Sorry I have been so busy this summer I haven’t had time or energy to research posts here. Hopefully I can start writing at least semi-regularly again soon. In the meantime, here is a slightly-modified reprint of an article I wrote for the newsletter about a decade ago, about stars.
Since the total solar eclipse is coming soon to North America I will try to write about that soon. In a nutshell tho’, I haven’t found much on solar eclipses, although there is a little information about lunar ones.
|evening star||qaɫama’was||qaɫama’was||paqauwx (pah-COW-ookh),
|morning star||qaumicha, q’awa’mis||q’a’wamis||solá-lich-pa-kó*|
|Pleiades||miɫiiq’w (mih-hleekw), maɫiigwa (mah-hlee-gwah)||miɫiiq’w||tsnih-hwi*|
|Milky Way||aiwa me hewilts (i-wa meh heh-wilts)||uwatsyamɫ txaini (oo-wats-yamhl tkhai-nih)|
|Constellation ‘hunter’ (Orion)||ɫnda, ɫnada (hln-da, hln-uh-dah)||ɫimdawa (hlim-dah-wah)|
|Constellation ‘dipnet’ (dipper?)||guuhanyat’as (GOO-hun-YAHT-uss)|
*These Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua words were written down by George Bissell in 1881, & I have not yet found them attested in any other source. He was not a trained linguist so it is not always clear what sounds he was writing down. So, I have included them on this list as he wrote them.
I was fortunate enough to grow up outside of town, away from street lights. On clear nights I was awed by the beauty of the night sky. Many people now live in cities and suburbs and have a dulled view of the night sky – the Milky Way and numerous stars are washed out by the bright urban lights. But for many thousands of years, human beings the world over watched and studied the night sky to create calendars and navigate journeys across and land and sea – and as an inspiration for storytelling. The human mind by its nature looks for patterns. Throughout the world, people have looked up at the stars, seen patterns, gave them names and told stories of their origins. Although the details vary from culture to culture, many stories tell of human or animals who were turned into stars. The stories our ancestors told of the stars were no exception. The constellations we are familiar with today mostly come from classical Greek mythology.
Unfortunately, few of the names for constellations and stars our tribes used have been remembered and passed on. There were stories of human beings who became stars, or constellations. The Pleiades (a star cluster that is part of the constellation Taurus) were called in the Coos languages maɫiigwa (mah-hlee-gwah). Long ago, they were hunters, searching and searching for their quarry but never finding it. They became the star cluster Pleiades.i
Another group of hunters in the sky was a constellation known in the Coos Bay languages as the “hunter stars”. From the description, “stars lined up with a bow”, it is probably the same constellation we know today as Orion.ii Another constellation was guuhanyátas, referring to a type of dipnet in Hanis Coos. This is probably what we call the Big Dipper today. There was also a constellation called sadlik, flounder.iii Unfortunately there was no description along with the name to help identify what group of stars this is.
There were also stories of girls who wished to marry stars, and their wishes came true. One of the most interesting aspects of these stories is that it is one of the most widespread story motifs in North America, told in variations as far away as the Great Lakes, and perhaps beyond.iv So to be known to so many disparate peoples, the roots of this story are probably quite ancient. In the version Jim Buchanan told, two girls are sleeping outside. They joke with one another about the stars and each picked one out they’d like to marry. The girl who chose a small bright star awoke next to an elderly grey haired man in the morning. The other girl chose a larger, dimmer star and she awoke next to a young man. The men told the girls “we are the men you wished for last night”.v vi
In Annie Miner Peterson’s version, there are four girls sleeping outside. This is the story as recorded in Melville Jacobs’ notebook:
The girls were always doing something, some mischief. They were going to sleep outside. They looked up above. They said “Let’s have stars for men!” [Then they’d laugh] There were 4 of those girls (chums).
“I’ll have the evening star for my husband.”
“I’ll have what people call that star, the hunters, the hunter star. That one will be my husband.”
“And I, the one that is so bright [lit. strong shines], that one will be my husband.”
“I will take the tiny one, it barely shines at all. It ought to be a small fellow I guess. That’s why it’s a small star.”
“Oh let’s go to sleep!”
Then the girls laughed and laughed. [Then they fell asleep]. Then they awakened. Sure enough they each had a man. The one who had a little husband, an old man, his head and his hair, just like foam was his grey hair. The one who wanted the brightly shining one, he was a nice looking young man. The one who wanted the ‘evening star’, she had a fine big man. The other one who had a gun [bow]with him (Hunters) for her man, he was nice looking too. “We are the ones who are lined up when we go hunting.” [He is the Hunters constellation, this man]. That’s what he said to the girl. That’s why the people name them that way, those lined up stars. [Now after the girls have them for husbands, they inform the girls that their names are thus and so, and then they are named thus thereafter.] vii
Both stories end here, so we don’t know what happened to the girls after they awaken and meet their ‘star husbands’. Frank Drew, commenting on these stories said “…the stars (yu•mi) are people. They never said what kind.”viii
The Milky Way – a fuzzy band of light that is actually our galaxy obscured by interstellar dust – was known as the ‘road of the dead’. Jim Buchanan said that “When anybody died, people could see him traveling in the sky. Theou could always tell who it was. The dead they call hə aiwa me hewilts (dead men road). One can see the road river on the sky. On bright nights you can see this road, when you see a white strip on the sky.”ix A lot of tribes in North America called the Milky Way by this name, and indeed it does not take much imagination to see the band of light as a road across the night sky.x Shooting stars (meteors burning up in Earth’s atmosphere) were said to be the souls of the dead traveling up in the sky world.xi If it looked as though a falling star hit the ground, it was said a headman would soon die.xii
I hope this summer you will all have some time to stargaze, There are many good field guides out there to identify constellations. For an overview of North American Indian culture and beliefs on the stars, I recommend Stars of the First People by Dorcas S. Miller.
iJacobs, Melville. 1932-1934. Coos Ethnological Notes and Texts. University of Washington Archives. Notebook 91, pp. 127-128.
iiJacobs, Melville. 100:3
iiiJacobs, Melville. 91:127-128
ivMiller, Dorcas. 1997. Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations. Pruett Publishing, Boulder, CO.
vJacobs, Melville. 91:115-116
viFrachtenberg, Leo J. 1913. Coos Texts. Columbia University Press. New York, NY.
viiJacobs, Melville. 100: 2-6
viiiJacobs, Melville. 91:116
ixFrachtenberg, Leo. 1909. Hanis Coosan Ethnographic Notes. Maniscript No, 330, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Archives, Washington DC.
xiJacobs, Melville. 92:3
xiiJacobs, Melville. 1939. Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology 8(1):1-125.