The Planets in Pawnee Culture
- Von Del ChamberlainVon Del ChamberlainIndependent Scholar
We can be certain that all cultures wondered about the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, and that they found ways of incorporating what they observed into comprehension of themselves existing within their perceptible surroundings, both on earth and in the sky. Thanks to the gleanings of anthropologists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we have a treasure trove revealing that the Native American Skidi Band of the Pawnee Nation possessed a unique creation tradition rich in astronomical symbolism. This includes the belief that the two bright planets encompassing within their orbits the orbit of planet Earth were considered by the Skidi to be the cosmic parents of the very first human child, a girl; the Sun and Moon were considered parents of the first male child.
This story of human origin includes the legendary journey of the male Great Red Warrior from the east to court the Beautiful Bright White female star of the west, followed by the birth of their daughter transported to earth. This is a striking allegory of the apparent migrations of Mars and Venus, continually changing in brightness, undergoing retrograde motions and sometimes seeming to unite in close conjunctions. Watching these interrelations, repeated over and over with intriguing variations, likely led to and continually reinforced this tradition. Likewise, the apparent monthly relationships of Sun and Moon, with occasional eclipses, visually reinforced the account of the initial male human birth. Thus, the Skidi Pawnee tradition of human origins is an interesting, indeed beautiful, example of human interpretation of natural phenomena.
The premise of this article is that scientists continually reflect on questions of how past peoples in various places, times, and cultures thought about and comprehended the objects that scientists currently focus their analytical attentions upon. Doing so might not generally improve scientific work, but it does seem to help satisfy individual curiosities about the foundations of human cognitive development and attempts to understand ourselves within the cosmos.
We can be certain that all cultures wondered about the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars and found ways of incorporating what they observed into their comprehension of themselves existing within their perceptible surroundings. The vast majority of such musings are forever lost to us, never having been preserved, simply disappearing along with those who imagined them. Occasionally, however, through combinations of specific people and circumstances, a few of these have been recorded. Such is the case with the Skidi band of the Pawnee Indians of the Great American Plains. Their thoughts are rich in interpretation of movements of planets against the patterns of stars that surround us on the canvas of the visible heavens.
The Pawnee Nation is a Caddoan-speaking group divided into the Skidi and South bands with the latter consisting of three groups known as the Chawi, Kitkahahki, and Pitahawirata. Historically they have lived along the Platte and Loup Rivers in what is now east-central Nebraska. This article is based primarily on the traditions of the Skidi band.
The Skidi band was a federation of at least a dozen villages, each of which credited its origin to a particular star. Each village kept a sacred bundle containing objects related to its origin, beliefs, and rituals. All of the bundles and associated rituals were filled with allusions to the natural world. A few of the bundles and related ceremonies were of higher order than the others and these, along with their particularly important ceremonies, bonded all of the villages into the Skidi federation. Further details can be found in Murie (1981, pp. 30–42), and Chamberlain (1982b, pp. 41–43, 122–126).
A Sketch of Skidi Cosmology
This Skidi Pawnee cosmological tradition includes a wonderful chart of the heavens painted on an animal skin (Chamberlain, 1982b, p. 189). Study of this, along with associated information reveals a set of star patterns symbolic of discerning concepts associated with stars. For example, Polaris was called Chief Star. Being always visible in the starry night, it set the example of how a chief should forever be available and watch over the people. A group of stars (Corona Borealis and a few others nearby) was referred to as the Chief’s Council, symbolic of delegated leaders sitting together, weighing alternatives, and making the best decisions they could to fulfill their roles of leadership. A small set of stars referred to as the Swimming Ducks (tail of Scorpius) set the annual ceremonial and subsistence calendar into action by its heliacal rising in early February. The tightly bunched stars we call the Pleiades portrayed the concept of the importance of unity among people. These and other symbolic star patterns are depicted upon the Skidi chart of stars. The planetary drama, the subject of this article, was enacted upon that background.
This information, along with all of the concepts discussed here, can be found, in detail, in When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America (Chamberlain, 1982b).
