The Moon and Planets in Indigenous California
Summary and Keywords
Anthropologists distinguish the U.S. State of California as a primary zone of prehistoric and tribal North America—it was one of the most linguistically and cultural diverse regions on earth. The original population of Native California and traditional cultures were decimated by the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Anglos, who successively settled California and transformed it. For that reason, knowledge of the character and function of astronomy in what is now California prior to European contact in the 16th century is incomplete and fragmented. Traditional astronomical lore is preserved in a few ethnohistoric commentaries, in some archaeological remains, and in ethnographic research conducted primarily in the early 20th century, when elements of indigenous knowledge still survived.
Throughout Native California, the moon’s conspicuous brightness, movement, and systematically changing appearance prompted its affiliation with seasonal change, the passage of time, and cyclical renewal, and most California tribes monitored and counted lunations in one way or another, but not necessarily throughout the entire year. In some cases, individual lunations were affiliated with and named for seasonal circumstances.
There is little evidence, however, for even minimal interest in or recognition of the planets visible to the unaided eye, with the exception of Venus as the “Morning Star” or “Evening Star.” Venus, like the moon and other celestial objects, was personified and regarded as a fundamental and active agent of the cosmos. There is no evidence, however, for detailed monitoring of Venus and quantitative knowledge of its synodic behavior.
Despite Native California’s extraordinary linguistic diversity, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, and environmental diversity, California tribes universally personified the moon as a singular, mythic character, a power player in the sky. Not exactly a god or a spirit, the moon, like other celestial objects, was a sentient being who inhabited the sky. This upper world was part of a traditional, layered cosmos in which the flat earth lay between the heavens and the subterranean realm.
The importance attributed to the details of lunations—the number of days in a lunar cycle of phases and the number of cycles in a year—varied significantly in California. In 1922, A. L. Kroeber, who pioneered anthropological study of California Indians, concluded, “Probably every tribe, however, had a system of measuring time within the year. This was by the universally known method of naming and reckoning lunations in the round of seasons” (Kroeber, 1922, p. 322).
Kroeber also confirmed the planets commanded little attention: “The planets were too difficult to trouble with, except for Venus when it was the morning star” (Kroeber, 1922, p. 323). Acknowledgments of the “Morning Star” in ethnographic interviews are generally taken to mean Venus when it is seen in the eastern sky in the dawn, before sunrise. For the unaided eye, Venus is the third brightest celestial object, after the sun and the moon, and many tribes also recognized the “Evening Star,” which is generally taken to mean Venus when it is seen after sunset in the western twilight. Although it is possible other bright stars and planets were interchangeable with Venus when it did not shine at either dusk or dawn, there is no explicit evidence from any California tribe for recognition of any other bright planets (Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn). While this apparent lack of interest in the planets may be disappointing, its absence helps illuminate how the character of astronomy varies from one culture to another, what factors influence its character, and the role celestial objects play in a culture. The presence and absence of certain astronomical observations and knowledge indicate what in the sky is of value and what use is made of it.
Anthropologists have divided North America into 12 distinctive cultural regions, of which California and the long, sparsely populated peninsula of Baja, Mexico, comprise one. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sierra Nevada and the Gulf of California on the east, California acquired a regional identity, tempered to a degree in the north by the Northwest Coast tradition and in the south by contacts with the U.S. Southwest.
Great variation in the natural environment—mountains, foothills, deserts, rivers, valleys, seacoasts, and offshore islands—ensured a variety of strategies for food procurement and encouraged cultural diversification. With 75 mutually incomprehensible languages and 300 disparate dialects, California, at the time of European contact, was among the most linguistically diverse places on earth (Shipley, 1978, p. 80); north of Mexico, only the Mississippi Valley was more populous (Cook, 1978, p. 91). The ethnic and linguistic diversity of the State of California is evident in the complexity of tribal territories mapped in Figure 1.
