Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Like all humans, the Native peoples of the Plains observed the sky, particularly the night sky, and created astronomies. Scholars have used three general methods to describe and understand pre-European astronomies in North America: an examination of myth; archeological data, including astronomical artifacts; and detailed ethnographic and historic studies of specific peoples.

In Blackfoot myth, for example, the Pleiades were small boys who became stars when their parents would not give them yellow buffalo calf robes. Very young calves have yellow hides in May or June, when the Pleiades are not visible, but become dark around September when the Pleiades reappear.

Archeology was used by Waldo Wedel to identify astronomies, when he proposed that "council circles" in central Kansas might be solstice registers. These types of data include the well-known medicine wheels, including Wyoming's Big Horn Medicine Wheel. Such sites are also common in the Northern Great Plains and the Prairie Provinces. The most important is the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel in Saskatchewan, which is aligned to the summer solstice sunrise. Nearby, others mark the rising of the major summer stars: Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius.

One of the most important astronomical artifacts is the Skiri Pawnee star chart, drawn on a buffalo scalp and associated with the Big Black Meteoric Star bundle and ceremony. This star is associated with the northeast star pillar position and the color black. It has been proposed that its position is a point north of the celestial pole, a definite black spot in the heavens. The chart seems to be a pictograph of the night sky with key stars and constellations recorded.

Von Del Chamberlain's elegant analysis of the cosmology of the Pawnees is one of the most brilliant ethnographic studies of Native American astronomy. Chamberlain identifies major constellations in Pawnee astronomy, pointing out that they structured the world around the four cardinal, and especially semicardinal, positions. Morning and Evening Stars are associated with the east and west, and there are North and South Stars and four star pillar positions: the Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast. Identifying the particular stars in the heavens with these positions is difficult, but one association is clear: Polaris is the North Star. Chamberlain outlines the problems of identifying the Morning and Evening Stars with the planets, but he settles on Mars and Venus, respectively. The sun and moon are also linked: the Sun is Morning Star's younger brother and the Moon is Evening Star's little sister. The semicardinal positions– the star pillars holding up the earth lodge roof and cosmologically the universe. have several interpretations, including that they refer to no celestial bodies. One view sees them linked to planets: Mercury (red) to the Southeast, Saturn (yellow) to the Northwest, and Jupiter (white) to the Southwest. Northeast is a problem, because its color is black and there is no black star. Another view sees them as the stars along the ecliptic, representing Spica (Southwest), Antares (Southeast), Aldebaran (Northwest), and Regulus (Northeast). A final interpretation has them as the brightest stars: Capella (Northwest), Sirius (Southwest), Vega (Northeast), and Antares (Southeast).

Patricia J. O'Brien Kansas State University

Chamberlain, Von Del. When Stars Came Down to Earth. Los Altos CA: Ballena Press, 1982.

Wedel, Waldo R. "The Council Circles of Central Kansas: Were They Solstice Registers?" American Antiquity 32 (1967): 54–63.

Wilson, M. N. "Blackfoot Star Myths—The Pleiades." The American Antiquarian 15 (1893): 149–50.

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