THE SACRED SKY OF THE NAVAJO AND PUEBLO
by Matthew Green
submitted to the Griffith Observatory
Popular Articles in Astronomy Contest
March 30, 1994
The Pueblo and the Navajo Indians of the Southwestern United States share a close relationship with each other. The two cultures are found in the Four Corners area, a very sacred place for both groups of people. Throughout both the Pueblo and the Navajo history, each of their cosmologies developed as products of the observations and interpretations of the societies' environment. For this reason, many similarities exist between both cultures. The sky, in particular, acted as a primary element in their cosmologies. Interestingly, the interpretations of the Navajo and Pueblo varied considerably, although they were influenced by the same physical environment day in and day out. The unique aspects of both cosmologies reflect the fact that each civilization is distinct and carries its own history and evolutionary process.
Although a tourist driving across the northeastern part of Arizona today would probably distinguish little differences between the people on the Hopi Indian reservation near Black Mesa and the Navajo Indians living at Chinle, the two groups have vastly different histories. The term Pueblo refers to a group of Native Americans who descended from cliff dwelling people long ago. The surviving tribes today include the Hopi and the Zuni. The ancient Anasazi, long since extinct, were amongst the first Puebloans. The Pueblo, as far as archaeologists can determine, have resided in the Four Corners area for over 4,000 years (see Figure 1). The various Pueblo tribes continued to evolve and adapt differently in their own way to the prevailing environmental conditions. It is generally agreed, however, that all Pueblo tribes descended from a common ancestor. This statement is reinforced by the fact that all Pueblo tribes have had nearly identical agricultural and irrigational techniques throughout their histories and that the primary staple crop has been maize for all these groups. 
If an anthropologist attempted to determine the single most powerful and highly respected symbol in Pueblo life, it would undoubtedly be the sun. According to Ray A. Williamson, "The Sun and its power dominates the Southwest." Most of Pueblo astronomy can be linked directly to the sun. Extensive observations of the sun led to the development of an advanced sun-based religion among the Pueblo cultures.
Each town, or pueblo (hence the name), consists of a tight organizational structure headed by a priesthood which controls the social, political and religious aspects of daily life. The primary function of the priesthood in Pueblo society is to perform ceremonials for the good of the people by keeping them in harmony with nature. The purposes of the ceremonials are to control the weather and the movements of the sun, to promote fertility in all living things, and to exorcise and to cure. In addition, a common ideology exists between all Pueblo tribes which probably resulted as "a response to successful and unsuccessful agricultural practices." Thus, the Pueblo cosmology is rooted in an agrarian based ideology that includes the elements necessary for agricultural prosperity, namely proper light and warmth and sufficient moisture.
Since the essential agrarian forces (light, warmth, and moisture) are such important factors for the health of the village and for the individual, it makes sense that the Pueblo would centralize the source of these fundamental components of nature in their ideology. The source is obvious--the sacred sky. The sky is the place where the sun and the clouds dwell, and it is the sun and the clouds which provide those crucial necessities for life. Therefore, Pueblo astronomy is much different from astronomy in the traditional sense; it focuses more on the daytime sky, rather than the stars and other features of the night sky.
The Pueblo spiritual beliefs are based on the brilliant Southwestern sun and sky, which play a central role in the Pueblo conception of the structure of the cosmos. A similar philosophy and closely related set of beliefs unites the Pueblo tribes. Within this common dogma lie the principles of the Pueblo cosmology, which consists of three levels. These three levels are commonly referred to as the above, the middle, and the below, which respectively represent the sky, the earth, and the Underworld or spiritual realm. However, the Pueblo actually view the universe as a dual state which consists of the visible natural (middle) world and invisible inverted world. In this netherworld everything is opposite from the natural world. The above (the sky) is present in this alter world, but it exists in a contrasting state. For example, when it is day in the natural world it is night in the underworld. Likewise, a god who is evil in the natural world is supposed to be benevolent in the underworld.