Unlike the peoples of the Mississippi Valley, where farming supported the large population and leveraged monumental architecture and transcontinental trade, Native Californians relied almost entirely on hunting and gathering and in most parts of the state methodically harvested the wild seasonal resources the accommodating climate delivered (Hudson, 1984, p. 13). Although California tribes do not dominate popular imagery of American Indians, the high pre-contact California population makes indigenous California a mainstream tradition—and not a peripheral element—of Native North America. The character of California moon and planet lore is not, then, just a culture element of Native California but has continent-wide significance. It also informs understanding the global use of the sky in subsistence, social activity, symbolism, and myth.
With the exception of a few ethnohistoric sources (e.g., Boscana, 1978), all of the recorded information on moon and planet traditions in Native California is collected in 20th-century ethnographic reports, most of which were prepared and published under Kroeber’s lead by the University of California. Review of these materials indicates the moon was personified—usually as male but sometimes female—by speakers in all five indigenous language families represented in California: Algic, Athabascan, Hokan, Penutian, and Uto-Aztecan. Similarly, some tribal language groups in each language family attached seasonal or functional descriptive names to “monthly” lunar cycles, tallied lunations in some way during the year, and distinguished the “morning star” and/or “evening star” from other celestial objects. The presence of these astronomical elements across linguistic and ethnic boundaries suggests they were nearly universally embraced throughout California, but incomplete data are the rule for most tribal territories, and for some tribes, particularly those that were extinct by the late 19th century, there is no information.
At least seven California tribes (Yurok, Hupa, Modoc, Shasta, Atsugewi, Karok, and Maidu), from four different language families, affiliate the personified male moon with Frog, a female character usually identified as Moon’s wife and also said to be visible on the face of the moon (Garth, 1953, p. 195; Gifford & Block, 1930, p. 158; Kroeber & Gifford, 1980, p. 60; Margolin, 1981, p. 76; Shipley, 1991, pp. 150–151; Voegelin, 1942, p. 145; Warburton & Endert, 1966, pp. 40–42). Many other groups, including the Wiyot, the Chilula, the Yana, the Kato, the Costonoans, the Salinan, the Kitanemuk, the Tongva, and the Chemehuevi, regarded the moon as male (Driver, 1939, p. 344; Gifford & Block, 1930, p. 216; Harrington, 1942, p. 42; Laird, 1984, p. 211), as did the Yokuts and Miwok (Aginsky, 1943, p. 428; Kroeber, 1907, p. 231; Merriam, 1910, p. 59).
The moon is the brother or husband of the female sun in Maidu territory (Loeb, 1933, p. 197; Margolin, 1981, p. 77) and the brother of a male sun for the Atsugewi (Garth, 1953, p. 195), but the Pomo regard the moon as the sister of the sun (Gifford & Kroeber, 1937, p. 148). The Pomo, who speak a Hokan language, link the moon with the menstrual cycle of women and, by analogy, with rain (Loeb, 1926, pp. 227–228). Among coastal tribes, like the Chumash, the moon’s cyclical behavior also allied it with tides (Hudson, Blackburn, Curletti, & Timbrook, 1977, p. 37). The Chumash (Hokan language family, south central California) regarded the moon as female (Hudson, 1984, p. 26), as did Yuman and Piman tribes (Hokan family) (Drucker, 1937, p. 26, 1941, p. 163; Forde, 1931, p. 177). The moon was a woman also to the Cahuilla and Luiseño (Uto-Aztecan family) (Drucker, 1937, p. 26).
A number of groups, including the Chumash made a weather sign out of the moon. Upturned horns in a waxing crescent moon occur in spring and meant the moon holds water. Rain was possible, as it was in winter, when the crescent moon, though more vertical, still had upturned horns. When the horns were sideways, which occurs in autumn, the moon was considered “empty.” No rain was expected (Hudson & Underhay, 1978, p. 76).
