Indigenous Astronomy: Beyond the Chumash Arborglyph

Indigenous cultures all over the world use their knowledge of the solar system to navigate land and water, keep calendars, predict weather, and inform culture. Like most forms of indigenous science, storytelling carries traditional astronomical knowledge from generation to generation. Unfortunately for many indigenous people like the Chumash, colonization has taken a toll on our ability to maintain our relationship with the stars. Yet, we honor the bits of knowledge that maintained and thank our elders who have carried these stories.

In the Chumash Astronomy video below, Alan Salazar (Chumash, Tataviam) speaks from Mt. Pinos after a Chumash Summer Solstice Ceremony. A traditional gathering place for the Chumash ‘antap (society of spiritual leaders), Mt. Pinos continues to be a one of the best places in Southern California for stargazing.


Video of Mt. Pinos sky by Stephen Confer


Joe Talaugon (Chumash) talks about a Chumash Arborglyph, a recently re-discovered astronomical record that tracks the Earth’s relationship to the Sun and the movement of the Big Dipper around the North Star throughout the year. This Arborglyph research has been instrumental in recognizing the evidence that Chumash and Yokut people were painting maps of the stars and marking positions of the Sun on the horizon, while the Europeans still thought the earth was still flat. You can learn more about the Arborglyph in this post.

Alan also mentions the story of the star cluster Pleiades, located in the constellation of Taurus. The Chumash story of Pleiades is about seven neglected boys who are taken under the care of Racoon. The boys decide that because their mothers do not want them, they must leave. Upon this decision, they circle a sweat lodge clockwise and begin to lift off the ground as they move. The next day, they try to get Racoon to fly with them by covering him with down, but sadly he cannot. Transforming to geese, they fly up and around the sweat lodge three times, now in the presence of their remorseful mothers. The boys who became geese fly north and their mothers follow.

Pleiades is present in many traditional stories across indigenous nations. According to Western Washington University’s American Indian Starlore page, the Paiute tell a Pleiades story of Deer sisters trapping the Grizzly in a cave after the Grizzly had eaten their mother, and the Western Mono Tribe tell a Pleiades story of six wives who when scorned by their husbands, go up to the sky to live.

In recent years, western science has begun to recognize indigenous astronomy. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has recognized four stars by their Wardaman and Boorong names that have been carried through storytelling traditions of indigenous people of Australia.

Indigenous astronomers are key to connecting traditional knowledge with western science.  Kamilaroi astronomer Karlie Noon has championed traditional meteorology. Indigenous people throughout Australia used a moon halo – a bright ring visible around the moon when there are ice crystals in the air – to predict the weather. Storytelling traditions instructed the people to count the number of stars between the moon and the halo, to calculate rainfall.

What is considered science, and in this case astronomy, is often defined by strict boundaries that do not leave room for the ways in which indigenous people use and communicate their scientific knowledge. We celebrate the resilience and resurgence of indigenous astronomy through storytelling, research, and education.