Astronomy plays an intrinsic part in the Pueblo supernatural pantheon. There are actually four categories of spiritual beings in Pueblo cosmology and they all can be connected with the power of the sky. These celestial beings are not arranged in a hierarchy, but they are organized by degree of familiarity to the village and the amount of control that can be exerted over them. The dead make up the first class of the supernatural, since they are the most familiar to the village. The dead are thought to embody clouds or to form clouds with their breath. Due to their supposed form, the dead are consequently called upon to bring rain. In addition, the Dead are also seen as smoke, mist, or fog and are usually regarded as a modified form of the living who are concerned with the affairs of the living. The smoke, mist, and fog manifestations are related to the clouds, which are regarded as very spiritual objects. (The significance of the clouds will be discussed shortly.) For these reasons, the dead are common subjects of ceremonials and a friendly, respective, reciprocal relationship is formed with this class of supernatural beings.
A second class of supernatural beings is collectively known as the kachinas. The kachinas reflect the skill of the Puebloans as gifted animators and symbolic illustrators. Through the use of kachinas a human personality is given to the various aspects of nature that these beings represent, including celestial bodies, forces of nature, animals (regarded as people wearing skins), and any "organic or inorganic object" (see Figure 2). Also, kachinas are responsible for all events that result between nature and people and are viewed as benevolent forces that have the power of "fertility, curing, protection, and growth", which the god-like spirits use to the advantage of people as long as humans show "veneration and respect."
The kachina appearances or ceremonies are organized by a "ceremonial calendar" that uses either solar or lunar observations. The kachina ceremonial seasons vary amongst the different tribes. The Zuni and the Keresen observe a year round season, but the Hopi season lasts only from winter to summer solstice.
The Pueblo have put much emphasis on the sun for practical purposes. Solar calendrical devices were made to indicate proper times for ceremonials and other important events. In particular, the solstices were regarded as special occasions and many of the calendrical markers were geared to indicate precisely when a solstice would occur. At Hovenweep Castle, an ancient Anasazi ruin, a room acts as a solar calendar. Several "ports" or holes cut into the walls of this room align with the rays of the sun at particular times (Figure 3) and indicate the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. Other ruins have indicated similar findings.
At Chaco Canyon a ruin known as Casa Rinconada exhibits
astronomical functions. Casa Rinconada was built by the Puebloans in
nearly a perfect circle. The four main supporting posts in the
ancient kiva were located in the corners, which also indicate the
four cardinal directions: northwest, southwest, southeast, and
northeast. The location of the posts in the four cardinal directions
illustrates "astronomical alignment", as Ray A. Williamson describes
it. The major axes of symmetry and the location of the portholes
found in the ruin consequently coincide with the summer solstice and
the equinoxes by allowing light to enter different parts of the kiva
on these special
dates (see Figure
Living in the Southwest, which boasts sunny skies throughout most of the year, the Pueblo incorporated the sun into nearly all of the culture's cosmological dogma. The kachinas are all in some way "directed toward imploring the gods to send the warmth of the sun (or the moisture of the rain....") The Pueblo Sun Priests carefully observe the Sun and watch its path to announce the proper times to begin planting. Elaborate ceremonials have been created by the Pueblo, which involve kachinas to persuade the Sun to continue along in its northward journey across the horizon.
The clouds, or Cloud People, make up the third category of Pueblo supernatural beings. The Cloud People are important to the Pueblo, for they are capable of bringing rain and moisture, which is so critical to the crops that they grow. These Cloud People are considered to be the true inhabitants of the underworld who the dead live with when they leave the world of the living. This is most probably the reason for the connection between the dead and the clouds.
The fourth category of Pueblo supernatural creatures consists of the deities themselves. The deities are basically embodiments of natural forces which animate the cosmos. A pantheon of gods exists in the Pueblo cosmology and among the principal gods one finds a "creator of life (the Sun), guardian of the lifeways or roads of men, earth mother who is a generative force, destroyer god (death), serpent who rules over all the water, one who owns all game animals, and god of maize", the primary food source of the Pueblo. The deities symbolize basic forces of nature, and a similar reciprocal relationship is maintained with them as is maintained with the other supernatural spirits. Among the sky gods are a lightning god and a Morning or Dark Star.