Descriptive names for the moon and its phases were conferred by some tribes. Names for the moon mean “night sun” (Pomo (Loeb, 1926, p. 227); Maidu (Loeb, 1933, p. 197); Wappo (Driver, 1937, p. 195), Shasta (Holt, 1946, p. 342), and Miwok (Loeb, 1932, p. 120)) or “night traveler” (Wailaki (Loeb, 1932, p. 91) and Kato (Loeb, 1932, p. 20)). Evidence survives—for example, the Chemehuevi (Laird, 1976, p. 90)—of names for the most distinctive phases of the moon, by which the progress through the lunar cycle was known.
Conspicuously growing and diminishing through monthly phases, the moon is a worldwide emblem of renewal and an actor in the cycle of cosmic order—birth, growth, death, and rebirth (Krupp, 1991, pp. 54–78). This is evident in the Chinigchinich cult of southern California, which originated with the Tongva, in what is now Los Angeles County and Orange County, and spread in the historic era as far south as Kumeyaay lands and as far northeast as Yokuts country (Boscana, 1978, p. 12). According to the Luiseño, who spoke an Uto-Aztecan language and inhabited a territory that included what is now southern Orange County, western Riverside County, and northern San Diego County, the primary Chinigchinich myth explains the introduction of death into the world through the bewitching of Wiyot, the First Chief of the First People, by Red-Legged Frog Woman (Dubois, 1908, p. 132). Wiyot’s illness, decline, death, and resurrection in the stars three days later parallel the monthly behavior of the moon. His name, which means “to count months” in Luiseño/Juaneño (Krupp, 2005, p. 81), also blends him with the moon. Through transformation, Wiyot, like the moon establishes a new cosmic order in which renewal is propelled by death. Wiyot’s reappearance as the first crescent in the west was anticipated by the moonwatching Luiseño shaman and energized by Luiseño men, who dispatched their spirits to the moon by participating in a race at the time of first crescent (Boscana, 1978, p. 12).
The full moon and the waxing crescent moon both appear in Figure 2 in one of the ground displays prepared for the Chinigchinich initiation of Kumeyaay youth (Kroeber, 1953, p. 662). The California rock art crescents in Figure 3 and Figure 4 likely symbolize the moon.
For the Luiseño and most of the California tribes, the moon provided a mechanism for keeping the community aware of and responsive to seasonal change through the assignment of each lunation to a distinctive seasonal phenomenon. In some cases, the lunations were also counted through the entire year or through a seasonally meaningful part of the year, to integrate community activity with a common calendar.
Kroeber (1922, p. 322) asserted that nearly every California tribe kept seasonal time by the moon, and he identified three different approaches. The first, like that employed by the Maidu (Penutian language family, northeast California), included 12 lunations, or “moons,” named after seasonal phenomena. Independent of solar events, each lunation was identified with something taking place in the natural landscape. Some “moon” counts, based on terrestrial events, were applied only to part of the year, like the Maidu winter moons, and ignored the rest of the year’s lunations because only the time of scarcity required careful attention to the season’s duration and the passage of time.
In a second approach, the lunations were numbered, not named, sequentially from a solar reference point. The Yurok (Algic language family, northwest California) counted 12 moons from the winter solstice and sometimes added another lunation when necessary to complete the count at the next winter solstice.
Finally, a third system tied descriptively named “months” to fixed points in the sun’s migration through the year. These periods were identified with a specific moon but could be shortened or lengthened to maintain congruence with the solar year. The Kumeyaay (Hokan language family, southernmost California), for example, named periods in each half of the year for seasonal circumstances (Spier, 1923, p. 357). The duration of each period approximated a lunar cycle, but the period was announced by some other astronomical event—the dawn rising of a telltale star and perhaps the solstices, but not the moon’s phase—and so intercalation and detailed calendrical numeracy were not required. Although the first day of the waxing moon would be noted and different phases recognized, the number of days in the lunation typically was not counted (see, e.g., Kelly, 1932, p. 152).
