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

Sally A. Kitt – Cahokia: Cosmic Landscape Architecture


King, Bob

2012 Seeing Stars The American Indian Way. Astro Bob. Feb 1, 2012., accessed November 23, 2019

Winston, Grady

2012 Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture. Legends of America. Dec, 2012., accessed November 23, 2019



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Chinese Bronze Inscription

In terms of studies of written records, there are two different disciplines: Paleography and Epigraphy. The previous one focuses on the inscription: the evolution of inscriptions, the meanings, and etc.; while the latter one focuses on the handwriting specifically. As an example of study of Paleography, Chinese bronze inscription is a variety of writings that appears on the ritual bronzes (Zhong and Ding) date back from 14thcentury B.C. to 3rdcentury B.C.

Instead of a single style of inscriptions, bronze inscription can be roughly divides into four different inscriptions: Shang bronze inscription (14thcentury B.C. to 11thcentury B.C.), West Zhou bronze inscription (11thcentury B.C. to 8thcentury B.C.), East Zhou bronze inscription (8thcentury B.C. to 3rdcentury B.C.), and Qin Han bronze inscription (3rdcentury B.C.); all categorized according to the chronological frequencies. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: “Sheep” Characters in Bronze Inscription

Although the production of bronze dated before Shang dynasty, the bronze inscription has not been seen on unearthed artifacts until the after the relocation of capital (Yin Xu) during later Shang dynasty. (Figure 2) By the early stage of bronze inscription, few characters can be seen on the bronzes, and most of the contents are related to ancestor. During Zhou dynasty, the use of bronze inscription became more and more common and reached the peak during the East Zhou. The contents are also no longer restricted to the ancestors’ names: emperor’s daily events, hunting ceremonies, victories of battle, music score, and etc. After the great unification of Qin dynasty, the emperor Ying Zheng (259 B.C. to 210 B.C.) unified the inscription; together with the increase use of ironwork, bronze inscription exits the stage of history.

Figure 2: Yin Xu Site

The general practice for bronze foundries to prepare for inscription was to cast the metal surface onto the clay mold. (Figure 3) As the inscriptions are mostly interior and positive (which means the characters sink into the metal surface instead of rising from it), the current hypothesis of the practice was the craftsman first negatively write the inscription on the wet clay and apply another wet clay onto it after the first version has hardened. Yet, although experimentally proven to be one possible solution, this practice has not yet gained any archaeological background from any sites. (Oliver, 2000)

Figure 3: Casting Practice in a Bronze Foundry

The bronze inscriptions have been discovered and systematically studies by archaeologists since Song Dynasty (10thcentury to 13thcentury). Its rich content on social events provides scholars with important details on Pre Qin Period history, specifically the history related to emperor and kings, and the glyphs have greatly influenced the evolution of Chinese. (Zhang, 2014)



Reference List

Oliver Moore

2000 Chinese. University of California Press, Oakland


Xiuxia Zhang

2014 Study of Bronze Inscriptions. Electronic document,, accessed Sep 29th, 2019



Further Readings

Jeremy Norman

The Earliest Chinese Inscription in Bronze


Plcombs Chinese

Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty




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