As everyone knows by now, Monday is the day there will be a solar eclipse in North America. At any one place on earth, solar eclipses are much more uncommon than lunar eclipses. Throughout human history, many cultures have thought to some degree that events in the sky had an effect on life on earth, so when something unusual and perhaps not predicted happened – such as seeing a comet, or an eclipse, people often thought something terrible could befall their community.
So far about the CLUS tribes I have found very little about solar eclipses. Annie Peterson recounted a story about lunar eclipses but said she could recall nothing about solar ones. In Bissell’s Lower Umpqua/Siuslaw wordlist from 1881, he noted that the word for sun and moon was the same (tsé-te-ha, in his notation). He recorded a phrase for a solar eclipse, ‘the sun dies’, kaú o tsí te ha. Searching later records of the language, it’s probably xau tsiitiixa – xau for ‘to die’, tsiitiixa* for ‘sun’ (or moon).
Annie Peterson told Jacobs what she remembered about lunar eclipses.** She said that the moon worked for ‘the big chief of the food (of the fish), the food’s parent’. This is a reference to Thunderbird, who was supposed to be the head man of the ocean and the fish of the sea. Lunar eclipses were caused when fish eating birds like crows, ‘cranes’ (egrets), hawks, and so forth grouped together and made war on the moon, to try to get more food. The moon would go to Thunder to get more food for the birds. During the eclipse, people sent children to lay down inside the houses while they stayed outside and made noise, jingling and rattling things -to frighten the birds away from the moon.
Alsea beliefs seemed to be similar. Leona Ludson told an ethnographer in 1934 “Big birds (ravens, buzzard, etc) flew up into sky, making everything quiet – they knew going to be eclipse of moon – the birds were going to fight the moon – turned vessels upside down so blood from moon wouldn’t fall in – People watched it.”
Coquelle Thompson told interviewer Elizabeth Jacobs that the he could not recall any Upper Coquille stories about eclipses. “Never talk about eclipse of moon or sun. One time I was up at in Dalles. White people come to see Indian dance. That day about 12 o’clock, all at once, getting dark. Oh, world getting changed. Dance, dance they say. We don’t know. Indian don’t know. No story about that, they don’t know.”
Franz Boas interviewed a Tillamook man in 1894. He said that any eclipse of the sun or moon meant that the world transformer was angry. Shamans gathered and danced for five days. During an eclipse, all vessels in a house were turned upside down (in the belief a powerful person had been killed and they did not want any of that blood to drip into any container). During an eclipse people avoided eating and refused to look up at an eclipse. When Elizabeth Jacobs interviewed Nehalem woman Clara Pearson, she said she had never heard of all that. She said “Eclipses…just happened. This is the time when the spirit doctor sees the face of one about to die, in the moon. People didn’t turn dishes upside down here, not this people.”
Perhaps solar eclipses were also viewed as a moment when birds were trying to work their power over the sun, as they sometimes did over the moon. Unfortunately, some of our stories have become lost.
Nevertheless, it is good to recall one of those old warnings – never look directly at a solar eclipse. It can damage one’s eyes.
*I searched for what notes I have so far on Siuslawan words for sun and moon. In Bissell, as noted, its tsé-te-ha, or tsí-te-ha. In Harrington’s interview with Frank Drew and Spencer Scott, it is tsiitiixa. They also noted that day was tsxayuuwii.
In the Morris Swadesh recordings from 1953, May Barrett Elliott and her brother Clay both give sun as tsiitiix, while Billy Dick (Lower Umpqua) gave it as tsiitiixa.
**Here is a quick translation of Annie Peterson’s words in Hanis about lunar eclipses, along with some of Jacobs’ extra notations in interviewing her about this story in parenthesis. My additions are in square brackets.
He-hemis hethede lo k’wonyau, he k’wonyau ma’anyas
The big chief of the food, the fish-food’s parent, [this is a reference to Thunder, chief of the sea and the fishes]
lau xdluuwhwa’is leu-sh’alshit.
The moon worked for (him).
Leu-lau guus dijenen ntlbinediihl chii-ihl-hla, lau ihl-máháiwat, lau-ihl-hljet
All kinds of winged ones [birds] went there, they made war, they fought
(not merely crows, but crows, cranes [egrets and probably herons] hawks, all the birds that eat fish)
That’s how they do, when they defeat him [the moon. Curious in this story the moon is translated as ‘he’ when in other stories by Annie and Jim Buchanan the moon is portrayed as the sun’s younger sister]
Then indeed there was much food. (when there’s an eclipse from the onrush of these birds coming to fight the moon for more food. Then the moon goes to the food’s father to get the food).
Lau i-ihl-kwonaiwat le-leu hljit, lex ntlbinediihl.
They would see the birds fighting,
lau ihl-sa’tl lex me, ihl k’woni’wat, ihl k’elit, ilau ihl-kwonaiwat lex-me, le-leu hljit lex-ntlbinediihl.
The people make noise, they shoot (arrows upward), they shouted, when the people saw that, the birds fighting (the moon).
(The people fear lest the birds injure the moon. Tneh make a racket to scare the birds back. The children are made to lie down inside-why Mrs. P. doesn’t know).
X-wench laqáwididi’ya le-dluuhwa’is.
That’s what history they tell about the moon.
Bisell, George. 1881. 873, Umkwa Vocabulary. Southwest Oregon Research Project (SWORP) Collection, Coll 268, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Jacobs, Elizabeth. 1935. Upper Coquille notes, Notebook 119, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle.
Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.
Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.
Milhau, John J. undated. 958, Mouth of Umpqua River Tribal Groups: Umpqua, Siuslaw, Southwest Oregon Research Project (SWORP) Collection, Coll 268, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
Swadesh, Morris and Robert Melton. 1953. 85-555-F (CD). United States, Oregon, Penutian Vocabulary Survey, Hanis Coos, Milluk Coos, Siuslaw. Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington IN.