Whether the Milky Way on a particularly clear night, a comet migrating across the sky, the ominous awe of an eclipse, or even simply the sun daily crossing the sky, celestial spectacles have long influenced cultural imaginations, perhaps nowhere more than in the early Americas. This influence has numerous manifestations - mythology and storytelling, religion, architecture, sculpture, painting, etcetera. The Vermont Institute of Natural Science now offers StarLab presentations on Navajo and Native American Mythology to explore this intersection between astronomy and Native American culture. These lessons will be previewed at VINS' Total Solar Eclipse Celebration on August 21st - come see how StarLab will immerse your students in a wellspring of culture!
Stories were the primary means of accounting for otherwise baffling natural phenomena. Many Native American communities devised stories in effort to understand the origins of the skyward celebrities - particularly the stars of familiar constellations, and the sun and moon. Adding to the rich diversity of origin stories, even the different families in one community tell different versions - as the stories are orally transmitted, they are not standardized. Under a sky full of constellations in the StarLab, we will delve into key stories in three different storytelling traditions. This Smithsonian video playlist introduces some of the star stories that we'll explore.
The Navajo, or Diné - natives of the four-corners region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado - is just one such group with intricate procedures governing their oral tradition. In Navajo culture, storytelling is an indoor, family activity, generally led by family elders. Navajo protocol defines distinct times in the year when certain types of stories may or may not be told. For example, stories of the sky can only be told during winter months - from October to March. This protocol goes on to specify that some special sky stories are allowed to be recounted in the time following the summer solstice. The tradition surrounding storytelling offers a wealth of insight beyond the individual stories that we will explore.
Astronomy also offers practical advantage in daily life. The entrances to Navajo hogans were invariably oriented toward the east to capture the first rays of morning light. The Mayan calendar followed the solar year, and their architecture famously announces the changing of the seasons - the pyramid in Chichén Itzá even functions as a calendar. There are countless examples of how Native American groups take advantage of practical astronomy in daily endeavors.
Call or Email one of our educators for more ideas on how you can leverage nature to learn about culture.