However the calendar was configured, the moon was its organizing element—it could be regarded as a mediator of time and as the agent that established an order to time. In a story told by the Ajumawi (Benson & Buckskin, 1987) and the Yana (Sapir & Spier, 1943, p. 283) (both Hokan language family, northeast California), Moon is bounced into the sky from a long, springy pole in a contest. In the Ajumawi version, Fisher Man, one of the First People in the time of the world’s creation, is Moon’s competitor. Moon’s placement in the sky, along with his wife—the sun—and their two daughters, North Star and South Star, was what established the seasons and their orderly change.
California Indian planet lore is, as Kroeber assessed in 1922, modest. Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay later demonstrated the Chumash saw the morning and evening apparitions of Venus as two separate sky people, Morning Star and Evening Star, who appear in Chumash myth (Hudson & Underhay, 1978, pp. 81–82). They offer, however, very little additional information about Venus and nothing but speculation about other planets visible to the unaided eye.
Hudson subsequently compressed the record for all of California in the first comprehensive survey of California Indian astronomy: “There is a dearth of information about the planets” (Hudson, 1984, p. 35).
Indigenous recognition of the “Morning Star” is, however, ethnographically documented in four of the five language families of Native California—Athabascan, Hokan, Penutian, and Uto-Aztecan, and references to “Evening Star” are encountered in all five. Penutian tribes affirming knowledge of Venus include Wintu (Du Bois, 1935, p. 75), Nomlaki (Goldschmidt, 1951, p. 389), Maidu (Beals, 1933, p. 357; Loeb, 1933, p. 158), Nisenan (Kroeber, 1929, p. 286), Miwok (Barrett, 1919, p. 27; Merriam, 1910, p. 70), and Yokuts (Gayton, 1948a, p. 88). Among Athabascan speakers, three languages—Sinkyone (Nomland, 1935, p. 170), Wailaki (Loeb, 1932, p. 91), and Kato (Loeb, 1932, p. 20)—preserve knowledge of the Morning Star and/or Evening Star. “Morning Star” Venus recognition in all three branches of the Uto-Aztecan language family is represented by the Mono (Gayton, 1948b, pp. 229, 267), the Chemehuevi (Laird, 1976, p. 91), the Owens Valley Paiute (Steward, 1933, p. 288), the Tübatulabal (Voegelin, 1938, p. 58), the Tongva (McCawley, 1996, p. 146), the Luiseño (Dubois, 1908, p. 162; Harrington, n.d., p. 506), and the Cahuilla (Patencio, 1943, p. 115). Hokan groups, including the Ajumawi (Benson & Buckskin, 1987, p. 10), the Karok (Kroeber & Gifford, 1980, p. 21), the Pomo (Gifford, 1967, p. 41; Loeb, 1926, p. 228), the Chumash (Hudson & Underhay, 1978, pp. 80–90), and the Kumeyaay (Hohenthal, 2001, p. 282) all attached special significance to aspects of Venus. Although evidence of interest in Venus is almost absent in Algic speakers, this may be the product of evaporating data as traditional cultures evolved under external pressures. The Wiyot did provide a name for the Evening Star (Curtis, 1980, p. 269).
Venus is confirmed, then, in all five language families of California’s 58 ethnic territories. The Morning Star or Evening Star was recognized through the entire length of California from the Pacific coast to the Nevada border. It is reasonable to guess Venus was observed and acknowledged in most, if not all, of California.
Almost all known names for the Morning Star and Evening Star refer to their relationship with dawn and day or with dusk and night. A few of the names seem to highlight the singular brightness of Venus.
Names for the Morning Star include “morning star” (Chumash), “leftover . . . ’til morning” (Luiseño), “dawn star” (Chemehuevi), “sun coming” or “dawn coming” (Owens Valley Paiute), “sun-up” (Kato), “daylight star” (Wailaki), “star woman” (Pomo), “daylight star” (Southwestern Pomo), “day woman” (Eastern Pomo), and “morning eye fire” (Eastern Pomo).
