Written by Josh Smallwood (Cherokee)
I stumbled across Chumash Science Through Time while researching where in the Chumash Nation my wife and I should go for stargazing. I came across a video of respected elder Alan Salazar talking about Chumash astronomy and the summer solstice, recounting the Chumash story of the Pleiades constellation. In short, the story is about seven neglected boys who decide that because their mothers do not want them, they must leave (Talaugon 2018). Under the care of Raccoon, their friend and helper, the boys head off to the sweat lodge and begin to dance. The boys put goose feathers on their arms as they danced (Salazar 2018). They circle the sweat lodge clockwise and begin to lift off the ground as they went around and around. Transforming into geese, they fly up and around the sweat lodge three times and soar higher and higher into the sky toward the north (Talaugon 2018). They traveled so high they became stars, known today as the Pleiades.
What caught my attention was when Alan Salazar mentioned that the Chumash Pleiades story is similar to the Cherokee or Choctaw Pleiades story, but slightly different. Being of Cherokee descent, I do not know the Choctaw story, but I am familiar with the Cherokee story of the Pleiades, which we call The Boys, Ani’tsutsa (pronounced ani juja). With all due respect to Mr. Salazar, he incorrectly told the Cherokee story, which is much more similar to the Chumash story than he realized. Mr. Salazar has probably read and heard many stories from across Native America, and he was speaking off-the-cuff from his location on Mount Pinos during the Summer Solstice, so it is completely understandable that he might mix up some details of a story he had heard in passing. Here, I found an opportunity to not only correct the story, but to point out some relevant and interesting cross-cultural similarities.
This is the Cherokee story of The Boys told by Swimmer, a Cherokee traditionalist, storyteller, and Indian doctor in 1887 (in James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees [Mooney 1992:258–259]). The story, titled “Origin of the Pleiades and the Pine,” involves seven (sacred number of the Cherokee) boys who resented their parents and decided to leave. They performed a feather dance inappropriately and when they did, round and round they started to float up to the sky. The mothers tried but managed to grab the feet of only one of the boys. When he dropped back down to the earth he was swallowed by the ground. The other six went to the sky and became the Pleiades. The mother’s tears for her buried boy turned him into a pine tree.
There are many details in the story told by Swimmer which I will elaborate upon here. I also analyzed the Chumash and Cherokee stories of the Pleiades from a cross-cultural perspective, comparing the world view of two Tribes from opposite sides of Native America. Their homelands are situated along nearly the same northern latitude line but separated by 2,300 miles.
First, I must point out that the Chumash belief in high peaks as sacred mountains is the same as the Cherokee, as with other tribes. Also, the Chumash belief in the three worlds, upper (sky), middle (earth plane), and lower (below surface) are the same as the Cherokee, and the animals who inhabit those areas are believed to have powers based on their physical appearance or characteristics. Also, we share the same belief that animals were once humans, and therefore our stories often have animals in them whose actions explain why the world is the way it is. The particulars of the stories are different, of course, and often vastly different. We also have astronomy stories and believe our spirits travel the Milky Way. All of this is not to try and say we are similar people, because we are not. We are Native brothers and sisters, but our culture is, for the most part, vastly different.
Back to analyzing the story of The Boys. First, it is interesting that some Tribes refer to the Pleiades as boys, while others, girls. In fact, among California Indian Tribes, some refer to the Pleiades as boys and some girls; but there are always around seven children involved. The seven Cherokee boys got into trouble in the first place because they spent all their time playing the gatayusti game (rolling a stone disk with a curved stick) and neglected their chores. I have heard that the Chumash also have a curved stick and stone ball game similar to this.
To teach them a lesson, the Cherokee mothers boiled some gatayusti stones in a pot with corn, and when the boys came home hungry for dinner, the mothers served them the stones and said, “since you like the gatayusti more than the cornfield you can eat the stones for your dinner!” (Mooney 1992:258–259). The boys angrily headed off to the council house swearing they would go somewhere far away where they would not be any trouble to their mothers anymore. This, of course, is similar to the Chumash story. The boys are defiant to their mothers and decide they can do things how they please. This ultimately results in their life being cut short and they being made an example for the world to see and never forget.