How This Story Was Discovered and Preserved
The information about this rich Native American cosmic tradition was collected and recorded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the year 1900 the Pawnee population had reached a low of about 600; one of these was James Rolfe Murie, born in Nebraska in 1862. His father was a Scot, who was captain of a battalion of Pawnee Scouts under Major Frank North, and his mother was Skidi Pawnee. At age 16, James Murie was sent to school at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where he became the first Pawnee to graduate from an Eastern school. Returning to Pawnee, Oklahoma, he worked at several jobs, eventually as a clerk in the bank at Pawnee. Thus, he was discovered by anthropologists—first by Alice C. Fletcher at the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology and later by others (Murie, 1981, pp. 21–27).
Murie became a collaborator with Fletcher by accompanying her to Pawnee ceremonies, helping her transcribe and translate textual materials, and arranging for her to meet with Indian informants both in the field and in Washington. Murie’s work with Fletcher resulted in several publications about the rich traditions of the Pawnees (Fletcher, 1902, 1903, 1996).
In 1902, Murie also began working with George A. Dorsey, curator of anthropology at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. In addition to assisting Dorsey as he had Fletcher, Murie helped accumulate cultural artifacts for the museum (Dorsey, 1904, 1906).
In 1906, George Dorsey briefly involved two well-known astronomers in an attempt to identify Skidi stars in the sky and on the painted buckskin (Chamberlain, 1982b, pp. 225–228). He asked Emerson E. Barnard of the Yerkes Observatory to examine a photograph of the painted star chart and give his best attempt to identify features. One short letter from Dorsey to Barnard, dated August 31, 1906, indicated that Barnard had expected to give his report, but no other information about this has been found among the files of the Field Museum or those of the places Barnard had worked—the Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University.
The other astronomer Dorsey involved was Forest Ray Moulton, who at that time was an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago. Moulton actually met, under the stars, with four Pawnee informants along with James Murie as interpreter. These brief investigations occurred on the morning and evening of July 1 and again on the evening of July 2, 1906. Moulton gave his report to Dorsey in a letter dated July 9, 1906. His responses pertinent to this report will be referred to the section titled “Cosmic Parentage.”
Then, in 1912, Murie responded to a request by Clark Wissler, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, to collect information on the religious and secular aspects of Pawnee culture. This resulted in the gathering of a host of cultural materials for the museum as well as completion of Murie’s own important publication in 1921. Murie completed the work, but before it could be published, Murie suddenly died. Not until 1981 was this most significant work edited and published, by Douglas R. Parks (Murie, 1981).
The key informant Murie introduced to the anthropologists, indeed the one who provided the astronomical information, was the Skidi priest named Kiriki:risu Tu:ras, Running Scout, also known as Roaming Scout. He was between sixty and seventy years old when he dipped into his memory to recall what he had been taught, what he had heard and observed from ceremonies, stories, songs, and dances, and thus what had been handed down over the generations to portray the almost-forgotten Skidi cosmic traditions. We are the beneficiaries of this venerable conduit of remembered artifacts of the wandering stars.
In 1928 Gene Weltfish (August 7, 1902–August 2, 1980), a research associate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, went to the Pawnee reservation to begin an in-depth study of the Pawnee language existing among the approximately 700 Pawnees living at that time. Based upon her studies from 1928 to 1936, primarily with the help of a few of the older people living at the time, and also accessing existing archival materials on the Pawnees (by Murie, Fletcher, Dorsey, and Wissler), she wrote a book portraying one year of Pawnee life as it might have been lived in the year 1867 (Weltfish, 1977). This is the book for anyone who would like to become familiar with the realities of life among the Pawnees on the Nebraska Plains shortly before they were all removed to their Oklahoma reservation in 1876.
Skidi Pawnee Genesis
The extract here is a condensed composite drawn from the published accounts of Skidi Pawnee traditions of the origins of Mother Earth’s first humans (Dorsey, 1904, pp. 3–7; Curtis, 1907, pp. 99–104; Murie, 1981, pp. 38–39; Chamberlain, 1982b, pp. 21–26). This carefully assembled rendition consolidates the information with a focus on symbolic astronomical and terrestrial elements of Skidi cosmic traditions (Chamberlain, 2018, pp. 18–23).
Longer ago than anyone can possibly remember, there was only Teeduhwaahut, all-powerful, standing at the very top of heaven! We never see Him, but we know He is there, always watching over us.
Changeless and supreme, creator of everything in earth and sky, Teeduhwaahut gathered the star gods together. “I give each of you a place in the heavens and powers to create people, to give them your land. With your assistance, they will thrive.”
Pointing to Suhkooloo, He directed, “You shall live in the east. Give light and warmth to all the beings that shall come to earth.”