It is more than coincidence that many aspects of the Navajo cosmology mirror the Pueblo cosmology. The Navajo settled in the Four Corners area more recently than the Pueblo. There is controversy among archaeologists as to exactly when and how the Navajo settled in the American Southwest. The dates range from as early as 800 to as late as after 1541 and as many as four different migrations have been suggested. One fact that all historians agree on, though, is that during the initial settlement, the Navajo spent a period of intensive interaction with the Pueblo Indians. A unique characteristic of the Navajo is their ability to adapt and borrow certain parts of another culture and make it distinctively Navajo. It is commonly agreed that much of the Navajo religion, cosmology, and philosophy, as well as Navajo agriculture and art was borrowed from the Pueblo.
It seems that if the Navajo borrowed from the cosmology of the Pueblo, they took mainly the emphasis on maintaining a harmonic relationship with nature, for this theme dominates Navajo cosmology. The antithesis and duality which is so important in Pueblo culture has much lesser significance in Navajo cosmology. The reciprocity between humans and the spirit world, however, plays a leading role in both cultures.
The Navajo perceive the universe as an all-inclusive body in which everything has its own beneficial purpose and contributes to the overall harmony of the whole. Maintenance of order is critical if the cosmos and nature are to remain in a healthy state, and it is each individual's responsibility to contribute to the order of the universe by living his or her life correctly. So, within this cosmology, more than in the Pueblo doctrine, one finds a set of rules from which he lives his life by.
The physical universe has more significance to the Navajo than their Pueblo neighbors, and in the heavens, the Navajo find rules for proper ways of living. Many star myths and much sky lore has been created by the Navajo and these stories explain many of life's questions. For example, the seasonal movements of Gah heet'e'ii (the tail of Scorpius) were used to determined the optimum times for hunting. Also, the two Nahookos, The Male and Female Ones Who Revolve (The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia), symbolized a married couple that circle Polaris. Polaris represented a fire in the center of their hogan around which moved the Male and Female Ones who Revolve. Embodied in tales of these constellations are laws against two couples living in the same hogan or doing their cooking over the same fire (see Figure 5).
The stellar objects are seen as embodiments of the Navajo deities. These Navajo gods are called Diyin dine'e, translated as Holy People. The Navajo share a reciprocal and close relationship with the Holy People, as do the Pueblo with their deities. In both cultures respect of the supernatural is believed to be essential for benevolent and beneficial behavior by the gods. Both cultures share a kin-like relationship with the spirit world, though the Navajo use a much more detailed astronomical pantheon than the Pueblo. There are about thirty-six Navajo constellations, most of which represent Navajo deities, while other gods are represented by single stars are various aspects of the sky itself.
The Navajo model much of their own society on the celestial landscape. They fashion their way of life in a similar manner to that of the legendary gods that exist in the formed constellations, and other sky phenomena. Much of the supreme Navajo cosmological concept of order is derived from the cyclic motions of the moon, the stars, and the constellations. These movements account for the "orderliness" of which these people believe must be "continually recreated throughout time." Cyclic patterns of the year, the seasons, and cyclic patterns of each day, such as dawn, noon, twilight, and night, are very important in creating the sense of order and wholeness found in Navajo cosmology. These various patterns are key to the development of the idea of wholeness in Navajo cosmology. In addition, each part of the cycle is crucial, and no part is considered to be more important than another because they all contribute to the whole.
As illustrated by the various sky lore, the Navajo put a much heavier emphasis on the stars than the Pueblo and less emphasis on the sun. This is partly because the Navajo are primarily a ranching rather an agricultural people. They have less use for the sun and have turned to other celestial objects for their religious and practical needs. As a result, the Navajo use a mostly star based calendar.
Another reason the Navajo are more dependent on the constellations than the motion of the sun is due to the geographically dispersed nature of the Navajo people. For this reason, the movements of the constellations, which appear at about the same time everywhere (in the land of the Navajo) are more accurate than the more delayed movement of the Sun. Furthermore, the entire sky, as opposed to just one object in the sky, is considered to be of the utmost importance to the Navajo. Unlike the Pueblo, who single out the Sun as their most substantial celestial object, and call it "Our Father Sun", the Navajos will say "The sky is our father.",19
The Navajo, like the Pueblo believe that they came through several (four) previous worlds before they emerged in the present one. The systems of spatial organization differ between the Pueblo and Navajo, though. Spatial boundaries are not clearly defined by the Navajo, who relate with any part of the land that is familiar--a concept contrary to the order that dominates the rest of Navajo thinking. Also ironic is the fact that one would expect to find the idea of duality in the sacred Pueblo place of ceremony instead of in the Navajo place of worship. However, the hogan is used as both a place of living and as the religious center, whereas the Pueblo kiva is solely a religious unit.
The religious organization between the two groups of Native Americans differs, too. There is no ceremonial calendar for the Navajo. The Navajo partake in ceremonials according to individual needs. The purposes of Navajo ceremonials are to cure an ill person and to restore order in the patient as well as in the universe, whereas the Pueblo ceremonials are primarily used to insure the health of the people through agricultural prosperity. Also, the ceremonials of the Navajo are usually performed by one priest, a chanter, rather than a clan of holy men that comprises a priesthood (see Figure 6).
These different practices of the Navajo and the Pueblo arose side by side under the Southwestern skies. The distinct Navajo culture owes immeasurably to their Puebloan neighbors. Both groups of Native Americans draw extensively from astronomical inspiration in their cosmologies, and have forged a unique synthesis in their ideas.
The Southwestern sky has, and continues to be, very sacred to the Pueblo and Navajo, and both cultures have been very much defined by their perceptions of the sky. Astronomy has served as a crucial link to social identity for these two Native American groups. The Navajo have analyzed the night sky for hundreds of years to find the answers they seek in life. Conversely, the Pueblo have looked primarily to the daytime sky and the mighty Sun for spiritual and practical purposes. These peoples understand and appreciate the power of the sky, for it is in the realm of the sky that life emanates and is ultimately sustained. Without the sky, there would be nothing for the Navajo or the Pueblo.
Bailey, Garrick and Bailey, Roberta Glenn. A History of the Navajos: The Reservation Years. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1986, p. 11.
Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Earth Is My Mother, Sky Is My Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992, pp. 1-13, 64-65, 80-83, 87.
Teiwes, Helga. Kachina Dolls: The Art of Hopi Carvers. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.
Williamson, Ray A. Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984, pp. 73, 77-150, 155.
Wright, Barton. Iconography of Religions X, 4: Pueblo Cultures. The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1986, pp.1-20.
Figure 2: The kachinas are viewed as god-like creatures to the Pueblo. Here a kachina representing the sun is shown. Kachinas are given human qualities, and are important for ceremonials, where they take form in both masks and dolls. (reprinted from Teiwes -- permissions are in the process of being obtained.)
Figure 3: Hovenweep Castle, many parts still intact, was used as a calendrical device by allowing the rays of the sun to enter the structure at specific points during the solstices and equinoxes. (reprinted from Ancient Civilizations of the Southwest, Golden Turtle Press -- permissions are in the process of being obtained.)
Figure 4: Similar to Hovenweep Castle, Casa Rinconada was constructed for astronomical purposes. Located in Chaco Canyon, the ancient sanctuary was built symmetrical to the four cardinal directions. A huge roof once covered this immense structure. (reprinted from Williamson -- permissions are in the process of being obtained.)
Figure 5: In this illustration, a Navajo couple point to the two "Nahookos", the Male and Female Ones Who Revolve. This constellation includes the Big Dipper, Casseiopeia, and Polaris. The Navajo incoporate tales and interpretaions of their constellations into societal laws. In the case of the two Nahookos, various laws concerning marital relations are found. (reprinted from Griffin-Pierce, Plate 8 -- permissions are in the process of being obtained.)
Figure 6: The Navajo priest, or chanter, is crucial to the physical and spiritual health of the community. Since the order of the cosmos plays an intrinsic part in the overall well-being of the Navajo, the priest places a large emphasis on astronomy. (reprinted from Griffin-Pierce, Plate 6 -- permissions are in the process of being obtained.)
About the Author:
Mattew Green is currently an undergraduate at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. He is a native and life-long resident of Phoenix, Arizona, where he became interested early in life in native American studies. He has travelled extensively throughout the Southwestern United States, and has visited sites including Montezuma's Castle and Tuzigoot National Monument. Green has studied Native American literature, and has been interested in the influences and possible lessons that Native American societies can have for our modern culture. While taking a class in Multicultural Cosmology at Pomona College, Green began researching the social and cosmological aspects of the Pueblo and Navajo cultures, from which this article is based. Green is interested in pursuing a degree in Public Policy Analysis, with a concentration in Anthropology.