Indigenous Lore

1 07 2008

This morning I’m listening to a panel discussion on something near and dear to my heart — astronomical world views. The panel includes two Navajo astronomers, a Yucatan Mayan, and a native Hawaiian. The Navajo pair, Nancy and David, work as a team because native American lore relies heavily on both sexes. The translator and moderator for the panel, Isabel, is an Argentinian astrophysicist.

The great difficulty in conveying a world view in any subject begins with the language barrier. It’s more than just converting words, you have to feel the meaning of the words. All great storytellers have a style that draws in the listener and actually puts them into the story. I believe immersive environments like that found in a modern planetarium go a long way to help the storyteller create the feelings lost in translation.

As I listen to the speaker and then the translation I notice many participants looking about the room, or playing with their gadgets (I’m NOT playing with a gadget, I’m simply taking notes. :o) ) It takes time, patience, and great attention to listen to an entire speech in a foreign language, but I love gaining the huge leap in knowledge that comes with it.

There was a time when every culture looked upon the understanding of the sky as the greatest knowledge one could have. It was important. Those who understood the cyclic passage of time and could predict the changing seasons survived. Therefore the smartest of the population who kept track of astronomical changes became “holy men” in the eyes of their people. Great structures were built to serve as observatories to them, and their daily lives were focused upon astronomy (even if much of it was bent toward astrology). Modern folks still see those who can interpret what we can see overhead as very intelligent and wise. Still, viewing the science as nearly mystic knowledge there are few modernized people today can even find the north star.

The Hawaiian speaker made a deep statement: You only know where you are if you know from where you came.

The Maya and Navajo used astronomy to predict the changing seasons. The Maya were a stationary people who built large-scale structures as instruments for the people. The Navajo, being migratory, spread the knowledge through stories that were tied to their culture much like patriotism is tied to ours. Indeed, even their language is rooted in star lore. The Hawaiians didn’t need to predict winter (duh) but they did need to navigate with great accuracy.

What amazes me the most is that these people carry with them knowledge that hails from thousands of years in the past. They share a connection with the past that I may never understand. They participate in ceremonies and celebrate astronomical events as a society that Americans do not. Well, some do but they’re mostly nutjobs. How many times have you realized it was turning spring the day after? How many even know what that means?

I’m surprised at the number of astrophysicists and cosmologists who can’t point out many constellations and know very little star lore. So much of the field consists of time at a computer instead of a telescope that I feel there’s a loss of focus. I saw an example of this a couple of days ago in one of the domes when one of the planetarians talked about modeling the South Pole Void (which is a vast expanse of space without galactic clusters) for the scientist who discovered it, and though he had been working on for years he stood emotionally overcome at seeing it visually represented for the first time. That’s why planetariums are so important. Forget where we’ve come from; we’ve lost our attachment to where we are.

After learning the constellations I viewed the sky differently. It wasn’t just a random scattering to me anymore. The stars became friends that I could recognize and expect. I paid attention to the phase of the moon and the declination of the sun and the motions of Venus. And I associated spring with the rising of Arcturus. The cycles are very beautiful to me and their regularity makes me feel secure in turbulent times. When these people look at the sky, I wonder what they see.




2 responses

1 07 2008
Nick Jones

This is one of the more moving posts I’ve read. It is sad, and at times scary how detached most of the people we come in contact with truly are. Just this past year at college I became very good friends with someone; and it started out one night with me showing them constellations and telling the few stories I know. I feel that the vastness of space makes us seem so small that we find connections with those around us, with the hope that we might become something more.

4 07 2008
Trey French

I really enjoyed this. It gave me goosebumps. and i agree with nick it was very moving. It makes me want to go get a telescope and start looking. Ive never really just looked and viewed the beauty. I do remember when the AP Physics class went to your house and you were showing us your laser and i remembered how beautiful everything was and then i also got goosebumps. something i didnt really tell people cuz i thought they would think it weird. The city lights truly take the beauty out of the sky. If i were to go outside on a clear night I still would not be able to see all of what I did at your house that night. I think i will go get a telescope now. Thanks for the post and inspiring me further. I really appreciate it.

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