Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eyes on the Night Sky

Orion, © J.C. Casado, courtesy of NASA

American Indians in Southern California knew the night skies intimately. 
The science of the skies was crucial to their stories and songs.
These in turn hold the essence of their cultural identity.

The First Cultures knew exactly when the solstice would come, in summer and winter. 
Archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy experts have extensively studied the roles that each solstice played in our area cultures. 
There are secret places only illuminated by light at the time of a solstice. 
Some of the beautiful Chumash rock art paintings along the California coast depict astronomical events. 
Some of these paintings have been linked to astronomy and mythology. 
We now can only guess at all the stories the ancient art tells about the Chumash view of the universe.
Here is one public place you can go to see ancient Chumash art: Painted Cave.

The Indians also knew their constellations. 
They didn't see the star formations the way we do.
No swan.
No goddess chair. 
No crab.
Instead of Orion's Belt, for example, the Serrano and Cahuilla people saw three bighorn sheep.
To several Indian nations, the Milky Way was a road to the afterworld. 
And Dorothy Ramon tells some wonderful Serrano stories in her classic work with linguist Eric Elliott, Wayta' Yawa',
including the story of how the Milky Way was formed.

The Milky Way envisoned as a road, 
© Larry Landolfi, courtesy of NASA

It started with a race between Rabbit and Coyote:

'Ami' kwan naami'n 'ayee'.
And then they raced.

'Ama' hwi't kwan puchuk ya'i': xhayp qac.
Rabbit ran like crazy off somewhere.

Hwi't 'uvya' kwan hakup puchuk ya'i' amay wahi'ti' pehpa'.
The rabbit ran faster than the coyote.

Yangk 'ama' puuyu' puchuk ya'i' 'ama wahi'ti' pehpa'.
He ran ahead right away.

Xhayp rrewetk 'ervrayt.
He was gone right away.

Kwan 'ayee' wahi' mutu' xhayp kimay.
The coyote was coming along.

Mitavu' hwi't cherner'k.
The rabbit stopped.

Kwenevu' puhca' 'amay.
He (the rabbit) was looking back at him (coyote).

'Ap wahi' kwan hakup kimay puchuk.
That coyote was coming along as fast as he could.

Payika' 'ingkwa' kwan hucuuchk kimivayu'.
He kept falling as he came along.

'Ani 'ama' hwi't puuyu' taaqn 'amay.
The rabbit was beating him (coyote) by a mile.

Haa, hwi't qay' pana' taaqan.
Yes, the rabbit did not beat him.

Qayvu' ta'taaqan 'ama' hwi't kwan wahi'ti'.
The rabbit did not beat the coyote.

'Ama' ni' kwan puca'.
He was looking back at him (he was waiting).

'Ap kwenevu' 'ayee' kuuman.
He fell asleep there.

'Ama'vu hwi't.
That was the rabbit.

'Ama' wahi' kwan 'ayee' penek.
And then the coyote passed him up.

Taaqan 'amay, hwi'ti', kem ki' parfcani'am, 'uviht.
He beat the rabbit, that's what the storytellers used to say.

Their path and all the dust made the Milky Way!
— Page 615, from Story No. 518, "Coyote and Rabbit Racing"

All Southern California cultures told wondrous stories about the stars.
For Chumash tales retold by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, click here.

The arrival of certain stars in view meant new seasons, and the time for new tasks, or ceremonies. August Lomas  (Cahuilla) told Lucile Hooper: "The old men used to study the stars very carefully and in this way could tell when each season began ... They never went to the mountains until they saw a certain star, for they knew they would not find food there previously."

At the Western Center in Hemet on Saturday, the Riverside Astronomical Society and Ernest Siva teamed up for a powerful evening called "Stories and Stars." Ernest treated the audience to two lullabies, the Little Bear Song (Serrano) and the Dragonfly Song (Serrano/Cahuilla).
But the evening was too exciting to put anyone to sleep!

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