Utah resident Von Del Chamberlain, a renowned author and expert on Native American astronomy, gave a presentation during a packed conference put on by the Society for Cultural Astronomy in the American Southwest.
Non-native night sky viewers in the audience forgot what they learned in school about constellations, as Chamberlain shared Diné folklore of how they were created.
“Think back to the mythical time when the Diné emerged from the womb of Mother Earth into the Southwest,” Chamberlain says to a darkened meeting room at the Crow Canyon Archeology Center.
Holy people came into the creation circle, he said, and began to arrange crystals into patterns on a buckskin robe, then place them in the sky.
“These represent laws for living,” the holy man says. “Where should we put them?”
Feeling impatient and left out, a nearby coyote takes a crystal and puts it in the south, then grabs the buckskin and flings it, scattering the crystals to become the stars.
Not all of the stars made it into the sky, according to legend. Some fell back down and became Sonsela Buttes, just east of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona.
“In the saddle of the buttes, there used to be a large mass of crystal,” Chamberlain says. “Star Mountain on Hopi land has a similar story.”
There is a saying Diné farmers know well. “Don’t let Dilyehe see you plant,” referring to the Pleiades Constellation.
Farmers wait to plant until after the star is gone from the evening sky to avoid frost. If you plant when the star is in the morning, it is too late and the plants won’t mature.
Where non-native star gazers might see the tail of the constellation Scorpius, the Diné see Rabbit Tracks, a set of four stars that may signal when it’s time to hunt deer and antelope. More than 100 “Star ceilings” made by the Diné and earlier cultures are present in and around the caves and overhangs of Canyon De Chelly National Monument.
A Navajo interpreter told park rangers, “just as the stars keep the sky up, the star ceilings keep the rock from falling.”
Some star impressions were made by shooting burning yucca plants with a bow and arrow, according to a Navajo elder.
Traditional star patterns are also depicted on Navajo and Anasazi rock-art panels. They show up on panels near Farmington, at the Sand Dune site near Bluff, and at Comb Ridge.
“Diné rock art likely involved ceremonies now using sand paintings,” Chamberlain said.
Star patterns on ceremonial gourds are another way astronomy is depicted by the Navajo.
“In summary, Diné traditionally associate crystals with stars,” Chamberlain said. “The patterned stars remind us where the holy people put them to show people how to live, and the coyote reminds us of the scattered stars.”
Whether the Diné adopted star traditions from the Ancestral Puebloans or if it was the other way around is up for debate, he said.
“Throughout history is has been a common practice to put stars on ceilings, such as in churches, temples, museums, and planetariums,” Chamberlain said.