Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 24, 2001 - Issue 32



Astonomy Played a Major Role in Region's Native Cultures


by Katie Burns Staff Writer North Country Times


 art Night Stories by R.C. Gorman

Before the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, American Indians in San Diego and Southwest Riverside counties used the sun, moon and stars extensively in creating stories, ceremonies and calendars. As the Indians' numbers dwindled, the two main tribal groups, the Luiseno to the north and the Kumeyaay to the south, lost much of their sky lore.

Now, a few Indians and a few researchers who specialize in archaeoastronomy ---- the study of the role of astronomy in ancient cultures ---- are trying to preserve remnants of the sky lore found in the memories of tribal elders and in accounts dating to the early 1900s.

"It's part of our own unique view of the world," said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga band of Luiseno Indians south of Temecula. "It's part of us here on the land, of the Luiseno people."

Every society is linked to the heavens by traditions, from wishing on a falling star to seeing the man in the moon. Macarro said the Luiseno believe a falling star is a star leaving a trail of smoke, while the direction of the horns ---- or tips ---- of a crescent moon indicate whether the coming month will be rainy or windy.

Astronomy played a part in the calendar of the Luiseno, as it does for most cultures. The changing positions of the sun and stars indicated the year's progress, while the waxing and waning of the moon denoted the months.

The sky also was an element in ceremonies. Observances of coming of age incorporated celestial imagery. Rites for the dead included songs to send the spirit along the Milky Way, the pathway to the sky in many societies.

The Kumeyaay and the Luiseno shared much of the same sky lore because they lived in neighboring regions and were influenced by a new native religion spreading down from the north.

Macarro said shamans, or religious leaders, oversaw many ceremonies. The shamans regarded some of their knowledge about the ceremonies as sacred. Their secretiveness coupled with the disapproval of missionaries prevented some of this sacred knowledge from being passed to the next generation, further fragmenting sky lore.

"It's a big loss," Macarro said. "It's a change that we've nonetheless had to accept."

Because so much sky lore already has been lost and because the subject area is so narrow, only a handful of researchers and Indians is trying to rediscover the function of astronomy in cultures native to the region.

"There's been no massive push to do archaeoastronomy in the area," said Ken Hedges, curator of California Collections at the San Diego Museum of Man.

What researchers and Indians do know is that astronomical aspects of Indian religion mingled with more practical matters, from keeping track of time to marking turning points in life.

In the beginning

Roberta Reed Osuna, a member of the cultural preservation committee of the Rincon San Luiseno band of Mission Indians, starts with the creation story, passed down by elders, when teaching children on the reservation near Valley Center about Luiseno heritage.

She said she wants to teach the children about the evolution of their culture.

"Living in a Native American community in this time, it's real crucial they understand who they are and what the old ones believed, and it helps them gain their own identity," she said.

Osuna said most of her knowledge of the role of astronomy in Luiseno culture is limited to the creation story. The tribe relies on the memories of elders, but the number of elders who remember the traditions also is limited. She said the Indians must find more ways to pass on their stories, especially the creation story, which touches on so many ancient Luiseno beliefs.

One part of the creation story, for example, explains the origin of stars. Ed Krupp, the director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and a prominent archaeoastronomer, writes about the story in the paper "The First Palomar Astronomers," which is still in press.

When death came to the world, Krupp writes, many of the First People retreated to the sky, where their chiefs became the primary stars, while the rest of the First People became mountains, rocks, animals and plants.

Like other groups, the Luiseno saw pictures among the stars.

"The Luiseno had their own constellations, like Sky Coyote, Eagle, Frog, just like the Greco-Roman constellations," said Steven Crouthamel, a professor of American Indian studies at Palomar College in San Marcos.

Astronomers today still use the same constellations as the ancient Romans and Greeks. But archaeologists in the early 1900s who knew little of astronomy tried to match the Luiseno constellations with the Greco-Roman ones, with only occasional success.

Macarro said Pleiades, a cluster of several stars, is a set of sisters who climbed a rope to the sky to flee Coyote. Behind the girls is Coyote, the star Aldebaran, who fell when they cut the rope.

The turning of the seasons

Like almost every society, the Luiseno and Kumeyaay also watched the sky to determine the seasons and the best time to plant, harvest, gather or hunt different foods.

"The Indians knew how to tell the seasons by watching the sun come up," Hedges said. "That's the horizon calendar, which is a universal calendar around the world."

Because the Earth is tilted, the sun is farther south in the sky in winter than summer, making winter days short and summer days long. The Indians marked the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, with the biggest celebration because the days begin to lengthen afterward, heralding spring.

"Winter solstice is a key element in most cultures because it's the turning point of the year," Hedges said. "It's when new life comes back."

As sites for their rituals, Hedges said, the Kumeyaay made designs from grapefruit-sized rocks to point to peaks behind which the sun rises on the solstice. Two such sites survived until the last few decades. Hedges said a trail maintenance operation destroyed one of the sites, a bisected circle on Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Park in San Diego. He said hikers probably moved the stones at the other site, a T-shaped design on a Viejas peak.

In a cave in Baja, the Kumeyaay also drew a red man with black eyes and squiggles from his head. On the solstice, a dagger of light moves across the eyes of the small sun shaman. Hedges said vandalism has mostly erased the figure.

Hedges said the rituals for the solstice might have included music and dancing. Crouthamel said the Indians also played games of chance with astronomical elements to predict the future.

The solstice might also have realigned the months, which didn't fit exactly into a year because the moon's cycle takes 28 days. The Indians used the months as another method of timing activities. In Big Wind-Whistling Moon month, or November, the Luiseno gathered acorns from the oaks of Palomar Mountain and other slopes.

Osuna said the Luiseno divide the months into two sections. To pass along this tradition to the next generation, the Rincon band of Luiseno Indians will do the first planting in a community garden this year at the full moon in March and the second planting at the month's new moon.

Rites of passage

Indians used astronomy to track the progress of their lives as well as processes of nature. For coming-of-age rites, Hedges said, the Kumeyaay and Luiseno depicted the universe with pictures made of charcoal, ochre, seeds and other materials.

"They made this ground painting into a diagram of the world," he said. "It's essentially a diagram of Earth and sky in one diagram."

In Luiseno culture, Krupp writes, the girls' initiation rite included a ground painting with three concentric circles, each broken at the top, surrounding several other symbols. The outside ring was white and stood for the Milky Way. The middle ring was black and stood for the night sky. The inside ring was red and stood for the root of existence, the spirit.

Hedges said the ground painting for Kumeyaay boys also included the Milky Way as a stripe down the middle of a circle that represented the horizon. Within the circle were the sun and moon along with stars and animals. Four mountains stood just outside the circle.

Hedges said rites for the dead might have included song cycles initiated by the passage of various stars past a given point, as in many southwestern Indian cultures.



San Diego Kumeyaay


LaJolla Band of Luiseno Indians




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