The following has been excerpted from The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos by Mark Hollabaugh (June 2017).
From Chapter 4: The Stars and Constellations
Although the night sky is filled with surprises in the form of comets, meteor showers, and the northern lights, some aspects like the stars’ nightly movement and the constellations’ annual parade across the sky seemingly never change. Most introductory astronomy students have noticed these phenomena before they actually understand that the cause of celestial motions is the dual motion of the Earth rotating on its axis and revolving around the Sun. Today, living in a technological age centuries after Copernicus and Galileo, people take the heliocentric nature of the solar system for granted. However, in order to fully view the night sky through Lakota eyes, observers must adopt an Earth-centered perspective. The stars, the Sun, the Moon, and the planets move around earthbound people, who are once again the center of the universe.
The Night Sky
To modern city dwellers the air seems fresher, the water purer, and the sky brighter in the traditional territory of the Lakota. The vividness of the stars, Moon, and planets from the western plains and mountains is truly remarkable. This perception is not solely due to a psychological urge by modern city dwellers to experience the wide open spaces. In the western Dakotas, northwestern Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana the astronomical seeing is optimal.1
The officers of the U.S. Army who ventured west after the Civil War were, for the most part, literate, and many became devoted journal writers. Lieutenant Charles H. Springer, an emigrant from Würtemberg, Germany, traveled west in 1865 at age twenty-six. Springer made numerous references in his journal to the appearance of the night sky. “The sky is clear and the heaven covered with stars,” he wrote on 29 July 1865. On 8 August, while camped at the Badlands, which he referred to as the “Valley of Death,” Springer said he “looked out upon the moon and starlit night.” Several weeks later, on 27 September, near Laramie Peak in southeastern Wyoming, he noted that after a storm “the sky was brilliantly studded with a myriad of stars.”2 Springer experienced a common sight in the high plains and mountains of the West—clear night skies with exceptional clarity. This was due in part to the lower moisture content of the air and lack of light and air pollution from cities.
Giving names to the stars and organizing those stars into patterns called constellations is an ancient enterprise. Most of the modern proper names of the brightest stars have an Arabic origin. Most constellations names are Greek or Latin. The second-century BC Greek astronomer Hipparchus listed the named stars from brightest to faintest and assigned each one a magnitude from 1 to 6. In this system the scale runs backward with a larger positive number indicating a fainter star. In modern times, with the availability of electronic measuring devices, some bright stars and planets have a negative magnitude. Venus had a magnitude of −4 on the night Bourke saw it.
In 1603 German astronomer Johannes Bayer listed the stars in each constellation in order of decreasing brightness and assigned a name combining the possessive form of the Latin constellation name with a letter of the Greek alphabet. Arcturus (magnitude −.04), the brightest star in Böotes, is Alpha Böotis. Sirius, the most brilliant star in the sky (magnitude −1.43), is Alpha Canis Majoris, the brightest star of the Big Dog constellation Canis Major. The North Star, Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), is much fainter than either of these stars, with a magnitude of 1.96.
There is another difference between individual stars besides magnitude. A careful observer of the night sky will notice a slight color cast to the stars, especially the brightest ones. The color of the star is a direct indicator of its surface temperature. Hot stars like Vega or Sirius look bluish; cooler stars like Arcturus or Betelgeuse appear red.6 Stars of a similar temperature to our Sun appear yellowish. The Lakota noticed these colors. Lakota author Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938) began one of her stories with “overhead the stars were twinkling bright their red and yellow lights.”7 However, the actual color of the Sun may not have been crucial to the traditional Lakota. The spirit Škáŋ assigns the color red to Wí, the Sun. According to James Walker, the reason is “because Wí is the chief of the Gods, red is an emblem of all things that are sacred.”8
The Lakota and other Plains Indians saw many of the same stars, constellations, and planets as Hipparchus or Bayer. For example, the Lakota called Sirius Thayámni Siŋté, animal tail, or the Pleiades star cluster Thayámni Phá, animal head. The Lakota shared some of these names with other Native groups, but in many cases each cultural group had its unique name for the star or constellation. Like other common objects, such as particular trees or animals, it would be a simple matter for a non-Lakota to point to the star or draw a constellation pattern and ask the name. Although they were sometimes multilingual, through the medium of sign language Native peoples with differing languages could share celestial concepts. Sign language enabled Native peoples to share ideas with white Americans, too. William P. Clark, who wrote a manual on Indian sign language for military officers stationed in the West, included some gestures that represent various celestial objects. Moreover, he gave a broad summary of the names of planets and constellations.
Make sign for night; then form an incomplete circle with index and thumb, space of about half an inch between tip of index and thumb; raise the hand upwards towards the heavens. To represent many stars, sometimes both hands are used, and pushed up in different directions. To denote any star of particular brilliancy, such as the morning star, the hand is held towards the direction where the star is supposed to be, and then the tip of index pressed against the ball of the thumb and snapped two or three times to denote the twinkling . . .
The Arapahoes have just enough knowledge of astronomy to name some of the stars and constellations. They call the Big Dipper “the broken back.” Mars, “big fire star.” Jupiter, “morning star.” When Jupiter is an evening star, “the lance”. Some call it “the winter star.” Pleiades, “the bunch.” Venus, “daystar.” The Hyades, “the hand.”
The Plains Indians have special names for a greater number of stars and constellations than some of the mountain tribes.
The Snakes and Bannacks [sic] speak of the morning star and evening star, but, so far as I could learn, have no name for any constellation.9
1. Astronomers use seeing to describe the clarity and stability of the night air. Cooler, drier air generally is better for viewing, hence the location of observatories on mountain tops in the West. See http://mysite.du.edu/~rstencel
/MtEvans/ for information on the University of Denver observatory on Mt. Evans and the perils of high-altitude observing.
2. Springer, “Journal.” Although Springer’s journal was published in 1971, I read a typed copy of his original journal at the Denver Public Library.
8. Walker, Lakota Myth, 212. Only Walker uses Škáŋ as a noun. This is a part of Walker’s “Literary Cycle” and contains numerous references to the significance of colors.
9. By “Bannacks” Clark probably means the Bannock. Clark, Indian Sign Language, 358.