Traditional Navajo will stay indoors. The Cherokee will showcase their Nation’s heritage. The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho will host events at their casinos. Throughout Indian country, tribes are striking a balance between traditions surrounding eclipses—which vary among the hundreds of Native cultures—and modern-day fascination with this astronomical phenomenon.
The Great Solar Eclipse of 2017 is taking Turtle Island by storm, uniting viewers and non-viewers alike in a feeling of overwhelming awe, whether it takes the form of a taboo or the urge to rush out and snag some special glasses. Right now, on Monday August 21, the moon is starting its pass between the Earth and the sun. It is set to completely blot out our star’s light for nearly three minutes along the 70-mile-wide path of totality, which runs from Salem, Oregon (Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, whose offices are closed all day) to Charleston, South Carolina.
This is the first time in 99 years that the United States has seen this phenomenon go from coast to coast, according to the Associated Press. And it is happening almost solely across North America. Just about the whole United States, and part of Canada and Mexico, will see at least a partial eclipse. The eclipse will also fall across bits of Russia and northern Europe, but the main event sends a slash mark through Turtle Island. The total eclipse will last longest near Carbondale, Illinois, at two minutes and 44 seconds as it passes over Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina before exiting land via South Carolina. “Tiny slivers” of Montana and Iowa will also see totality, the AP said.
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Reactions in Native traditions range from those who bang on pots and pans to scare away the “frog that’s trying to eat the sun” (Cherokee) to the Navajo and others, who stay indoors and close the blinds to give grandfather sun and grandmother moon the mating privacy they deserve. Some Navajo elders watched the annular eclipse of 2012 as it sliced across the reservation, while young people stayed inside. Regardless of tradition, it is most important not to stare directly at the sun at any time without verified eye protection. Lacking that, there are many ways to watch an eclipse safely.
For the Cherokee, it’s an opportunity to educate. Working with the Indigenous Education Institute, the Cherokee Nation is producing a video on “various Indigenous perspectives of what eclipses are and how they have been interpreted over time,” wrote Chief Bill John Baker in the Muscogee Phoenix.
“Our eclipse origin story of the giant frog swallowing the sun has now been recorded in Cherokee and will be featured in NASA’s film for the Goddard Space Center in Maryland.”
The Pueblo descendants of the ancient Chaco and Mesa Verde are taught to view them as just another transition, according to a post at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
“My Chacoan and Mesa Verde ancestors were astronomers. They marked Halley’s comet, we watched the sun, and we predicted eclipses,” a Laguna–Acoma Pueblo person from New Mexico told the NMAI. “The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon is a prime example of the science of my Puebloan ancestors. I asked my elders recently of any taboos with eclipses. I was told that they are a time of transformation and not to fear them. Those in our tribe who feel fear have done something wrong. They told me to pray with cornmeal, respect the silence, and accept the transformation coming.”
The Cherokee tell of a long-ago “giant, hungry frog” that would occasionally emerge to swallow the sun.
“When that happened, it got very cloudy or even looked like it was getting dark when the sun was swallowed,” according to Cherokee legend as told by Chief Bill John Baker in the Muscogee Phoenix. “Sometimes the frog even swallows the moon. The wise, old men hate this giant frog. Whenever the wise men would find out it happened, they would shoot guns and beat a drum or rattle turtle shell rattlers. The women would bang pots and pans together, scaring the giant frog away that was swallowing the sun up, so that the sun would shine again.”
The traditional Navajo taboo over watching an eclipse is born out of reverence rather than fear, according to the Institute for Diné Culture, Philosophy & Government.
“The belief is that the Jóhonaa’éí (Sun) is the ‘male’ and the Tł‘éhonaa’éí (Moon) is the ‘female,’ ” the institute said in an extensive post on Facebook after being “bombarded with calls and e-mails” asking for teachings and viewing advice. “The Sun is the most powerful ‘deity’ amongst all creation, here on earth and in the universe. The Sun is the epicenter of all creation. Nothing will live or function without the Sun.”
The obscuring of the sun at the brightest time of day represents both a death and a rebirth, the institute said.
“Due to the sacredness of birthing and renewal, strict and comprehensive acts of reverence must be observed,” the institute said. “Due to the very sacredness of death and birth, the reverence required to be displayed, during an eclipse is very strict and comprehensive (ts’ídá yéego hodílzin). There is only one way to be reverent during an eclipse. No short cuts exist. One cannot simply smudge ashes or corn pollen upon themselves and exit their homes and carry on as if it is just another day. The following acts of reverence must be carried out during an eclipse: Must stay inside, preferably your home; cannot eat or drink anything; cannot be asleep; cannot brush/comb your hair or wash yourself; cannot be in an intimate act with your spouse or the opposite sex, cannot needlessly move around, required to remain calm and still; cannot look outside, cannot look at the sun while the eclipse is occurring, yes it also means the shadow of the sun, through a pin hole or other apparatuses and one cannot be using the restroom.”
Prayers and reverence are the orders of the day—prayers “about the ending of bad, evil, and/or the ending of phases of life,” the institute said. “In addition, the prayers must be focused on birth/renewal that will arrive when the eclipse ends. Moreover, prayers must be about a better future.”
At Turtle Lodge in Canada, founder and spiritual leader Dave Courchene, Ojibwe, also called for reverence, and for looking toward the light.
“A solar eclipse is happening today,” wrote Courchene, Anishinabe Nation, Eagle Clan, known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man) in a statement from Turtle Lodge. “The fire of the sun is eclipsed by the darkness of humanity. Darkness may arrive for a time, but the light—the fire of the sun—will always return. The eclipse is an intimate union between sun and moon. The Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon are in a sacred union, giving birth to New Life on Earth.”
Indeed, given recent events in Charleston and the new light being shone on the roots of white supremacy, the path of totality presents an interesting parallel, wrote Clark Strand at the Garrison Institute.
“Look at the full path of the August 21 eclipse on a map and it resembles one of those circular signs with a diagonal bar running through it from top left to bottom right,” he wrote. “America is the circle, the eclipse is the strike-through. It’s like a giant icon slapped across our portion of the planet saying, ‘This Is Not Allowed.’ ”
This makes today a day of reflection as well as reverence, he points out.
“It’s that stray piece of opportunistic symbolism, elegant in its simplicity and understandable across all language barriers, that makes this eclipse noteworthy beyond its purely astronomical significance,” he wrote. “The ‘Great American Eclipse’ it is being called, because it is happening only in America and only to America. But it’s a black irony, that honor. Only those locked in the dark tower of American exceptionalism are blind to the fact that we are not exactly a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.”
Indigenous Peoples are hoping for a rebirth out of that darkness of perception.
“The eclipse is a sign from the Great Spirit,” wrote Courchene. “The Great Spirit is speaking to us. We are entering a new time, a time of change, a time when we need to ask ourselves where we are going. This is a time for establishing who we really are, our identity, as beings connected to love and peace. It is a defining moment where we find the power within ourselves.”