Some names for the Evening Star are also preserved: “evening star” (Chumash), “big star” (Coast Pomo), “lazy star” (Kumeyaay), “large one” (Karok), “twilight star” (Southwestern Pomo), “night woman” (Pomo), “worm eating” (Kato), and “evening running” (Wailaki).
Despite wide recognition of morning-star and evening-star apparitions of Venus by California tribes, very little indigenous Venus lore has survived. Morning Star and Evening Star are known to have been personified and mythologized by several Hokan peoples, including the Chumash, the Pomo, and the Karok, and also by the Yokuts, the Western Mono, the Sinkyone, and the Miwok. To the Chumash, Morning Star was female, and evening star was male. In Pomo territory (north coastal), both Morning Star and Evening Star were female, and Evening Star was Morning Star’s younger sister. As First People, both were part of the Creation and lived on earth until Morning Star, appalled by the bad behavior of others, departed to live in the sky and so avoided the world deluge that eradicated the wicked. The Pomo, who subsequently populated the world, are her people. She watches over them and looks out for their interests (Clark & Williams, 1954, p. 107; Loeb, 1926, p. 228).
In another Pomo narrative, the Morning Star is Totelmatha (“star woman”), and she is the wife of Hawk, who is an aspect of the sun affiliated with the winter solstice and sun’s annual migration back to the north. Together Hawk and Star Woman overcome the spirit of blizzard and storm, who kills people and withholds food from the world (Clark & Williams, 1954, p. 11).
The Karok (Hokan language family, northwest California) tell a tale very much like the Ajumawi narrative about Moon’s placement in the sky. Weasel, the Karok version of Fisher Man, also throws Moon’s two daughters—in this case, Morning Star and Evening Star—into the sky in another story about the establishment of seasons and cosmic order. Morning Star is tossed to the east, and Evening Star is flung to the west (Kroeber & Gifford, 1980, p. 21).
Morning Star puts in an appearance in the Yokuts (Penutian language family, central California and Sierra foothills) Creation myth and begins to fade as Bald Eagle, the Creator, is finishing his fabrication of the world (Latta, 1936, p. 18). In this guise, Venus is disappearing in the glow of dawn, which understandably heralds the inauguration of the world we know. The Yokuts also said men of character get up to see the Morning Star.
The Western Mono (or Monache, Uto-Aztecan language family, central inland California) also addressed the Morning Star and are said to have thought Morning Star and Evening Star are the same celestial object (Gayton, 1948b, p. 267). This notion is not encountered in most California tribes.
In at least one case, Venus was part of a celestial family. The Sinkyone (Athabascan language family, north coastal California) saw the Morning Star as the son of Sun and Moon (Nomland, 1935, p. 170).
In California, the most developed mythic conception of Venus survives in Chumash sky lore, where Morning Star and Evening Star are members of two opposing teams of Sky People who gamble through the entire year for the fate of the world and its people (Blackburn, 1975, pp. 91–93). Each night, Sun’s team plays peon, a stick game, in the sky against the allies of Sky Coyote, who is persuasively, if not conclusively, identified as Polaris, the North Star (Hudson, 1984, p. 50; Hudson & Underhay, 1978, pp. 100–102). As the year advances through the seasons, Moon, a neutral party and the primary counter in the sky, keeps score. The competition concludes at the winter solstice, when the nightly rounds are tallied.
As far as people down on earth are concerned, the stakes are high and the game matters. Survival is on the line. Sun was no friend of the Chumash, and if he and his team prevailed, he collected his chips in human lives. Imagined as an old man who walked naked across the sky each day with a torch in his hand and a feathered banner on his head, Sun could swing the torch too close to the ground and burn it, especially in summer. If he kept the torch too far away, it would be too cold on earth (Hudson & Underhay, 1978, p. 52). He was the chief Chumash god, and although his behavior was orderly, his power was dangerous (Krupp, 1991, p. 280).
