I recently spent a week in South Dakota with a group of OWU students as part of the Lakota Spring Break Interfaith Team sponsored by the Ohio Wesleyan Office of the University Chaplain.
The trip reminded me how dedicated many OWU students are to service. I also got a taste of a proud Lakota culture that stretches back many centuries but is now getting lost in the hubbub of modern society. The group we worked for, Lakota Youth Development, is attempting to preserve that culture by teaching young people its “language, culture and spirituality.”
But to an old stargazer like me, the main highlight of the trip was how beautiful the sky was from the Rosebud Reservation and its environs.
It seems strange to us moderns that the sky could generate beautiful stories and entire philosophical and religious systems. But then again, most of us have never seen the real sky, unpolluted by the stain of streetlights that cast their yellow glow on the velvet blackness of the night.
As I saw the real sky again from South Dakota, I was reminded of those old stories and the varied ways that cultures see the stars around the world.
I was also reminded that, despite the glow of light pollution, a few stars still remain bright, even from the depths of the cities. How many of us say that the Big Dipper was the first, and perhaps the only “constellation” we learned to recognize? The Dipper’s stars are bright, but another quality conspires to make it recognizable to most denizens of northern cultures.
From our northern latitude, the stars of the Big Dipper never quite set below the horizon. Over the course of a year, the Dipper moves slowly around Polaris, the northern Pole Star. When viewed at the same time from day to day during the early evening, the Dipper stars mark the course of the year and the change of seasons. In the autumn, the Dipper grazes the horizon under Polaris. During spring, it rides high above the pole. For early cultures, who lacked a definitive way of determining direction, the Dipper always pointed the way north.
Of course, most cultures don’t see a dipper in the pattern of stars. The ancient Greek and Roman cultures saw the hindquarters and inexplicably long tail of the bear Ursa Major. We borrow the ancient name to identify that patch of sky as the official astronomical constellation.
Hindus see seven wise men. The English see a hay wagon. The Chinese of the Sung Dynasty saw the Celestial Palace of the Immortals. In 19th-century America, runaway slaves followed the “Drinking Gourd” northward toward freedom.
The Lakota people, along with several other Native American tribes, also saw a bear but only in the bowl of the Dipper. The stars of the handle were hunters who ceaselessly chased the bear.
The Snohomish people, a Native American tribe who lived along Puget Sound near what is now the city of Marysville, Washington, tell a charming variation of that story — of some elk hunters who strayed a little too close to the sky.
Long ago, the story goes, the sky was much closer to the ground. In fact, the Sky Country was so low that tall people bumped their heads against it. Also, people sometimes climbed trees and entered the sky and turned into stars.
Wise men from all the tribes got tired of seeing their best and brightest disappear into the heavens. The wise ones gathered together to figure out what to do. They all agreed that they had to lift up the sky, but it was too heavy. At last, they decided that if all the people of the world lifted at the same time, they might manage to push up the sky.
The trouble was that all the different nations spoke different languages. Although the wise men had learned each other’s ways of speaking, the members of their tribes had not. Finally, the wise man of the southeast came up with a plan. He would make a signal loud enough for all the tribes to hear so that they could all lift together. He would use the word, “Ya-hoh,” which would mean “lift up the sky” in every language.
The wise men returned to their tribes to let them know about the plan. All the people of the earth heard about the project except for three brave hunters who were out tracking four noble elk through the woods.
All the tribes made long, long sky-lifting poles out of huge fir trees. When the time came to push, the southeastern wise man yelled, “Ya-hoh!” The wise men from the other tribes shouted, “Ya-hoh!” The sky lifted just a little. At just that moment, the three hunters had chased the elk far to the north where the sky touched the earth.
Again and again the wise men shouted “Ya-hoh,” and again and again the sky lifted a little, carrying the four elk and the three hunters higher and higher in the sky, where they turned into stars.
We can see the four elk as the four stars in the bowl of the Dipper. The four hunters joyfully and ceaselessly chase the elk as the stars of the handle. We must not mourn for them. They have become the stars, and yet they still have the joy of the hunt.
The work begun by those people long ago continues to this very day. We do it every time we look up at the stars. Our modern poles are telescopes. As they get larger, the Sky Country gets vaster and more beautiful and farther away. But our poles are better than those of the ancients.
We can lift the sky, but we can also be the hunters and touch the stars. Total knowledge is our prey, and someday we will catch it.
As we lift the sky, we lift ourselves as well. Ya-hoh, my sisters and brothers. Ya-hoh!
You can find out more about Lakota Youth Development at lakotayouthdevelopment.org.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.