Lakota Winter Solstice Stars

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Almost everything the Lakota scholars brought together from elders in the Lakota Star Knowledge book is about observations leading to the summer solstice -- where the sunpath will be at its farthest north, the days are longest, and the Sun Dance is held "when the sun is strongest and the power of growing things is greatest" as Black Elk said, around June 20.

But what of winter? At winter solstice, the nights are long, days shortest. Will the sun stop its southerly travels and return north ever? The sacred circle of stars that represents the Black Hills told the people that Yes, it would. Around the end of December, the sacred circle of stars climbs to the very zenith of the skies -- directly above the viewer around midnight on December 20 -21, and for the week of winter solstice, the longest nights, it rises due east, sets due west, and stands directly overhead with its promise of spring, summer's warmth and good living.

I wasn't aware of this, and it may be the elders no longer know it either, for it is not mentioned in the Star Knowledge book at all. Tjhese winters, people are not out hunting, or sitting out on windlss nights in winter camp, learning star lore. On the inside back cover of the Star Knowledge book is a star map -- unfortunately it printed rather smearily -- that shows all or almost all the Lakota named stars and constellations. The unidentified artist chose a conventional star-finder map and shaded the Lakota constellations to help locate them.

As I examined this map to create a copy of it for these pages, I realized it is a map of the winter stars. Looking at my conventional star-finders, I realized that the artist had chosen to copy a star-finder map that showed almost all the stars discussed in the book simultaneously. Checking, I found that this happens only once a year: in late December, winter solstice. The skies of that season will rotate the sacred circle from eastern rise right to the zenith or center of the sky-dome overhead! It will rise due east, set due west; this happens at no other time of year.

There is no mention of winter solstice ceremonies. (Farming peoples usually have them, to persaude the sun not to stay south, but to begin its journey north again. The Christian Christmas holiday is imposed on the date of an older winter solstice celebration, for example.) Perhaps there were none. Yet it seems likely that if there were a calm, relatively warm clear night during the last week of the year, there was likely an observance of the skies, with these sacred stars directly overhead, from some sheltered place. Perhaps storytelling and star-teaching took place then. Winter solstice is the best time of year for all the Lakota constellations to be observed from rise to set, as well as the sacred circle -- the Racetrack/Black Hills -- at the zenith.

A large starmap (96K) shows all the Lakota constellations shaded in red. Stars important in Lakota philosophy are colored bright yellow.. Other stars are pale whitish yellow. Conventional consatellations are connected in blue. Starsizes have been drawn roughly proportional to magnitudes, (for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) with stars shown down to the 5th magnitude. The conventional constallations' places are labeled with their names, to help you locate yourself in the skies, using purchased star finders.

This starmap follows the usual starmap convention: east is on the screen left and west the right -- the opposite from paper maps of land. The reason is that starmaps are meant to be visualized as if held overhead, with the top -- north -- pointing north as you face north. You look up at a skymap, opposite of a land map. When you do that or mentally visualize it that way (which you have to train yourself to do) the east-marked side of the map will be on your right, west on your left, the opposite of looking down at a paper map of land.

You can download this map (which is 16-color gif, but also prints legibly in black and white, especially at 600 dpi) and print it locally for a winter solstice observation starguide. You can use the big starmap of the ecliptic sunpath page here to help ID the conventional constellations, but a late December starguide from Sky and Telescope or Astronomy is recommended, see Teaching Resources page for sources.

If you are Lakota, Dakota, Nakota and the skies are clear for the several days around December 20-21, try to make a sky observation away from city lights if possible! This year's winter solstice is quite special in another way: the moon is dark for it, it will wane to a narrow crescent just before the solstice, and wax thereafter. An absent moon means the Milky Way will be visible, traversing the sacred circle northerly. Too, you will probably be able to see ia second-magnitude starlike object that -- now -- is in the former empty center of the Racetrack, corresponding to Old Baldy in the Black Hills ceremonial land map. That's the Crab Nebula -- bright, hot expanding clouds of gas left from a supernova star that exploded in 1054 AD (or rather that's when the light of its initial explsion reached us). It was so bright that for 3 weeks in July of 1054, it was visible in daytime. For many years afterwards, it was by far the brightest object in the sky, though it has gradually faded as the hot gases expand, so now it is not very spectacular -- unless you look at it through a telescope (or certain kinds of good binoculars).

Below is a reduction of the big Lakota December starmap, in which the constellations (shaded red) are numbered. You can't really make out the stars or text labels on it, except for the big red numbers, which are a key to the big starmap. Following this smaller map, here, is a table that gives names, and star-locations. Meanings, in Lakota philosophy, are briefly discussed after that, though this has already been covered for the "Racetrack" sacred circle that mirrors the Black Hills ceremonies and Sun Dance.

Lakota Constellations in Winter Solstice Sky

No.Lakota nameMeaningConstellation
1Wichapi OwanjilaStar that always stands in one placePolaris, north polar sky rotation star
2WakinyanThunderbird13 stars beginning with gamma-Draconis, including 2 stars of Ursa Minor's "bowl"
3WichakiyuhapiBig DipperUrsa Major component, 7 stars, Polaris pointers
4Fireplace --- Component of Leo called "sickle"
5Mato TipilaBear's Lodge8 of the 12 stars in Gemini (including Castor and Pollus, the bright twins that are markers on the Racetrack)
6 --- CapellaLucida of Auriga, Charioteer, forms northernmost marker on Racetrack Circle
7TayamniAnimal (Buffalo?)Large constellation inside racetrack, composed of Betelgeuse, Rigel (ribs), Orion's belt (backbone), Aldebaran and Pleiades (head), and Sirius (tail)
8Canshasha IpusyeDried WillowTriangulum and Aries
9HehakaElk5 stars in Picses that outline elk's horns and head
10KeyaTurtle4 stars of Pegasus square, plus a head and tail faint and poorly identified stars
11ZuzuechaSnakePuppis rho, xi, gamma, 7 minor stars in canis major, all stars in columba; this southern snake appears in winter
12Wanagi Ta ChankuSpirits' RoadMilky Way. In winter, this is a south-to-north road
11(Below the number)FomalhautVery bright southern star, marks extreme south horizon at this season
M1Crab NebulaCenter of Racetrack, corresponds to Old Baldy on Black HillsCrab Nebula was a supernova in 1054, now a 2nd magnitude object visible in formerly empty circle's center

