Unless you call them the Dancers, Holy Men, Caribou, Sharing Foxes, Brothers in a Boat, Crying Children, Coyote’s Daughters, People in a Boat, Raccoon’s Children, Hearts of the First People, Wise Men, Seeds, Puppies or Lost Children—depending on your American Indian heritage.
Though many cultures brand them as sisters, the seven stars that stand out in the cluster known today by its ancient Greek name the Pleiades have long been noticed, categorized, named and gossiped about. The Iroquois, Delaware, Carrier, Inuit, Haida, Salish, Paiute, Wiyot, Shasta, Luiseño, Chumash, Zuni, Cheyenne and Blackfoot have all labeled the shining collection, according to Western Washington University’s American Indian Starlore page.
On Saturday September 13, late at night—or just before bedtime, as Earthsky.org points out—those without cloud cover will be able to see the waning moon drift near the ethereal star group (it is not a constellation) that has inspired so many varied stories across the millennia.
Perhaps their allure lies in their very elusivity: To see them properly, one has to look away. This is because, as Earthsky.org explains, the light-sensitive rods in the retina are located at its outer edge, while those that register color are in the center.
“So when we look directly at something (as we do most of the time), we’re using the part of our eye that is most sensitive to color,” Earthsky.org says. “But when we look at something indirectly, looking to one side of it rather than directly at it, we’re using the part of our eye that’s most sensitive to faint light.”
The Pleiades are actually comprised of several hundred stars, according to Earthsky.org, and are literal siblings seeing as they all emerged from the same cloud of dust and gas about 100 million years ago.
“This gravitationally bound cluster of several hundred stars looms some 430 light-years distant, and these stars drift through space together at about 25 miles per second,” says Earthsky.org. “Many of these Pleiades stars shine hundreds of times more brightly than our sun.”
The Pleiades have nuzzled favorite sky sights before. A couple of years ago they visited with Venus.
There are almost as many stories about the cluster as stars contained therein. The sister theme comes into play among the Sierra and Paiute tribes of California, according to American Indian Starlore. The Aries Grizzly Sisters, so that legend goes, used to play with Deer Sisters, the Pleiades, in a cave.
“One day Grizzly mother ate Deer mother,” Starlore says. “Deer sisters retaliated by trapping Grizzly sisters in the cave.”
Most of the stories are sad, involving lost and/or crying children, abandoned wives or the fallen.
The Inuit tell of Nanuk the Bear, attacked by a pack of dogs. His bid to escape took him and his pursuers to the edge of the world, but so busy were they in the chase that they did not notice.
“Suddenly they all fell off the edge into the sky, where they all turned into stars (Pleiades),” Starlore recounts.
The Onondaga legend is one of several involving children—children who danced their way up into the sky, lightheaded from hunger. The adults who had told them they had enough to eat ran out as they were dancing and rising little by little skyward, but it was too little, too late, according to the website Firstpeople.us.
“One looked back and became a falling star,” Firstpeople.us says. "The others reached the sky and are now what we call the Pleiades, and the Onondagas Oot-kwa-tah. Every falling or shooting star recalls the story, but the seven stars shine on continuously, a pretty band of dancing children.”