“I’VE ALWAYS ADMIRED the stars,” says Wanda Yazzie (Diné), a member of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. “It’s just natural to look up and see what’s out there.”
Yazzie, the third oldest of 11 children, says her father would entertain them with night sky stories while growing up on Navajo Nation. “He’d talk about how the Holy Ones, when they were getting ready to build the sky, took great thoughtfulness to put all the stars in the sky,” she recalls. “Trickster Coyote got a turn to put a star in the sky, but he took the entire rug and threw them all up. That’s why there’s chaos.”
Beyond using what they saw to instill cultural values, New Mexico’s Indigenous groups have passed down knowledge through these stories. “Making sense out of your world is necessary,” Yazzie says. “In mainstream America, people don’t know how to make sense of the world because they’re stuck to their cellphones and laptops.”
A member of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society on and off over the past 15 years, Yazzie enjoys learning and sharing in camaraderie with other astronomers. She feels grounded by skywatching, which keeps her in tune with the seasons, and sees her interest in astronomy as being inseparable from a love and care for the environment. “You love nature, so you love the sky,” she says.
Taught to appreciate and respect Mother Earth and Father Sky, Yazzie remembers her mom asking her to come inside during a meteor shower. “You’re not supposed to see it,” she says. “It brings you bad energy. Father Sky is having a fight with another force.”
“Cultural astronomy depends on observations,” says Ray A. Williamson, author of Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian and a member of the Society for Cultural Astronomy in the American Southwest. “Forget models. Ask yourself, ‘What can I see?’ ” With a clear view east, anyone could witness the annual solar cycle. By keeping their eyes open and passing the information their observations revealed to others in that society, Native people built their knowledge base over time. “It becomes mind-bending to try to figure out how to develop a calendar you can count on every day of the year,” Williamson says. “The Western world took care of that in the days of Pope Gregory, by defining the month by this hodgepodge of days and setting it up so the equinoxes equal half a year.”
That model of a mechanized universe became the basis for scientific exploration. But most of the groups native to New Mexico set their calendars against what they saw in the sky. “It was a science of comparing observations with the memories of, usually, elders in the tribe,” Williamson says. Indigenous New Mexicans applied science—the same knowledge as Western science, embodied differently—to time ceremonies and activities like hunting, planting, and fishing.
“Navajo astronomy can best be understood within a much larger context of Navajo philosophy,” Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay write in Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy. “Every human action is considered cosmic and affects the web of universal relationship. This is similar to tenets of quantum physics in regards to principles of non-locality.”
The Navajos’ understanding of these tenets worked its way into their language and culture. “The sun, Jóhonaa’éí, is everything,” Begay says in a recorded presentation. “For example, when an elder sees a whirlwind, they’ll say, ‘It’s the sun acting.’ ” This belief is supported by heliophysics, the study of the sun, planets, and space as a dynamic system, and is defined by a focus on the sun’s turbulent magnetic activity and its effects.
Some of the most solid evidence of Ancestral Puebloans as skywatchers who developed precise understandings of celestial cycles exists in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, where Great Houses are oriented with the cardinal directions. Petroglyphs mark times of day and major lunar standstills while celebrating the duality of light and darkness.
Joe Saenz, chief of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, shares a creation story to illustrate why his people revere a balance in the duality of night and day, respecting securities and risks of each. “As two-leggeds, we rule the day and weren’t supposed to be out doing stuff at nighttime,” he says.
The Chiricahua Apache view having excess lighting as an act of arrogance and disregard for natural cycles. “Taking the night away is a disruption of the balance,” says Bill Bradford, secretary of state and attorney general at Chiricahua Apache Nation.