Meteors: Native American Folklore

In ancient times, objects in the night sky conjured superstition and were associated with gods and religion. But the misunderstandings about meteors lasted longer than those of most celestial objects.

Meteorites (the pieces that make it to Earth) were long ago thought to be cast down as gifts from angels. Others thought the gods were displaying their anger. As late as the 17th Century, many believed they fell from thunderstorms (they were nicknamed "thunderstones"). Many scientists were skeptical that stones could fall from the the clouds or the heavens, and often they simply didn't believe the accounts of people who claimed to have seen such things.

In 1807, a fireball exploded over Connecticut, and several meteorites rained down. By then, the first handful of asteroids had been discovered, and a new theory emerged suggesting meteorites were broken bits off asteroids or other planets. (A theory that still holds.)

One of the most significant meteorite events in recent history destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest in Siberia on June 30, 1908. Across hundreds of miles, witnesses of the Tunguska event saw a ball of fire streak through the sky, suggesting the meteor entered the atmosphere at an oblique angle. It exploded, sending out hot winds and loud noises and shaking the ground enough to break windows in nearby villages. Small particles blown into the atmosphere lit the night sky for several days. No meteorite was ever found, and for years many scientists thought the devastation was caused by a comet. Now, the prevailing theory holds that a meteor exploded just above the surface.

The largest meteorite recovered in the United States fell in a wheat field in southern Nebraska in 1948. Witnesses saw a giant fireball in the afternoon that some said was brighter than the sun. The meteorite was found buried 10 feet deep in the ground. It weighed 2,360 pounds.

The most famous meteorite crater in the United States is misnamed Meteor Crater. It's in Arizona, and it's huge. The rim rises 150 feet from the surrounding plain, and the hole is 600 feet deep and nearly a mile wide. It was the first crater proved to be caused by a meteorite impact, which occurred between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago.

For decades astronomers have reaped the values of written records kept for over 2500 years in China and Europe. Eclipses, planets, and comets are mentioned and have brought about refinements to our current understanding of the long-term motion of these bodies‹especially for comets such as Halley and Swift-Tuttle. Several meteor showers have also been identified which brought about a better understanding of their evolution as well.

No other culture can provide comparable information as that gathered from the Chinese and European records, but this need not be a deterrent from learning about how other cultures felt about these moving bodies in the sky and one of the richest regions of meteor and comet lore in the world is North America.

During the last 15 to 20 years, archeoastronomy has uncovered much concerning the astronomical beliefs of native Americans. Unfortunately, the methods of keeping records of astronomical events were not as straight forward as those of the Chinese and Europeans, as there are no books lying around. Instead, the methods of record keeping included rock and cave drawings, stick notching, beadwork, pictures on animal skins and jars, and story telling‹most of which are not dateable. One of the few dateable events among the various records of native Americans was the 1833 appearance of the Leonid meteor shower. Historically recognized as one of the greatest meteor storms on record, it made a lasting impression among the peoples of North America.

The most obvious accounts of the Leonid storm appear among the various bands of the Sioux of the North American plains. The Sioux kept records called "winter counts," which were a chronological, pictographic account of each year painted on animal skin. In 1984, Von Del Chamberlain (Smithsonian Institution) listed the astronomical references for 50 Sioux winter counts, of which 45 plainly referred to an intense meteor shower during 1833/1834. In addition, he listed 19 winter counts kept by other plains Indian tribes, of which 14 obviously referred to the Leonid storm.

The Leonids also appear among the Maricopa, who used calendar sticks with notches to represent the passage of a year, with the owner remembering the events. The owner of one stick claimed records had been kept that way "since the stars fell." The first notch on his stick represented 1833.

Story telling was a very important method of record keeping among most native Americans and several seem to have been influenced by the Leonids of 1833. A member of the Papago, named Kutox, was born around 1847 or 1848. He claimed that 14 years prior to his birth "the stars rained all over the sky."

A less obvious Leonid reference may exist in the journal kept by Alexander M. Stephen, which detailed his visit with the Hopi Indians and mentions a talk he had with Old Djasjini on December 11, 1892. That Hopi Indian said "How old am I? Fifty, maybe a hundred years, I can not tell. When I was a boy of so big (eight or ten years) there was a great comet in the sky and at night all the above was full of shooting stars‹ah! that was a very long time ago, maybe a hundred years, maybe more." During the probable lifetime of Old Djasjini there was never a "great comet" and a sky full of meteors in the same year, but he might be referring to two separate events such as the sungrazing comet 1843 I and the great Leonid storm of 1833, both of which occurred early in his life.

The Pawnee have a story about a person known as Pahokatawa, who was supposedly killed by an enemy and eaten by animals, but then brought back to life by the gods. He was said to have come to Earth as a meteor and told the people that when meteors were seen falling in great numbers it was not a sign that the world would end. When the Pawnee tribe witnessed the time "the stars fell upon the earth," which was in 1833, there was a panic, but the leader of the tribe spoke up and said, "Remember the words of Pahokatawa" and the people were no longer afraid.

