope and climbed up to where the rope was fixed to the underside of the sky. Blue Jay pecked a hole in the sky and they climbed through to the sky world.
Blue Jay flew to a tree while Fox changed himself into Beaver and swam in a lake. Snoqualm had set a trap in the lake which caught Beaver. Snoqualm skinned him and threw the body in the corner of the smokehouse.
Rabbit and the Moon Man: A Legend from the Mi'kmaq Nation
The Moon and the Great Snake: Once there was only one Snake in the whole world, and he was a big one, I tell you. He was pretty to look at, and was painted with all the colors we know. This snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart.
Time passed by and the woman gave birth to a baby. One day, she was outside with her child and decided to unearth the sacred turnip. To her surprise, she found that she could see her tribe and old home through the hole left by the turnip.
When Morning Star found out what she had done, he told her: “Now you must return to your own kind and bring our child with you. Be careful, for he must not touch the ground for 14 days or he will return to me and become a star.”
Unfortunately, what should not have happened did, and the child was forced to return to the Sky Country. But as he tried to pass through the hole left by the sacred turnip, the child became stuck. And that is why, to this day, there is a star that does not move across the sky.
Little Brother Snares the Sun: A Story from the Ho-Chunk Nation
Many years ago, an Iroquois tribe began the trek toward their winter hunting grounds near a large lake in southeastern Canada. Upon their arrival, tribe members hurried to set up camp and tackle their chores.
Eight children, tired of helping their parents, would gather together each day away from the tribe to dance for several hours. One day, an old man appeared. He was covered from head to toe with a coat of shiny white feathers and said to them, “If you do not stop, misfortune will come your way.”
The children did not listen and continued to take longer and longer breaks during which they never stopped dancing.
Raven and the Sun: A Tsimshian
A Story about the North Star: Two sisters sleeping outside woke before dawn and looked up at the sky. One of them pointed towards the Morning Star (Venus) and said, “That star is so beautiful, I will take it as a husband.
”Several days later, the same young woman came across a handsome stranger in the forest while she was carrying wood. He was observing her, so she asked him, “What do you want from me?”
The young man replied, “I am Morning Star. You wanted me as your husband, so here I am.” He placed a feather in her hair and asked her to close her eyes. He flew her up to the sky, into Sky Country.
Moon and Sun, the parents of Morning Star, joyfully welcomed the young woman. Moon even gave her a gift of a small spade used to uplift roots. “You may use this tool to harvest vegetables in our garden, but you must never touch the sacred turnip. If you do, it will bring misfortune.”
That night when Snoqualm was asleep Beaver got up and put his skin back on. He looked around. He took a few of the trees, and the Snoqualm's daylight making tools, some fire, and the Sun which was hidden in Snoqualm's house. He changed back into Fox then he found the hole that Blue Jay had made and took the things to Earth. He planted the trees, made daylight, gave the fire to the people, and put the Sun in its place.
When Snoqualm awoke he was very angry. He found the tracks that led to the hole. He started down but the rope broke and he fell to the Earth in a heap where he became a mountain. One can see the face of Snoqualm on one of the rocky cliffs. Today the mountain is called Mount Si and it is near the cities of Snoqualmie and Northbend in Washington State.