Two Native American Stories Explain the Sky

      As the weather warms, we begin spending more and more time outside. Those who appreciate the night sky can brave going out and seeing the myriad of stars. It is a humbling experience, and one which stirs something within us. We seemingly have always wondered the hows and whys of the cosmos. Our thoughts were reflected in the stories our ancestors told. Two of my favorite come from the Navaho and Cherokee Native Americans. One relates the origin of the stars in the night sky, the other tells where the Sun came from.

      The Navaho tell a story which begins a very long time ago, before the two leggeds walked the Earth. Back then, there were no stars in the night sky, and there was no moon. The nights were very dark, and all the animals would bump into each other. Finally the animals decided to ask Great Spirit for help.

      The animals gathered and talked to Great Spirit. They told Great Spirit that they were grateful for all they had, yet they wanted something else, to be able to see at night. Great Spirit nodded and smiled and told the animals "watch me, little ones." He then picked up a bright shiny stone from a stream and placed it in the sky, where it became a star. "This is the home star" Great Spirit explained "it does not move, use it to find your way home when you are lost"

       Then Great Spirit told the animals to go collect up piles of the shiny stones and carry them up into the sky and make pictures of themselves. The animals began the task, but soon the little animals grew tired. After awhile longer, the bigger animals also grew tired.

      Back they went to Great Spirit and asked for more help. "Go to Coyote" Great Spirit said "tell him to help you." And so they did. Now Coyote thought he was the wisest and most clever of all the animals, and he did not want to waste his time helping the other animals. Still, he also did not want to offend Great Spirit. So coyote told the animals to leave their stones with him, and he would finish the job for them. After the animals left, Coyote began thinking of what a grand picture of himself he would create in the sky, "it will be better than all the others," he thought.

     Suddenly Coyote was reminded that he must finish the animals work. Hurriedly he snatched up the bag of stones and flung them up into the air. And that is why not all constellations appear finished, and why some do not look like what they are. But, coyote was punished for his treachery, for in his haste, he forgot to save stones for his own picture, and that is why Coyote howls at night!

      The Cherokee tell of a time when there was no Sun in the sky, a time when it was always dark. It was a problem for all the animals and they called a meeting to decide what could be done about it. Woodpecker said that he had heard that people on the other side of the world had light, and perhaps they would give the animals some. Fox said that such people must be greedy people, to have all the light, and that the animals would have to just take some.

      Possum offered to be the one to go. He said he could hide the bit of light in his bushy tail, and so he set out. Possum traveled for a long time until finally he saw light in the sky. The closer he got to the light, the brighter it was and the more it hurt his eyes and possum began to squint, and that is why even today a possum squints and only comes out at night. But possum kept going until he reached the Sun, and snatched a piece of it and hid it in his tail. The bit of Sun was very hot however, and it burned off all the fur on Possum's tail and the light went out. When possum got home, all he had was a tail with no fur, just like today!

      Next, buzzard offered to go, he said he would balance the piece of Sun on his fine head feathers. Quickly buzzard flew off and when he reached the Sun, he dove down and grabbed a bit in his feet and placed it on his head. But the Sun was so hot it burned off his head feathers, and that is why buzzard is bald today!

      Now the animals were ready to give up. Just then Grandmother Spider spoke up in a voice so small she was hard to notice. But she offered to go, and the animals, though they did not have much 
hope, wished her luck. Grandmother spider spun a bit of web the whole way to the west, and when she reached the Sun, she spun a tiny web and placed a bit of the Sun on the web. Then she began the journey back home. Imagine the surprise and delight of the animals when they saw that first light spreading across the sky!

      The animals thanked Grandmother and promised to always honor her. And that is why today, the web of the spider is shaped like the disk and rays of the Sun!

Copyright © 2001 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II