Turning to Pah, Teeduhwaahut said, “You shall live in the west and give light when darkness comes.
“Choopihdit-tahkah, Bright Star, you also will live in the west. You shall be known as Mother of all things, for through you all life shall be created.
“Oopihdee-koochoo, Great Star, your home is in the east. You shall be a warrior. Each time you drive the sky people toward the west, see that none lag behind.
“Karaiwari, your place is in the north. You shall not move, for you are chief of all the gods that sparkle in the heavens. Watch over them. When human beings are created and placed upon earth, they will appoint a chief among themselves. He is to resemble you, Star-That-Does-Not-Move, presiding over his people. You, chief of the stars, communicate with the human chiefs and keep them watchful of their people.”
Pointing to another star, He said, “You, Spirit Star, stand low down in the south where you will be hard to see. Receive the spirits of the dead at the end of their journeys on the Ghost Trail.”
Teeduhwaahut pointed to four stars, each in turn. “Black Star, your lodge is in the northeast near Suhkooloo’s summer home. Yellow Star, you live in the northwest, toward the place where Suhkooloo will leave the sky in the warm season, painting things yellow.” To another star, a white one, He said, “Your lodge is the pillar holding the sky to the southwest,” and to a red one, “You are the pillar of the southeast where the red dawn of winter will come.” To all four He declared, “You four shall be known as the ones who shall hold up the heavens, standing as long as the heavens last. You shall touch the heavens with your hands and your feet shall rest upon earth.”
To all the star gods, He commanded, “I give you the power to create people, and you shall give them sacred bundles and ceremonies to order their lives and remind them of us.
“In the east, creation will be planned; in the west, it will be fulfilled; for east is Man and west is Woman.
“Warrior in the east, Oopihdee-koochoo, you shall take a journey to the west to find Choopihdit-tahkah. Stay with Her. I promise you a girl. The gods of the west shall place her upon earth.”
Turning to Suhkooloo, Teeduhwaahut said, “When you have taken your place in the heavens, I give you permission to lie with Pah. When you are together, She shall disappear. A boy shall be born to the two of you, and you shall call upon the gods of the west to place the child upon earth. The two of you will help the people regulate their lives by the passage of times and seasons.”
Teeduhwaahut sent Choopihdit-tahkah to the west and gave Her a garden where things would forever be alive. He sent Her Clouds, Winds, Lightnings, and Thunders. “Receive these gods, place them between you and the Garden. When they stand by the garden, they shall be like human beings. They shall have the downy feather in their hair. They shall wear moccasins and buffalo robes, and each shall have around his waist a belt of buffalo hair. Each shall have a rattle in his right hand. These four gods shall be the ones who will create things. With their songs rumbling across the land, Mother Earth will live!”
Teeduhwaahut was ready to make the earth. He told Choopihdit-tahkah to instruct the gods to sing. As they shook their rattles and started the song, Clouds came up, Winds blew, Lightnings and Thunders entered the Clouds, and Teeduhwaahut dropped a pebble into the Clouds. When the storm had passed over, water filled the space.
Teeduhwaahut provided war clubs to the four world quarter stars and sent them to their respective stations. When they struck with their clubs, land rose up on the four sides of water.
Teeduhwaahut instructed Choopihdit-tahkah to tell the gods to sing the song about the formation of the earth: Clouds came up, Winds and Lightning and Thunders struck, to put life in the ground.
He called for yet another song, about timber, underbrush and gray land. Winds, Clouds, Lightning and Thunders passed over. Grasses and trees now stood upon the ground, still lifeless, but when the Winds blew through them and the Rains fell upon them, the Lightnings struck them and the Thunders sounded over them, life was instilled in the fields and timbers.
Teeduhwaahut commanded that the Winds, Clouds, Lightnings, and Thunders should, once again, pass over the land. Sweet water filled creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes.
The Great Red Star, Oopihdee-koochoo, went forth from the east toward the west so that creation might continue. Choopihdit-tahkah of the west moved to draw Him toward Her, yet, as He came, She placed barriers in His path. The earth opened up and water swept down, and in the water appeared a snake with an open mouth. Oopihdee-koochoo drew from His pouch a ball of fire and flung it to drive the snake away from His path. Ten obstacles stood before Him. Ten times He sang the sacred song, drew out the fireball, and drove each of the monsters away. He sang, “I have overcome my Grandfather; I have overcome my Grandmother; I have overcome my Father; I have overcome my Mother; I have overcome my Brother; I have overcome my Sister.” He named the kinships that would always persist upon the earth.
