Dec 17, 2013 - Oceti Sakowin Star Knowledge: Where Beauty, Science and Spirituality Meet, By Ruth Hopkins

Winter provides us with an amazing view of the night sky. Fresh beds of crystalline snow and ice reflect sunlight during the day, and moonlight at night. Here in the northern plains, the northern lights (aurora borealis) are most colorful and vibrant in the coming months.

Northern lights originate from clouds of gas (coronal mass ejections) from the sun. When these clouds collide with the magnetic field of Ina Maka (Mother Earth), particles are charged. When these charged particles mix with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, we see bright displays of light in the form of pulses, rippling curtains, or steady, soft glows. Above 150 miles altitude, you will see vivid reds. Greens are visible between 60 to 150 miles altitude, and blues, purples, and reds are seen under 60 miles altitude.

Freezing temperatures making the air cool and crisp combined with our wide open landscape mean a person would be hard pressed to find another place on the globe with such a dynamic vista of the stars. Under the right conditions, even the wanagi tacanku (Trail of Spirits, also called the Milky Way galaxy) is visible with the naked eye.

The Milky Way Galaxy, The Trail of Spirits


Besides aesthetic value, the stars hold a wealth of Native ancestral knowledge. Constellation legends have been passed down for countless millennia to generation after generation of Oceti Sakowin (People of the Seven Council Fires, also called the ‘Sioux Nation’). Stories like those about the Lakota hero Fallen Star entertained children while teaching them important values like courage, generosity, sacrifice, fortitude, and respect. Our ancestors also took note of significant astrological events too. There is evidence that our ancestors observed specific star bodies going supernova some 15,000 years ago, as well as the passage of comets, and the arrival of meteor showers.

Pleiades Constellation., The Seven Sisters

The stars hold tremendous spiritual significance to us as well. There is a ceremonial map in the stars directly over the Black Hills. It mirrors sacred places here on Earth. The stars above, reflected in the sacred hoop in the hills below, told us when and where to hold ceremonies. As the sun moved through constellations in the night sky, the site that directly correlated to that constellation would be utilized for a specific ceremony. For example, when and where to welcome back the thunders, hold sundance, or acknowledge when the spirits of the dead started their path through what the ancient Romans called Ursa Major (The Big Dipper), to begin their journey up the Trail of Spirits (the Milky Way). In this manner, the ceremonies followed the path of the sun. This natural sun path, along with sacred rites performed in unison and the actions of the people living according to these ancient practices, brought harmony to the Universe. This was, and is, the Red Road.

Lakota Constellations


 The stars were also used to help determine time, place, and seasons. The movement of the sun through constellations also aided our ancestors in knowing when to hunt, plant, harvest, and travel. (By the way, have you ever seen wildflowers under a full moon? They’re luminous.) Stars were crucial navigation tools too. Even at night one was never truly lost, as long as the stars were visible.

Star knowledge is crucial to our spiritual identity. Just as we fight to preserve Oceti Sakowin culture, language, and spiritual practices, we must also work to insure the survival of ancestral teachings like those concerning medicinal native plants and foods, and star knowledge. Remember, all things are connected. Each organism and natural feature holds a lesson beyond the scientific or practical. We didn’t compartmentalize our lives. Spirituality permeated everything we were and all that we said and did. All of these things are part of who we are and are by definition, Oceti Sakowin.

The further out in the country you are, away from manmade sources of light, the better your night time view will be. Even so, I can’t help but marvel at how beautiful the sky must’ve been to our ancestors, who weren’t subjected to power lines, street lights, city glow, or the beams of headlights. Their view was unimpeded by colonization and the trappings of western ‘civilization.’

Learn more about astronomy and our sacred star knowledge- and while you’re at it, embrace the cold one winter’s night. It’s definitely worth the trouble to spend some time outdoors in the dark this time of year to gaze upon the heavens. Wrap yourself in a quilt or a buffalo robe like our ancestors did, and come on out. Better yet, wrap your robe around someone you love, so you can both go out and stand in awe of the magnificent blanket of stars overhead, like our grandparents did.

Last Real Indians