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

Oct 12, 2023, 2:29 PM

A sunset spectacle featuring two mitten-shaped rock formations crosses Monument Valley Tribal Park ...

A sunset spectacle featuring two mitten-shaped rock formations crosses Monument Valley Tribal Park from the Visitors Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, Az. on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Vyto Stairnksas)

(AP Photo/Vyto Stairnksas)

PHOENIX (AP) — For a few hours, Krystal Curley and her Indigenous women’s work group took over a college auditorium to share traditional Navajo practices regarding this weekend’s highly anticipated solar eclipse. More than 50 people — young and old — showed up for the chance to either connect with or remember cultural protocol going back hundreds of years.

They laid out books on Navajo astronomy and corn pollen used for blessings. A medicine man fielded questions from the majority Navajo, or Diné, audience on what to do when the moon partially shrouds the sun.

Don’t: Look at the eclipse, eat, drink, sleep or engage in physical activity.

Do: Sit at home and reflect or pray during what’s considered an intimate, celestial moment.

“There’s so many things we’re not supposed to do as Diné people compared to other tribes, where it’s OK for them to look at the eclipse or be out or do things,” said Curley, executive director of nonprofit Indigenous Life Ways.

The belief is pronounced on the Navajo Nation but not shared among all Indigenous cultures North, Central and South America that will be in the primary viewing path for the “ring of fire” eclipse Saturday. Navajo, which has the largest reservation in the U.S., is closing well-known tourist destinations like Monument Valley and the Four Corners Monument to allow residents to be at home with curtains drawn in silence.

Navajo-led tour companies also will cease operations during the phenomenon. Some Indigenous groups elsewhere are using the occasion to pass down cultural teachings, share stories and ensure members, especially younger generations, learn sacred traditions.

In Navajo culture, an eclipse is about solemnity — not spectacle. It marks the end of a cycle and the power of when the moon and sun are in alignment. When the sun is blocked, it is undergoing a rebirth. It also is seen as the moon and the sun embracing each other.

Paul Begay, a Navajo cultural adviser for guided hikes with Taadidiin Tours in Antelope Canyon, plans to quietly sit at home in Page, Arizona. Begay said he was taught from a young age that deities are responsible for creation starting with the first man and first woman, who traveled through four worlds.

Begay described an eclipse as a disturbance, or death of the sun, which is considered a father figure in Navajo. Out of respect, he said, all activity stops.

“It’s just a show of reverency, a show of being the way the holy people would want you to be,” Begay said. “Of course, the eclipse will subside in due time and activities go back to normalcy.”

Shiyé Bidzííl, who is Navajo and Lakota, plans to view it with his 12-year-old twin sons and 11-year-old daughter outside their home in Chinle, Arizona. He even bought special viewing glasses last week. Bidzííl, who says Lakota believe they descend from “Star People,” grew up finding stargazing compelling and wants to educate his children on the significance of the celestial alignment.

“My sons, they’re all into stars and space and planets and moons, things like that,” Bidzííl said.

In southern Oregon, GeorGene Nelson, director of the Klamath Tribes’ language department, says no tribal tradition dictates that she hunker down. She will be part of an educational panel at Running Y Resort in Klamath Falls. She wants to share eclipse-related stories from the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin-Paiute people.

The story she learned is that a grizzly bear is trying to eat the moon. Meanwhile, a frog jumps on the moon and the moon decides to keep the frog as his wife so she can chase away the bear. The frog ends up married to the sun, too.

“Our people used to gather when these eclipses started happening … calling for the frog to come,” Nelson said. “When the eclipse is over with, then that’s the frog being successful in chasing the grizzly bear.”

Klamath Tribes officials won’t be able to avoid the eclipse-driven fanfare. EclipseFest23, a festival in Klamath County roughly 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Crater Lake National Park, started Tuesday. The five-day celebration features food trucks, a beer garden and rock band Smash Mouth, performing Saturday. The county’s 60,000-plus population could double by Saturday with all the extra foot traffic, said Tim Sexton, Klamath Tribes fire program manager.

“Just the sheer number of people over here at one time looking for places to stay overnight or even places to have a nice view of the eclipse could unwittingly (do) damage,” Sexton said. “A lot of these areas are remote. With this number of people, there’s a tendency for folks to not want to stay in a big crowd and they’ll go to areas they haven’t seen visitors for a while.”

In Oklahoma off the premiere path of the eclipse, other tribes are recounting origin stories of eclipses, said Chris Hill, a cultural specialist for Native American programming in Tulsa Public Schools. In his own Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribe, the 66 tribal towns each have a unique story surrounding eclipses, he said.

The story he grew up with was that a rabbit being chased by a little boy transformed into a “little person” and offered the boy three wishes. After food and friends, the boy asked for shade. So, the little person lobbed cornmeal at the sun, covering it, and proclaimed the moon and sun have been brought together. The little person then teaches the boy a “friendship dance.” The eclipse symbolizes that friendship.

“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, too,” Hill said.

Still, there are a lot of people who are “colonized” and don’t follow tradition, he added.

Curley, of Indigenous Life Ways, wants to do more workshops to educate Natives about celestial events — even giving them corn pollen, or tádídíín, for the post-eclipse offering.

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

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