Although the Pawnee learned not to be afraid, there were native Americans who feared meteors. Why such beliefs came about is almost impossible to guess, but some of the best examples are as follows:

  • The Blackfeet of Montana believed a meteor was a sign that sickness would come to the tribe in the coming winter, or that a great chief had just died.
  • The Kawaiisu (California) thought a meteor that started high and fell to the horizon was an omen of sickness and death.
  • The Cahuilla thought a meteor was the spirit of their first shaman, Takwich, who was disliked by his people. Takwich was said to wander the skies at night looking for people far from their tribe. When someone was found, he stole their spirit, and sometimes even the person, took them back to his home and ate them.
  • The Shawnee believed meteors were beings "fleeing from the wrath of some adversary, or from some anticipated danger."

    There were other beliefs which generally did not strike fear into the hearts of native Americans. Some of these are as follows:

  • The Wintu (northern California) explained meteors as the spirits of shamans traveling to the afterlife.
  • The Chumash (California) referred to meteors as Alakiwohoch, which simply meant "shooting star." They believed a meteor was a person's soul on its way to the afterlife.
  • The Luiseño (California) believed they were merely stars which suddenly moved.
  • The Eastern Pomo (North Central California) thought meteors were fire dropping from heaven.

    Interestingly, one of the most widely accepted beliefs was that meteors were the feces of stars. Such lore existed in the stories of the Nunamiut Eskimos, the Koasati of Louisiana (formerly located in Tennessee), and numerous southern California tribes. A slight variation of this came from the Kiliwa (Baja California) who believe meteors were the fiery urine of the constellation Xsmii [Xsmii has not been defined‹GWK].

    Many of the beliefs mentioned above are also attributed to comets, and most story telling seems to rarely provide conclusive evidence that the object being discussed is indeed a meteor. Because of this a very interesting story is being included which originates from the Great Lakes region.

    The Ojibwa of the upper Great Lakes region had a story about Genondahwayanung, which meant "Long Tailed Heavenly Climbing Star." During the 1980's, Thor Conway visited the Ojibwa and talked to Fred Pine, an Ojibwa shaman. Pine's story about the creation notes that Genondahwayanung was a star with a long, wide tail which would return and destroy the world someday. He said, "It came down here once, thousands of years ago. Just like a sun. It had radiation and burning heat in its tail."

    The comet was said to have scorched the earth so that nothing was left, except the native americans, who were warned ahead of time by Chimanitou, a Holy Spirit, and had gone to a bog and rolled themselves up in the mud to protect themselves from the heat. Pine continued, "It was just so hot that everything, even the stones, were cooked. The giant animals were killed off. You can find their bones today in the earth. It is said that the comet came down and spread his tail for miles and miles." Thereafter, all comet and meteors were treated as serious omens which required the interpretation of the Ojibwa shamans.

    There are other stories of a great fire coming from the sky and destroying everything except for certain native american tribes. In some cases the tribes claimed they were warned, while others claimed they just ran for the nearest bodies of water.

    Another form of record keeping were rock petroglyphs, or pictures carved into rock. The western United States abounds with these pictures, but any dating is virtually impossible. Once again it is frequently difficult to determine whether the object carefully carved into rock is a meteor or a comet.

    One rock drawing frequently debated as to its exact depiction was produced by the Ventureño tribelet of the Chumash at Burro Flats. A pair of disks with long tails are located on the wall of a cave and have been interpreted by Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay (1978) as portraits of a comet "seen over an interval of a few days or weeks." On the other hand, E. C. Krupp (1983) has pointed out that "the images have a dynamic appearance that suggests rapid movement and change. If they are celestial at all, I would associate them with meteors, and, in particular, with the especially bright and dramatic type known as fireballs."

    The most common petroglyphs depict a circle with a wiggly line emanating from it. Various archealogists have interpreted these as meteors, comets, and even snakes.

    Another form of record keeping appears in the form of pottery art. Although there are not many examples of this, the Field Museum in Chicago contains Hopi jar (designated number 66760) with a very striking scene depicted. Brought to the museum during the 1890s, the jar depicts mountains, above which are stars and three objects falling towards the ground. Although the scene seems to imply meteors, it is not certain whether it is a shower or a spectacular meteor that broke up as it fell.

    According to William Grewe-Mullins at the Field Museum, the notes on this jar indicate it was found near Oraibi, Arizona, and was of recent origin. He ventured to guess that the jar might have been made sometime during the 1850s to 1890s.

    It might be possible that this jar depicts the Leonid storm of 1833, although it seems difficult to imagine the Hopi would have still been impressed so much by the storm 2 to 5 decades after the event.

    On the other hand, it could be a painting of one of two other storms which were observed in various parts of the world in 1872 and 1884, although none of the winter counts mentioned earlier seem to have noted these.

    The Nunamiut Eskimos also found meteorites, but believed they came from thunderstorms.

    Native Americans - Among the Menomini of the Great Lakes region is the following legend: