LIVING THE SKY: The Cosmos of the American Indian by Ray A. Williamson

LIVING THE SKY: The Cosmos of the American Indian

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Lessons in ""archaeoastronomy"" and ""ethnoastronomy"": a rich, suggestive but sometimes incoherent collection of sky-lore. There is no gainsaying Williamson's central thesis that ""whether as architects, weavers, hunters, potters, or storytellers, traditional Native American men and women weave their perceptions of the celestial patterns into their lives in order to participate directly in the ways of the universe."" The problem is that almost all of those traditional Indians are now dead, so that students attempting to explain the precise astronomical function of, say, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel (an elaborate arrangement of cairns in the mountains of Wyoming) or the ""Castle"" in Hovenweep National Monument, have to rely on a combination of guesswork and speculative reconstruction that will leave most lay readers cold. On the other hand, we have plenty of solid evidence that American Indians were keen empirical astronomers. Agricultural peoples, like the ancient Anasazi in the Southwest, carefully calculated the summer and winter solstices and planted their crops accordingly. Hunting-and-gathering tribes, like the Cahuilla in California, used a celestial calendar as well as terrestrial signs to ascertain the time when edible plants would ripen, animals would give birth, etc. All Indians were (and some still are) closely integrated through myth and ritual into the seasonal cycles of sun, moon, planets, and stars. To this day Hopi kivas, Sioux tipis, and Navaho hogans serve to orient their occupants to the entire cosmos. Williamson (a contributing editor of Archaeoastronomy) might have organized his material more clearly and might have provided a glossary (for technical terms like incursion and ecliptic), but he writes with enthusiasm and expertise about a promising interdisciplinary field.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1984
ISBN: 0806120347
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin