Pawnee Stars

The Skidi Pawnee of Nebraska were avid skywatchers. They used the stars to tell them when to plant corn and conduct other affairs. They worshipped many of the stars as gods. And they even built their dwellings with the stars in mind: The lodges faced the rising Sun, and they included posts that depicted the four stars that held up the sky. And they had a hole in the ceiling, in part, to make sure the residents could see the sky.

And just in case they missed the stars, one Pawnee recorded them on a tanned elk skin about three centuries ago. The skin probably formed part of a medicine bundle, which was used in important rituals. It’s preserved in a museum in Chicago.

The chart is divided into 11 groups of stars, which depict the Skidi Pawnee constellations. The groups aren’t in their correct positions in the sky, so the painting isn’t intended as a sky chart. Instead, it is probably like a catalog — a reminder of the most important stars.

The stars include the Chief Star — known today as Polaris, the Pole Star. All the other stars in the northern sky appear to rotate around it. There’s also the Council of Chiefs — the modern-day Northern Crown; the Seven Brothers, who were the stars of the Pleiades; and the Wolf Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. And there’s a trail of small stars down the middle — the Path of Departed Spirits. It’s the subtle glow of the Milky Way, lighting the nights on the Great Plains.

Script by Damond Benningfield


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