Earth Notes - Star Lore

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Star Lore

Heavy with meaning, celestial bodies have exerted their gravitational pull on people's minds for thousands of years. Just consider some of the Southwest's common symbols. Red and gold sunrays stripe the state flag of Arizona. A Zia Pueblo sun glyph emblazons New Mexico's. Silent light daggers and incised sun spirals that kept cyclical time for long-vanished residents still mark ancient cliff dwellings and pueblos.

Today the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, or ASP, continues to share the skies by linking astronomers with local educators and students. In the Southwest, its NASA-funded outreach program brings cutting-edge science to Hopi and Navajo youths.

On their visits to reservation schools, ASP members provide teacher training, supply educational materials, and help conduct experiments or demonstrations. Hands-on activities and group projects, like building a comet from paper and cotton balls, overcome differences in culture and learning styles. In turn, local elders visit the classroom, telling traditional stories about what the Navajo call that which is placed in the sky.

The organization also facilitates nighttime star parties, like those hosted by Lowell Observatory under the dark skies of Anderson Mesa outside Flagstaff.

Such cross-cultural sky teachings take into account potential misunderstandings. For the Navajo, many traditional stories can only be told between first frost and first thunder. Certain taboos also exist involving looking at the moon and other astronomical objects.

With advance warning, though, many of the issues can be avoided, or neutralized through a ritual after which everyone can enjoy the star party.

-Michael Engelhard