The Cherokee Boys danced counterclockwise performing the Feather Dance around the council house praying to the spirits to help them and using the white crane feathers in their dance.
Cherokee dances are performed in a counterclockwise motion (left) around the sacred fire (center) because that is the Cherokee’s sacred direction. It is the direction that the stars move across the sky. It is also the direction of the whorl on the left-handed lightning whelk, which is the sacred shell of the Cherokee used as the vessel to serve a purification drink and for carving special pendants. It is interesting that other Tribes such as those on the Plains and the Chumash dance in a clockwise motion. Perhaps this reflects a different cosmological ideology. Perhaps it is an effort to “balance” the earth in a universe that spins counterclockwise. I do not know.
As the Boys danced every round, they started to ascend higher and higher. The Chumash boys used white goose feathers, while the Cherokee Boys used white crane feathers. Both groups of boys were performing dances they were not supposed to perform, out of defiance for their mothers. And, both groups of boys were performing the dance around a sweathouse or council house where they are not supposed to be dancing, again out of defiance. This is a lesson to children that our dances are sacred and not to be performed in an incorrect manner.
To provide a little background, the Feather Dance is widespread among the Southeastern Tribes and is performed as part of the Green Corn Ceremony. The dancers, from the Bird Clan, employ cane wands with four white crane feathers tied to the ends, and bird songs are sung to honor them. The dances are not performed around a council house. Instead, there are seven arbors where members of each of the seven Cherokee clans are positioned around the sacred dance grounds. Again, the story depicts a scene where the Boys are defiant in their choices.
By this time, the mothers had gone looking for their boys out of worry and saw them floating above the earth. They reached up to grab their feet, but they were too high up; all but one whose mother managed to grab him with a gatayusti stick. But when he fell back to earth, he hit the ground so hard he was buried. The other six boys ascended higher and higher until they became stars in the sky. The mother of the buried boy cried and cried each day until a sprout came up and eventually grew into a tall pine.
The Southeastern portion of Native America has numerous varieties of pines, of course, and this particular pine was a special pine; the red spruce. The red spruce grows at high elevations, measures from 130 to 150 ft tall, and grows to be 450+ years old. Its sap is used by many Eastern Woodlands Tribes for chewing gum, and its wood is superb for carving and woodwork. Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, known in Cherokee as Attakulla, at 6,684 feet elevation, is the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River. It is a sacred place for star gazing and communing with the Great Spirit. The red fir grows up to just below the rocky peak of Attakulla. It is perhaps for this reason that the seventh boy became this pine, because he was the closest reaching to the stars. Interestingly, an Onandaga legend of The Boys portrays a similar fate for the seventh boy, but in that story the seventh boy falls and becomes a shooting star. Every shooting star reminds the Northeastern Tribe of the story.
Perhaps the pines at Mount Pinos are special, too, because of their relationship to the stars, reaching up as high as they can toward the heavens. Jeffrey Pines can reach 200 feet tall and 600+ years old. Mount Pinos summit, at 8,847 feet, is the highest peak in the Chumash Nation and a sacred place to the Chumash. The Chumash name for Mount Pinos is Iwihinmu, and the summit, Liyikshup, the center of the world.
In summary, the story of The Boys tells us, and our children, that there are certain rules that should be followed in life. As children, we must not be defiant to our mothers. We must follow certain protocols when it comes to ceremonies. We must be good. The Great Spirit told us so through the placement of the stars. These stories are in the stars to remind us every night, throughout the year, and forever, the lessons of The Boys.
Mooney, James. 1992. James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Bright Mountain Books, Fairview, North Carolina.
Salazar, Alan. 2018. Indigenous Astronomy: Beyond the Chumash Arborglyph. The Chumash Science Through Time Project. Found at: https://chumashscience.com/2018/09/11/indigenous-astronomy-beyond-the- chumash-arborglyph/.
Talaugon, Sabine. 2018. Indigenous Astronomy: Beyond the Chumash Arborglyph. The Chumash Science Through Time Project. Found at: https://chumashscience.com/2018/09/11/indigenous-astronomy-beyond-the- chumash-arborglyph/.