There were once seven boys who spent all of their time playing a game called gatayusi.
They would roll the stone gatayusi wheel along the ground, taking turns hitting it with sticks to push it along. These boys never worked in the fields, never helped their parents with the chores, and would only stop to eat and sleep.
Finally, their mothers were so fed up that they took some gatayusi stones and threw them in the pot with supper. When the boys came home to eat, they were offered the warmed gatayusi stones that they loved so much. Angry, as any young boy would be if denied dinner, they ran off, jointly deciding they would go to a place where they could play gatayusi and never bother anyone else ever again.
They danced, and sang, and prayed to the spirits to help them escape. After a time their mothers became worried, and found them in this ritual dance, the boys’ feet beginning to float away from the earth.
The mothers ran to their children, and one was even able to grab her son’s feet with the gatayusi stick and pull him back down. But the other six were too high, and they continued to float into the sky.
The six circled higher and higher, till they were just bright blue dots in the heavens, which the Cherokee still refer to as Ani’tsutsa (‘The Boys’).
The boy who fell back came down so hard that he sank into the ground and vanished. His mother wept over the spot every day, her tears watering a little shoot that began to sprout, and it grew into the first pine, showing that life on Earth is of the same nature as the stars.
You most likely know these six blue dots in the sky as the Pleiades, which the Greeks named in honor of the seven daughters of Atlas. Canada’s Cree Nation knows this open star cluster as Pakone Kisik, the hole in the sky where the original Star Woman came from, leading all other people to find their way after her.
Every culture has names and stories for the stars. Many have striking similarities, despite thousands of miles and thousands of years of separation.
The Big Dipper is an asterism for some of the stars that make up Ursa Major, ‘the Great Bear’ in Latin. The Iroquois have a story of hunters who chased a bear through the forest, where protective giants transported the bear to the heavens. The Zuni tribe tell of a great bear that protects from the ice gods of the north, and when the bear enters hibernation, the land is subjected to the gods’ icy breath till the bear returns in spring. In the Navajo story a maiden marries a bear, angering her father, who kills the bear. Her grief transforms her into a bear, bent on vengeance.
Manuel Lucero, Director of Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous People, is my ultimate “space nerd” brother. His upbringing as a member of the Cherokee Nation and background in American Indian Studies has brought him to Prescott to share these and many other stories from the people who inhabited this land for thousands of years, and continue to bring a rich and storied culture to our world. I urge you to take an afternoon and visit the Museum of Indigenous People at 147 N. Arizona Avenue. You’ll be amazed by the collection of artifacts and history, knowledge of art and culture, and even Native American astronomy.
If you would like to learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.
Adam England is the owner of Manzanita Financial and moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/insuredbyadam.