Many of the other male stars had attempted to mate with beautiful Choopihdit-tahkah, but She denied them all. Beasts protected Her, and She had teeth in Her vagina. Now, the Great Warrior of the east was approaching.
As He came closer toward the radiant White Star of the west, Oopihdee-koochoo reached out toward the four star beasts that protected Her: Black Bear, Mountain Panther, Wildcat, and Wolf. They were stars, they were animals, they were seasons of the world and of life; they were also different trees and the four kinds of corn. Oopihdee-koochoo overcame them one by one: “Yellow Star of the northwest, you are the Mountain Lion, Willow, Lightning, Spring, Childhood, and Yellow Corn; Red Star of the southeast, you are Wolf, Box Elder, Cloud, Summer, Youth, and Red Corn; Black Star, you of the northeast whence cometh night, you are Bear, Elm, Thunder, Autumn, Adulthood, and Black Corn; White Star of the southwest, facing north where the snow comes, you are Wildcat, Cottonwood, Winter, Old Age, and White Corn.” He energized the earth with all these precious things and the guards stood no longer in His way.
He stood facing the beautiful female Star, yet She would not yield until He brought the cradleboard for their child that would be born. From the cottonwood, He made the board; the covering was made of the skin of the spotted cat, emblem of the starry heavens. Above the board, over the place where the head of the child would lay, was a hoop from the willow tree to represent the rainstorm and the Arch-Above-the-Earth, the rainbow. He placed His own red image upon the top of the board to show that He, Himself, would watch over the child.
Cradle in hand, He came again to the Woman of Heaven. “You must bring a mat for the child to lie upon.” From a heavenly buffalo He provided the softest part of the hide.
Again, She reproached him. “I must have water to bathe the child in.” He brought sweet water from Choopihdit-tahkah’s own garden, fragrant from the grasses, herbs, fruits, and flowers growing there.
Now, She yielded to Him. Each gave unto the other their power to be transferred to the people who would appear upon earth. The power of the Great Red Star is in the bed of flint on which He stands, the same power by which Suhkooloo shines. Choopihdit-tahkah gave Her powers of the west, the Storms to drive across the land. Into the Clouds Oopihdee-koochoo placed His flints to strike as Lightning from the rainstorms. The power of flint would also give fire, knives, axes, and weapons to the People of earth. All the Powers of east and west mingled and merged.
In the wintertime, Choopihdit-tahkah gave birth to a daughter. Teeduhwaahut spoke to Choopihdit-tahkah: “You must place the girl upon the clouds to be taken to earth.” From Her garden, She plucked seeds of all kinds and the Mother Corn, giving them to the child. Clouds gathered and the old men rattled their gourds and sang about the storm traveling downward to the earth. The maiden dropped like rain, giving rise to the Skidi name for maiden, Tcuraki, “Standing Rain.” There she stood. Alone.
While all this happened, Suhkooloo and Pah had come together. Lying together, they shared their powers. In summertime, a boy was born to them. Teeduhwaahut commanded Choopihdit-tahkah to cause the four gods to sing again. The Winds blew and the Lightnings and Thunders entered Clouds that rose up to Pah. The child was placed upon the Clouds that were sung downward to touch the ground. A boy wandered over the land.
When the boy and girl found each other, Teeduhwaahut called upon Choopihdit-tahkah to ask the gods to sing about putting life into the children. The Female Star commanded. The four gods rattled their gourds, the Winds came, Clouds arose, and Lightning entered the Clouds. Thunder sounded and rain fell upon the girl and boy. Lightning struck around them. Thunders roared, and they awakened and understood. They lay together, and after many months a baby was born to them.
The new family built a grass lodge to live in. Teeduhwaahut instructed the star gods to give the people what they needed. As each of the stars came over the land, the new parents would go to a place where the lightning had struck upon the mountain to find precious things to be used for worship and for living: fire-sticks, pipe-stone, flint-stone, moccasins, robes, the war-club, the bow and arrow, and all the items needed to create the sacred bundles.
The People increased. They learned to make sturdy and warm lodges to live in, given the pattern by the star gods: round like the world; four posts in the northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest to represent the world quarter stars, those animals, trees, and other things; floor to represent the earth; ceiling for the sky; entrance opening to the east, symbolic of Great Red Warrior Star and the planning of creation; altar at the west side, the sacred place of Bright White Star and Her garden, the direction where creation was accomplished and from which life was renewed each spring; fireplace containing the spark from the flint of Oopihdee-koochoo and the fire of Suhkooloo; and smoke-hole over the fire, round like the “Council of Chiefs,” stars that passed directly overhead and tell us how we should make important decisions when our leaders sit in council. On spring and autumn mornings, the first rays of sunlight come through the entryway, cross the fireplace so that it can burn, to fall upon Choopihdit-tahkah’s altar, nourishing life that is renewed each year by the storms that move in from the west.
The people treasured this knowledge and sang over the sacred bundles. The stars had informed the priests about how they could watch through the entryway, through the smoke-hole, and out in the open to know when to do ceremonies, when to plant seeds, when to hunt, and how to live upon the land. They knew well the luminaries of the sky that breathed life into everything that moved.
As the first people moved about, they encountered other people, and found that they could understand each other. They talked and learned that each group had been created by different stars, and that each possessed sacred knowledge and artifacts that should be used for the benefit of all. In council, each group shared what they knew. The gods in the heavens continued to govern the patterns of their lives.
Each year, when the snow began to melt, the Swimming Ducks fly upward from the southeast dawn. Then, we listen for the sound of thunder, rolling from the west across the Plains. With these spring storms, Choopihdit-tahkah’s bundle is opened and the ceremonies begin. In every generation people grow old and die, but children are born and we teach them the ways of harmony and happiness, the ways that came to us from the stars.
Throughout the Skidi tradition of Creation there is strong directional orientation. The Creator, whose station is the zenith, set the other deities into specific stations from which they were to operate. The four celestial ancestor gods were assigned to the east and west; the male Great Star, a warrior, and Sun to rule the east where all things were to be planned; the female Bright Star and Moon to the west where all things were carried out. The Chief Star (Polaris), setting the example for earthly chiefs, clearly designated the north, and a star symbolic of death represented south. Four star gods, said to “hold up the heavens” were assigned inter-cardinal positions, with those on the northeast and southeast as assistants of Great Star and those on the northwest and southwest assisting Bright Star.
This direction symbolism transfers to the Pawnee house, a round lodge referred to as a mudlodge or earthlodge, 8 to 15 meters in diameter, modeled after the great visible universe. The earthen floor represented Mother Earth and the roof symbolized the sky. Residents entered through a long, east-oriented walled-and-roofed entryway. The east-west axis crossed over the firepit beneath the circular smoke hole through which smoke rose. Rising smoke was always symbolic of prayer ascending toward Teeduhwaahut and other celestial deities. Opposite the entrance at the west side was a sacred altar, symbolic of Bright Star and her ever-living garden. The light of the rising Sun was thought of as passing over the fireplace bringing fire into the home, then illuminating the sacred altar. Figure 1 diagrams the features of the lodge and the symbolic directional elements important in this article. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has a full-scale Pawnee lodge showing the features of this cosmically symbolic house. This indoor lodge was built under the supervision of Pawnee people.
Commenting on the symbolic relationships of the lodges and the visible surroundings, Weltfish (1977, pp. 63–64) stated:
The house was a microcosm of the universe and as one was at home inside, one was also at home in the outside world. For the dome of the sky was the high-arching roof of the universe and the horizon all around was the circular wall of the cosmic house. Through the roof of the house the star gods poured down their strength from their appropriate directions in a constant stream.
A great deal of observational knowledge could be obtained from looking out through the east-oriented entrance and the smoke hole. Indeed, Weltfish (1977, p. 79) wrote:
The earth lodge served as an astronomical observatory and as the priests sat inside at the west, they could observe the stars in certain positions through the smoke hole and through the long east-oriented entranceway. They also kept careful watch of the horizon right after sunset and just before dawn to note the order and position of the stars.
Additional knowledge could have been obtained by studying the play of light from Sun and Moon within the lodge. The observatory aspects of the earth lodge have been analyzed by Chamberlain (1982a, pp. 183–194; 1982b, pp. 156–183). A most important aspect for this article is realizing how the four inter-cardinal directions and posts so nicely bracket the rising and setting directions of the Skidi Sun, Moon, and planet cosmic ancestors.
