In many Indigenous cultures, a solar eclipse is more than a spectacle. It’s for honoring tradition

by Joshua Brown
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Indigenous Eclipse Traditions

In numerous Indigenous cultures, a solar eclipse transcends mere spectacle; it serves as a moment of profound reverence for tradition.

Krystal Curley and her group of Indigenous women recently commandeered a college auditorium to impart the ancestral Navajo practices associated with the highly anticipated solar eclipse of the weekend. Over 50 individuals, spanning different generations, assembled to either reconnect with or learn about customs that have endured for centuries.

On display were books delving into Navajo astronomy and sacred corn pollen, employed for blessings. A respected medicine man was on hand to address queries from the predominantly Navajo, or Diné, audience regarding the appropriate conduct when the moon partially veils the sun.

The guidelines were clear:

  • Don’t gaze directly at the eclipse.
  • Refrain from eating, drinking, sleeping, or engaging in physical activities.
  • Instead, stay at home, engage in reflection, or partake in prayer during this intimate celestial juncture.

Curley, who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Indigenous Life Ways, remarked, “There’s so much we’re instructed not to do as Diné people, unlike other tribes where it’s permissible to view the eclipse or be outdoors during such events.”

While this belief is deeply ingrained within the Navajo Nation, it is not universal among all Indigenous cultures across North, Central, and South America, even though many of them will be in the prime viewing path for the “ring of fire” eclipse on Saturday. The Navajo, whose reservation is the largest in the United States, are closing well-known tourist destinations like Monument Valley and the Four Corners Monument to enable residents to remain at home in quiet contemplation.

Navajo-led tour companies are also suspending operations during this celestial phenomenon. Elsewhere, some Indigenous groups are seizing this moment to transmit cultural teachings, share stories, and ensure that their members, particularly the younger generation, grasp the significance of sacred traditions.

In Navajo culture, an eclipse signifies solemnity rather than spectacle. It signifies the culmination of a cycle and the potency inherent in the alignment of the moon and sun. When the sun is obscured, it symbolizes rebirth and the embrace between the moon and the sun.

Paul Begay, a cultural adviser of Navajo heritage, plans to observe the eclipse quietly at home in Page, Arizona. He was educated from a young age about the deities responsible for creation, commencing with the first man and woman who traversed four worlds. Begay describes the eclipse as a disruption or the sun’s demise, considering the sun a paternal figure in Navajo tradition. Out of reverence, all activities come to a halt.

“It’s a demonstration of reverence, of adhering to the ways that the holy people would desire,” Begay affirms. “Of course, the eclipse will pass in due time, and normalcy will resume.”

Shiyé Bidzííl, of Navajo and Lakota descent, intends to observe the eclipse with his 12-year-old twin sons and 11-year-old daughter outside their home in Chinle, Arizona. He even procured special viewing glasses last week. Bidzííl, whose Lakota heritage believes in descent from “Star People,” has always found stargazing captivating and wishes to impart the significance of celestial alignments to his children.

“My sons are deeply interested in stars, space, planets, and moons,” Bidzííl shares.

In southern Oregon, GeorGene Nelson, the director of the Klamath Tribes’ language department, has no tribal tradition dictating seclusion during the eclipse. She will participate in an educational panel at Running Y Resort in Klamath Falls, where she plans to share eclipse-related narratives from the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin-Paiute people.

One such story recounts a grizzly bear attempting to devour the moon, while a frog intervenes, ultimately marrying both the moon and the sun. Nelson elucidates, “Our people used to gather when these eclipses started happening, calling for the frog to come. When the eclipse is over, that’s the frog being successful in chasing the grizzly bear.”

Klamath Tribes officials cannot evade the eclipse-induced enthusiasm. EclipseFest23, a five-day festival near Crater Lake National Park, has already commenced in Klamath County. With an influx of visitors, the county’s population of 60,000 may double by Saturday, necessitating precautions to protect remote areas from potential damage.

In Oklahoma, beyond the primary eclipse path, other tribes are recounting origin stories related to eclipses. Chris Hill, a cultural specialist for Native American programming in Tulsa Public Schools, explains that his Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribe possesses unique stories about eclipses within its 66 tribal towns.

One such story involves a rabbit being chased by a young boy, transforming into a “little person” and offering the boy three wishes. After requesting food, friends, and shade, the little person hurls cornmeal at the sun, covering it and declaring the moon and sun united. The eclipse symbolizes this union.

“During that time of the eclipse, we all pay homage, we all get silent. We all basically don’t do anything during that time. But we also prepare medicines for that time,” Hill elucidates.

Nevertheless, Hill acknowledges that some individuals have strayed from these traditions due to colonization.

Krystal Curley, representing Indigenous Life Ways, aspires to conduct further workshops to educate Native individuals about celestial events. She seeks to impart corn pollen, or tádídíín, for post-eclipse offerings, recognizing the hunger for preserving traditional knowledge among young people.

“We know people are hungry for traditional knowledge,” Curley affirms. “I’m really thankful our young people are really interested in preserving our ways.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Indigenous Eclipse Traditions

What is the significance of the solar eclipse in Indigenous cultures?

In Indigenous cultures, a solar eclipse holds deep significance beyond being a mere spectacle. It is regarded as a moment of profound reverence for tradition, marking the end of a cycle and symbolizing the power of the alignment between the moon and the sun. It is seen as a celestial embrace between these celestial bodies.

Why do some Indigenous cultures have specific guidelines during a solar eclipse?

Different Indigenous cultures have distinct beliefs and practices associated with solar eclipses. For example, in Navajo culture, there are specific do’s and don’ts during an eclipse. People are advised not to look at the eclipse, eat, drink, sleep, or engage in physical activity. Instead, they are encouraged to sit at home, reflect, and pray during this intimate celestial moment. These guidelines are rooted in their cultural traditions and beliefs.

Are these eclipse traditions universal among all Indigenous cultures?

No, these eclipse traditions are not universal among all Indigenous cultures. While some, like the Navajo, observe specific customs during eclipses, it varies among different Indigenous groups across North, Central, and South America. Each culture may have its own unique beliefs and practices related to solar eclipses, and these traditions are not necessarily shared by all Indigenous communities.

How do Indigenous communities use solar eclipses as an opportunity for cultural preservation?

Some Indigenous communities view solar eclipses as an opportunity to pass down cultural teachings, share stories, and ensure that younger generations learn about sacred traditions. Workshops and educational panels are organized to impart knowledge about celestial events and the cultural significance of eclipses. This serves as a means of preserving and transmitting their cultural heritage to the next generation.

What are some of the stories and beliefs associated with solar eclipses in Indigenous cultures?

In various Indigenous cultures, there are unique stories and beliefs related to solar eclipses. For example, one story involves a grizzly bear trying to eat the moon, with a frog intervening to protect the moon. The frog ends up marrying both the moon and the sun. These stories often carry deeper symbolic meanings within their respective cultures and are an integral part of their oral traditions.

How do Indigenous communities handle the influx of tourists during significant solar eclipses?

In regions where solar eclipses are significant, such as the Navajo Nation, some Indigenous communities take measures to accommodate the influx of tourists. They may close well-known tourist destinations and suspend certain activities to allow residents to observe the eclipse in a solemn and culturally appropriate manner. These measures help protect remote areas from potential damage caused by large crowds.

What is the broader message conveyed by Indigenous communities during solar eclipses?

The broader message conveyed by Indigenous communities during solar eclipses is one of reverence for tradition, nature, and the celestial world. These moments are seen as opportunities to connect with ancestral customs, reflect on the natural world, and pass down sacred knowledge to future generations. It emphasizes the importance of cultural preservation and respect for the natural order.

More about Indigenous Eclipse Traditions

  • “Navajo Nation: Eclipse an opportunity to learn culture, not view phenomenon” – Link
  • “Indigenous Solar Eclipse Teachings” – Link
  • “EclipseFest23 in Klamath County” – Link
  • “Solar Eclipse Traditions in Indigenous Cultures” – Link
  • “Cultural Specialist Chris Hill on Indigenous Eclipse Traditions” – Link

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