Native American Astronomy: Skidi Pawnee

Long before the invention of GPS or compasses, people already starts their journey. How? Instead of looking into the screen, they look up into the night sky seeking for answers from these eternal light beeds. In fact, before anyone understand what stars are, people had already formed their own belief about them. In North America, aboriginal tribes have different views on the meaning of stars. Some believe that the night sky has spiritual significance, and some believe that twinkling objects have similar human characteristics. Astronomy played an important role in the early native American culture; it was even the basis of governance and agricultural practice. The study of stars has also led tribes to theorize about the origin of life in the universe.

Skidi, a band of Pawnee people who originated from Luop River in Nebraska, believes that their people are descended from the stars, and the huts in each village are arranged according to a certain pattern, reflecting the special star group above.A ring of stars in the night sky is called by the Skidi band of Pawnee Indians as “The Council of Chiefs.” According to the Pawnee, this circle represents their style of governance, that is, important decisions and problems are decided by a circle formed by the elders. This sign is also essential to the way Pawnee people interact socialy and their religious beliefs. They use stars to set up agricultural models and reflect their social values. The Council of chiefs is linked to their “master star,” now known as Polaris, representing their main god Tirawahat. Meanwhile, it is shown that their lodges are often built in a style with an opening on the top, which helps to move the smoke out of the fire inside, allows the “Council” stars to be seen clearly even when indoor, and symbolizes the Council of the chieftain constellation.. Today, these stars are called the Corona Borealis.

Figure 1 – Skidi-Style Lodge

Below is a piece of tanned elk skin which represented the star patterns that are essential to the tribe. At first glance, the chart seems simple, but it contains many aspects of the sky. Warm orange Twilight hues at both ends may indicate east-west direction. The little star in the middle represents the Milky way, and skidi regards it as the passage of the dead and the road they have taken. It divides the sky in two.

Figure 2 – The Skidi Pawnee star chart (Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago)

The star chart was a sacred object, which gives us knowledge about the sky and important traditions passed down generation to generation. While in the archaeology perspective, the artifact also provide us with abundant information on how were past Native Americans valuing some stars more than others. Because individual stars and clusters are important symbols, we should not be hypercritical about whether the layout exactly matches what we see in the sky; it is the meaning and function behind these stars that matters more.

 

 

Further Readings:

Anthony F. Aveni – Native American Astronomy

https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/pdf/10.1063/1.2916269

Sally A. Kitt – Cahokia: Cosmic Landscape Architecture

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/101363.html

References:

King, Bob

2012 Seeing Stars The American Indian Way. Astro Bob. Feb 1, 2012. https://astrobob.areavoices.com/2012/02/01/seeing-stars-the-american-indian-way/, accessed November 23, 2019

Winston, Grady

2012 Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture. Legends of America. Dec, 2012. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-astronomyculture/, accessed November 23, 2019

 

Images:

Figure 1:

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pawnee-people

Figure 2:

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-nearly-300-year-old-Skidi-Pawnee-Indian-star-chart-Based-on-fig-48-in-Chamberlain_fig1_271765308

One thought on “Native American Astronomy: Skidi Pawnee

  1. You talk about the star chart and suggest it provides “abundant information on how were past Native Americans valuing some stars more than others”. Can you expand on this? How does it provide this information? How were star charts used? Are they still used today?

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