Science, Math

AMERICAN INDIAN ASTRONOMY, TEACHER GUIDE, TEACHER INFORMATION, STUDENT ACTIVITIES, Priscilla Buffalohead illustrated by Robert DesJarlait. Anoka-Hennepin Independent School district 11 Indian Education Program, 11299 Hanson Boulevard NW, Coon rapids, MN 55433, 612-422-5500, 1988, 30 pages paperback oversize, illustrated, materials list, $4.95; 5th grade

This is one of a series of 4 similar 5th-grade sourcebooks whose goal is to provide students with better understanding of the contributions of American Indian peoples to the collective intellectual achievements of humanity. " (The others -- Communications Systems, Timekeeping Devices, Toys and Games -- will be reviewed as and when obtained. The Astronomy booklet appears to hav been published before it was quite completed. No one is going to understand how the Bighorn Medicine Wheel (or others) works without better explanation of suntracking in relation to the seasons; similarly the concepts of equinox and solstice can be explained in relation to the sun's apparent path across th sky from rise to set, observed by Indians and everyone else, and this in turn can be related to the modern solar system model, with the earth's orbit and axial tilt. It was originally planned to do this, but apparently the project ran out of money before some of these units were really complete. Relevant materials will be found in my Aboriginal Astronomy unit here.

The unit contains some teacher instructions and brief presentations on the 1054 supernova that is now the Crab Nebula; solar observatory stone medicine wheels; the Anasazi Sun Dagger (a solar calendar from sometime when Chaco Canyon was inhabited by the Anasazi people, ancestors of today's Pueblo tribes, before its abandonment in the 13th century). None of these prsentations is sufficent for standalone teacher use. Also included are 2 star stories, a Cherokee legend of how the sun was created -- or stolen -- by Grandmother spider, and a Mesquakie (Fox) story of the origin of the constellation we call Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, the Big Bear.

Some problems are caused by the fact that these units were not, as originally planned, reviewed by a person with science background. Thus there are minor errors and confusions here and there, such as the statment that during July, 1054, when the the nova's light finally reached the earth it allegedly -- "could be seen as a very bright star near the moon for over 20 days.". Actually 20 days is the approximate period that the nova was visible in the daytime. It was near a daytime-visible crescent moon for only about 2 or 3 days in the areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and California where petroglyphs are recorded, showing a bright star near a crescent moon. . The Crab Nebula is still visible as a naked eye object resembling a 2nd magnitude star in the area of the Hyades star cluster -- the brightest of the Hyades stars, southeast of the Pleiades, the tip of the southrn bull's horn constellation we call Taurus. The legend of the Great Bear would be clearer with a diagram, not just an artistic illustration. Alcor (the hunters' dog in the story) , the 4th magnitude star which may be visible to sharp-eyed people far from city lights, is about 11.5 minutes of arc from Mizar, the middle one of the dipper's handle. Diagrams of the great and small bear should have been included, so students could identify the constallation, and what's meant by the chase around the Polaris mentioned in the Mesquakie (Yellow Earth or Fox people, not Red Earth people -- that was their allies, the Sauk) story. The only info given about this story , which was collected in the early 1900's -- is a cite suggesting it was taken from a 1911 manuscript. actually, it would have provided more a more accessible source to cite the New American library Mentor paperback or the Thomas Y. Crowell and Company original hardcover of American Indian Mythology edited by Alice Marrior and Carol K. Rachlin as a readily accessible source for both star stories, Very similar stories were recounted (and preserved by 19th-century British history of astronomy writers) by Algonquian Indians in the mid-17th century, and the coincidence of the constellation's being a bear (Ursa Major means Great Bear) was noted very early by Europeans.

The stone medicine wheel observatory section won't really make much sense without explanations, line of sight diagrams, such as the teacher can find in the Medicine Wheel portion of my Aboriginal Star Knowledge unit here. There the teacher will also find a thorough bibliography and a host of readily-available teaching resources -- absence of that is another weakness of this unit.

The unit also briefly presents the Chaco Canyon (Anasazi) "Sun Dagger" a solar measurement of (from left to right) summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice. The pair of spirals is pecked into a flat vertical rock wall, oriented north-south and facing east, on the top of a bluff near the one-time Anasazi city of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, NM. Leaning against the rock wall are 3 large rocks, which may have been moved there. The dagger-shaped bright sun spots are formed by the sun's rays which strike at the correct angles through the cracks just on these 3 key seasonal dates during the year. Similar spiral clock-calendars are found as petroglyphs all over New Mexico and Arizona. To explain to the students what's going on, why it works (and relate this to the earth, seasons, and solar system) the teacher will need sunpath, solar system, and solstice-equinox explnations that were omitted from this book, but can be found in my Aborigial Astronomy unit here.

The unit bibliography lists a few books, and articles from rather obscure journals. One film, Sun Dagger is cited without info on how to get it. Actually, there are two versions -- 60 and 30 minutes -- of both the film and a videotape, which would be more useful to most schools. The 30 minute film is $550; 30-minute videotape is $250. The 60-minute film is $850, andf $350 for the 60-minute vid. These are available from Bullfrog Productions, 800-543-3764; or see Bullfrog's web page catalog.

Teachers will also find useful the Bighorn Medicine Wheel videotape, $49:

                       "Is there an American Stonehenge?"
                       Harold Mayer Productions
                       50 Ferriss Estate
                       New Medford, CT 06776


Additional bibliographical, web, and materials resources for teachers who want to integrate Aboriginal astronomy with science will be found on my astronomy section here, there is a substantial teacher resource page. It is too bad this unit was not completed -- missing are many diagrams and explanations that were planned (in 1986-87) to relate the material about sun and stars to the concepts mentioned as objectives -- but the fact is the project ended before this unit could be completed that way. It has simply been printed and distributed -- and recently reprinted -- without the once-planned missing parts, especially diagrtams and explanations of the scientific and geometric concepts. It is still recommended, as an elementary starting-point sourcebook, that teachers can supplement with Native astronomy material available on this website. Teachers who don't have web access will have a harder time putting togethr this material, since there is no other place where it exists. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 1996 - 7:16:06 AM