The Sun and Moon are clearly and firmly identified as the cosmic progenitors of the first male human, but these are subordinate to the celestial parentage of the first female, obviously planetary progenitors. Establishing the identity of one of these is more difficult and is the crux of this article.
Throughout the origin story, and continuing in this article, we avoid the use of the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star.” Both of these were used in the literature reporting Pawnee traditions, with “Morning Star” referring to the male Great Star whose proper residence is considered to be in the east and “Evening Star” referring to the female Bright Star living in the west. It is likely that these time-of-day names had been implanted more by scholars probing Native American traditions than by the people they attempted to understand. These terms can result in more confusion than clarity, so they are avoided here. Let us focus on essential elements of what is revealed from the story of origin.
All of the primal sources of Skidi cultural traditions make it clear that Choopihdit-tahkah, the female star of the west, is Venus. Astronomer Forest Ray Moulton confirmed this. After his under-the-stars meetings with Pawnee experts he wrote in his July 9, 1906, letter to George Dorsey (Chamberlain, 1982b, p. 226):
The evening star, Opiritaka, is Venus. The descriptions of the traditions, as well as the direct reference to Venus at present in the western sky, proves the statement. The Indians correctly described the apparent motion of Venus—how it comes evening after evening farther up the western sky until it is half way from the sun to the zenith, then to go slowly back past the sun and to appear west of the sun in the morning. They were aware that when it is evening star it follows the sun across the sky in the daytime. Good Eagle said he had seen it while lying on his back near noon. This is a rather difficult feat for one who does not know precisely where to look, but it is by no means impossible.
The Skidi tradition of cosmic origin going back to the Great Warrior Star of the east is strongly and vividly remembered (Figure 2).
However, identifying the ancestral Great Star is not as obvious. Although some Pawnees at the time their traditions were collected by scholars seemed to have vivid memory of their ancestral traditions, they had lost much, including intimate observational knowledge about details. Those studying this in the early 1900s were uncertain about the identity of the Great Star. For example, Alice Fletcher wrote:
We are told that “there are two morning stars, brothers, the elder is red, and it is he to whom the human sacrifice is made; the younger is white, he is kind and does not share in these rites”(Fletcher, 1903, p. 11).
Similarly, Murie recorded (Murie, 198l, p. 38; Chamberlain, 1982b, p. 72):
We can by no means be sure of the identity of Morning Star, for our informants seem to confuse Mars, Jupiter, and Venus. Mars is said to have red lights and to be the real one; but Jupiter is often selected as the one.
The identity of this star is uncertain. The description of its appearances suggests Mars, but the times given for its appearances suggest Venus and even Jupiter could serve when in the proper place. However, it is not fair to test the case by present informants, for it may be that the older priests, when these ceremonies were intently pursued, did discriminate between Mars and the other planets. The characteristics that have come down to us are brightness and a red light. These apply to Mars rather than to any other star.
There is no information to indicate that Murie himself had any significant knowledge of basic astronomy, but as stated here, he was well aware that the Skidi people had lost the extensive understanding that must have once accompanied ceremonial practices. In his own major manuscript, he more clearly stated this (Murie, 1981, p. 42):
The reader should always bear in mind that we are catching up the frayed-out ends of a vanishing fabric and that many times there come to us but glimpses of what has passed into hopeless oblivion.
The quotation from Fletcher mentions a ceremonial human sacrifice to the Great Star of the east. This is a major topic in wondering about this object, but delving into it would involve far more space than available in this article. Suffice it to say that there were several historically known Skidi human sacrifice ceremonies during the 1800s and early 1900s, most notably held in 1817, 1827, 1838, 1902, and 1906. Readers who want to study these, including the astronomical settings at the times, can find details in Chamberlain, 1982b, pp. 60–90.
Now we return to the only astronomer known to have actually spent time out under the stars with Pawnee people during that initial active time of scholarly attempts to learn about Pawnee ceremonial systems. On those first two evenings and the morning between them in July 1906, University of Chicago astronomer Forest Ray Moulton was with four Pawnee men in addition to Murie looking out into the sky and discussing Pawnee stars. We might well wonder why Dorsey was not there as well. Two of the men, in addition to Murie, were Skidi. Another was chief of the Pitahawirata Pawnee band. The other Pawnee man in the group was not identified. We do not know where they held their observing session or the particular viewing conditions.
On those two evenings, Mars was too dim and low to be observed. It was setting in the northwest 23 minutes after sunset. One hour after sunset, Mercury (0.1 magnitude) was 5 degrees above the horizon north of west and Venus (−4.0 magnitude) was 11 degrees up north of west. The 77 % illuminated moon was 36 degrees up a bit west of south. Saturn (+1 magnitude) rose south of east 3 hours 19 minutes after sunset. On the morning of July 1, Jupiter (−2 magnitude) rose north of east 1 hour and 30 minutes before sunrise.
We have already seen what Moulton wrote about Venus, beautiful Bright Star of the West. From all the information, we know that the mate of this celestial parent must be a superior planet. Here is what Moulton penned about the Great Star of the East (Chamberlain, 1982b, p. 226):
The morning star, Opirikuts, is almost certainly Mars. It is described as being not always visible, as moving among the stars, and as being red. There is another star, brighter than the red one, which may be morning star. It is white and although it goes by the same name it is not the true Opirikuts. The white Opirikuts is evidently from the description Jupiter. However, direct observations of these bodies with the Indians should be made.
This should be enough to have confidence that Mars is the Skidi ancestral Great Star of the east. The information contained in the Skidi Creation story makes this identification even more certain. Let us review the essential items pieced together. Quoting bits and pieces from the creation tradition:
“Oopihdee-koochoo, Great Star, your home is in the east. You shall be a warrior. Each time you drive the sky people toward the west, see that none lag behind. . . . you shall take a journey to the west to find Choopihdit-tahkah. Stay with Her. I promise you a girl. The gods of the west shall place her upon earth.”
The Great Red Star, Oopihdee-koochoo, went forth from the east toward the west so that creation might continue. Choopihdit-tahkah of the west moved to draw Him toward Her, yet, as He came, She placed barriers in His path. . . . As He came closer toward the radiant White Star of the west, Oopihdee-koochoo reached out toward the four star beasts that protected Her . . . They were stars, they were animals, they were seasons of the world and of life; . . . Oopihdee-koochoo overcame them one by one . . . guards stood no longer in His way.
He stood facing the beautiful female Star, yet She would not yield. . . . Again, She reproached him. . . . Now, She yielded to Him. Each gave unto the other their power to be transferred to the people who would appear upon earth. . . . All the Powers of east and west mingled and merged.
In the wintertime, Choopihdit-tahkah gave birth to a daughter. . . . The maiden dropped like rain, giving rise to the Skidi name for maiden, Tcuraki, “Standing Rain.”
This is such a beautiful and dramatic description of how the two planets move. Mars, far away in its orbit, dimly (weak) beginning to rise into darkness before dawn migrates slowly, earlier and earlier, higher and higher, remaining longer and longer in darker sky. Yes, the planet moves westward, but not as fast as background stars do; Mars appears to get behind the stars as if to herd them westward. Constantly getting brighter (stronger) as its distance diminishes, undergoing retrograde motion, Mars reaches greatest brilliance. Rising at eventide, it takes on an angry red appearance. Throughout its 780-day synodic period, the rising and setting directions of Mars are encompassed within the portion of the horizon defined by the four World Quarter inter-cardinal stars.
Surely this could have been interpreted as doing battle with stars along its path. Sometimes, when it stands brilliant at opposition, Venus is also beautifully bright across the sky to the west. The pair seems to be “looking at each other” as she draws him onward. Eventually, becoming ever more distant and dim (weaker), Mars reaches the west in evening sky. On some such journeys the “mates” come together in reenactment of the primal marriage that resulted in the first human sent down to earth. They might playfully maneuver near each other, possibly coming into close conjunction. Other times she denies him, receding into the sunset. Perhaps at such times, especially when things are particularly difficult, the people might think that they must do extraordinarily exceptional, even violent and terrible, things to reward him for his constant and repeated sacrificial efforts on their behalf.
A portrait of a Pawnee family reveals how firmly the tradition of planetary ancestry was established and how well it persisted into recent times (Figure 3). It was common practice to include an image of the Great Red Star, primal father and protector of the people, on the cradleboard. Looking into the faces of these parents and their infant helps us realize the abiding influence that observing and wondering about the wandering objects of the sky can have upon people.
Briefly, that is the picture emerging from the Skidi legend of Creation. There is much more to it than reported in this brief article. Those wishing to review all of the speculation about identification of Great Red Star of the east may find it in Chamberlain, 1982b, pp. 55–90.