Sky Coyote, on the other hand, plays on behalf of the Chumash. As Polaris, he is the “Star That Does Not Move” (Hudson & Underhay, 1978, p. 101) and that stability symbolizes balance and natural prosperity (Krupp, 1983, pp. 70–72, 1991, pp. 280–281). If Sky Coyote’s squad takes the year’s peon title, there will be ample rain in winter and spring. Sky Coyote instantly gathers from the Sky World all of the food needed on earth, pushes it through the door in the sky (Blackburn, 1975, pp. 91–92), presumably near the north celestial pole, and lets it fall to earth.
Morning Star plays on Sky Coyote’s team and operates as an agent for the rains and a bountiful year. Songs for Morning Star and Sun were sung at the Chumash Hutash festival in the fall, when acorns, piñon, and seeds were gathered and stored for the coming winter. Venus was sometimes visible in the Hutash season and said to be triumphant. Possibly it operated as a seasonal, if not annual, indicator at the September fiesta, which in the Mission era was sometimes celebrated on St. Michael’s Day (Hudson et al., 1977, p. 43).
Slo’w, or Golden Eagle, was teamed with Sun. Although his celestial identity is not explicitly known, there is reason to think he is Evening Star. In that guise, he remains in the western sky after the sun has set, but eventually he must leave the field, where Sky Coyote, as Polaris, is visible the entire night and presides over the sky.
Morning Star, on Sky Coyote’s team, fulfilled a complementary role. He took command of the eastern sky and the dawn but faded, like Polaris and the rest of the stars, into Sun’s glow as day returned under Sun’s governance.
All four of the gamblers in the nightly peon game—Sun, Sky Coyote, Morning Star, and Evening Star—may be depicted in the Burro Flats pictograph panel, on what was the Rocketdyne/Boeing/NASA Santa Susana Field Laboratory, above Chatsworth, in the northwest corner of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley (King, 2011, pp. 399–401; Krupp, 1983, p. 129). The larger, winged person on the right in Figure 5 has costume elements that suggest he is Sun, and the smaller figure on the left may be Venus as Morning Star. The circle with four orthogonal rays in Figure 6 may be Venus as Evening Star. The rock shelter is part of what was once an important domestic and ceremonial complex at the border of Chumash and Tongva territory. The rock art in the shelter interacts with a distinctive projection of light into the shallow overhang from the winter solstice sunrise. This ancient Native California effort to engage the cosmos is only a ridge away from the static test stands for the rocket engines that transported us to the moon and echoed the archaic indigenous bond with the sky.
Ethnographic data suggest the moon was personified and mythologized throughout indigenous California. Its gender, either male or female, varies among the five language families in the state. The moon, through its monthly cycle of phases, was affiliated with seasonal change through the year, with the presence and absence of rain, and with the broad concept of growth, death, and renewal. California tribes varied in how systematically moons were named and counted through the year. Detailed calendrical numeracy of the days in a lunation and reconciliation of the number of lunations in the year were not high priorities, but knowing the progress of the seasons was critical. For that reason, the moon was used to monitor and anticipate seasonal change.
Venus, as the Morning Star or Evening Star, seems to have been recognized throughout California, but there is no evidence for recognition of the other planets visible to the unaided eye. Venus was personified and mythologized, and its gender was either male or female. There is no evidence for systematic, calendrical monitoring of the synodic period of Venus. Although periodic apparitions of the Morning Star and Evening Star may have been associated with a particular season, they were not annual events that prompted routine observation. Venus instead had symbolic, mythic value. Almost all of the California tribes identified Morning Star and Evening Star as two separate celestial supernatural beings and not as a single planet.
The data, though incomplete, outline the level of interest in and the depth of observations of the moon and planets for a significant fraction of the indigenous population in North America north of Mexico prior to European contact. The astronomy the highly systematic hunter-gatherers in Native California required and adopted helps indicate how social complexity modulates the nature of the astronomical enterprise.
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