Studying ancient traditions from around the globe makes us aware of the ever-present human need for personal and communal comprehension of self and others within discernible surroundings. As far as we can tell, this has been true from the earliest human existence—an urge for understanding that has continually grown at an apparently increasing pace. Indeed, this need to interpret all we perceive within and around us has led slowly, then more swiftly and surely to our present always actively improvingly accurate scientific modeling that allows us to predict outcomes from past and prevailing physical conditions. People have always been interpreters of what they observe and explorers of their physical surroundings. May it ever be so!
We can trace scientific reasoning through various times and cultures, some of which stand out above others, and we have become more and more aware that doing so does not establish superior intelligence among and between ethnic populations. Varying environmental conditions, degrees of effective communication, circumstantial opportunities, along with levels of developmental social and political structures have produced so many ways of looking at ourselves and the external world. Thus, we are the benefactors of interpretations of natural phenomena ranging from fairy tales to modern science and everything in between. Some of the most provocative interpretations come from what have been called “primitive” groups, living much closer to nature than most contemporary people experience.
Such is the case with the simple, yet impressively complex, rendition of the Skidi Pawnee Creation tradition. The account of the birth of the first people reveals convincing allusions to observational relationships of the objects of the solar system as seen in Earth’s sky. The legendary journey of the Great Red Warrior of the east to court, then marry, the Beautiful Bright White female of the west and the subsequent birth of the first female human is a striking description of the apparent migrations of Mars and Venus, near the ecliptic, wandering back and forth approximately between the solstices, sometimes involving close conjunctions. The tradition is reinforced by watching these interrelations, repeated over and over with intriguing variations. Likewise, the monthly observational relations of Sun and Moon visually reinforce the account of the initial male human birth, even with occasional impressive solar eclipses. The Skidi Pawnee tradition of human origins is an interesting, indeed beautiful, example of human interpretation of natural phenomena.
Wondering more and more about how Sun, Moon, planets, and stars played out in the lives of the Pawnee people, the author concluded that the only way his growing curiosity might be satisfied would be in fictional form. So he began to imagine and write about how it might have been. The stars led the development of the story with planets being primary characters. At first, this was written only to satisfy personal yearning to imagine how the whole thing could have functioned in actual life. Not until much later did the story seem good enough that others might enjoy it. And so it was published (Chamberlain, 2018) and is available from Amazon or Leighton Press under the title Children of the Sky. With planets as main characters in this novel, surely planetary scientists are the primary audience for the book. Responses from those who read the story would be greatly appreciated. Comments are welcome at the book website.
- Chamberlain, V. D. (1982a). The Skidi Pawnee Earth Lodge as an observatory. In A. F. Aveni (Ed.), Archaeoastronomy in the New World (pp. 183–194). London, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Chamberlain, V. D. (1982b). When stars came down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America. Los Altos, CA: Ballena Press.
- Chamberlain, V. D. (2018). Children of the sky. Los Angeles, CA: Leighton Press.
- Curtis, N. (1907). The Indians’ book: Songs and legends of the American Indians. New York, NY: Harper. Recorded and edited by Natalie Curtis, published unabridged and unaltered; republication by Harper and Brothers in 1923, Dover edition in 1968.
- Dorsey, G. A. (1904). Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. Memoirs of the American Folk Lore Society 8. Boston, MA: Published for the American Folk Lore Society by Houghton Mifflin.
- Dorsey, G. A. (1906). The Pawnee: Mythology (Part 1). Carnegie Institution of Washington 59. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington. Republished by University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Fletcher, A. C. (1902). Star cult among the Pawnee—A preliminary report. American Anthropologist, 4, 730–736.
- Fletcher, A. C. (1903). Pawnee star lore. Journal of American Folklore, 16, 10–15.
- Fletcher, A. C. (1996) The Hako: Song, pipe, and unity in a Pawnee Calumet ceremony. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Reprinted from the Twenty-second annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904). Originally published as The Hako: A Pawnee ceremony.
- Murie, J. R. (1981). Ceremonies of the Pawnee: Part 1. The Skiri (Douglas R. Parks, Ed.). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Weltfish, G. (1977). The lost universe: Pawnee life and culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. First published by Basic Books in New York, under the title The Lost Universe, with closing chapter on the universe regained in 1965.