So on my large map, Boötes, the herdsman, is just rising in the northeast (upper left of the screen). Its lucida (brightest star), Arcturus, is still beneath the horizon. Lakota names for Arcturus are Itkob u (going toward), and it's also named Wichapi Sunkaku (Morning Star's Younger Brother), and Oglechkutepi, Arrow game.

Another name for Arcturus, Ihuku Kigle (It went under) explains the relationship to Venus -- Anpao Wichahapi -- the morning or dawn star. Arcturus is just setting as or shortly before Venus rises just before dawn. Of course that relationship only applies at certain times -- indicating a sophisticated relative time-reference. These are not just object-names.

4 key bright stars are visible at this time: Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, and Fomalhaut. These 4 have (in centuries past) risen "heliacally" i.e. just flashing as they rise before the summer solstice sun when all the lesser stars have gone out in the brightening pre-dawn sky. These 4 first-magnitude stars stars are marked by sighting rock cairns on the ancient rock structures of the northern high plains -- structures called Medicine Wheels, early solar-star analog computers, the first of which was built around 2,000 B.C., and the most elaborate of which is on Medicine Mountain in the Wyoming Bighorns.

The Lakota Agleshka (salamander) constellation which represents powers of a boy-baby preserved at birth by traditional midwives, has just set in the northwest (upper right of starmap). You can still see part of Keya (Turtle), the girl-baby constellation, which is the 4 stars that form the square of Pegasus,

Big Dipper -- Wichakiyuhapi -- (which means Dipper) has several other names that relate to different ceremonial or star knowledge functions. Very interesting is the 2 different functions of all 7 of its stars as mnemonics for Win oye ya (the Lakota Woman's Lifepath) and Ca Oye Ya (The Lakota Man's Lifepath). There are different starnames and different teachings for for the men's and the women's ways, which together make up the whole Lakota way of life, Lacol Wichoh'an

Charlotte Black Elk has recorded all of the Dipper-related women's knowledge, as told to her by her grandmother, She recorded the spiritual, moral, artistic, and social attainments of each of the 7 stages in a woman's maturation representeed by the 7 Dipper stars. (Less is known -- mainly the men's starnames -- about men's teachings regarding the Dipper.) The Dipper also has meaning for beginning and end of Lakota life. According to Lakota midwives, To Win, Blue Woman spirit, who helps with births, lives in the sky-country behind a hole in the dipper's center, where Fallen Star's mother pulled up a turnip in the star-world, creating the hole in the sky through which Fallen Star came to bring light and higher consciousness to Lakota people, when his pregnant mother fell through the hole.

The Dipper is also literally a dipper, to carry water for sweat lodge and Pipe ceremonies in the sky. At the end of life, under a name meaning "stretcher" or "body-carrier" the Dipper carries a dead person's surviving spiritual essence to the Wanagi Ta Chanku, the Road of Spirits, which is the Milky Way, for its final journey to its ultimate spiritual destination.

So if there is a mild, clear, windless evening around the week of winter solstice, when the sun stands still in the extreme south, a night starwatch is a good learning experience for any Lakota or Dakota person or family. The sacred starmap mirroring the Black Hills will be in the very center of the sky and this center will rise almost directly in the true east and set in the true west during the night. Truly the "hills of the home of the heart" are pictured for you in the sky.

Late December observing (around midnight) you should be able to spot the easily-located bright Sirius (Animal's tail, southerly point on the Black Hills ring). The 3 bright stars of Orion's belt (Animal's backbone) are easy to spot, too. Then locate its 2 end-ribs, Betelgeuse and Rigel. Run your eye along the 3 backbone (belt) stars, which point to bright Aldebaran on the Animal's neck (in the Hyades cluster of Taurus), and further along that same line, the Pleiades cluster (animal's head, which is an easterly marker on the Black Hills circle). If your horizon permits (mine doesn't, buildings in the way), you can spot bright Fomalhaut at the extreme south when the Racetrack is at the zenith.

Depending on seeing conditions and the absence of a bright moon, you may be able to see the 2nd magnitude object in the center of the racetrack which is the spreading gaseous remains called Crab Nebula of the supernova that occurred (became visible on earth) in early July, 1054 A.D. This star was so bright at the time of its explosion that it was visible for about 3 weeks in daytime. When first visible, it was quite close to a crescent moon. It seems to have been recorded on many petroglyphs in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. The Crab Nebula -- a beautiful oject for telescopic gazing and photographing -- is Messier nebular/cluster/galactic object M1, first in this 18th-century French astronomer's catalog.

You can find out mor about the supernova crab nebula as recorded by rock-markings called petroglyps or petrographs by the ancient Anasazi civilization (ancestors of today's Pueblo people in New Mxico and Arizona). A StarMenu link to Chaco Communications web page on this is worth exploring. Chaco plans to prepre further material on this.

Be sure to check out info on naked-eye stargazing and a table of 15 first magnitude stars visible in the north (including all the key stars here) if you plan a winter solstice stargaze.

This is at present the end of the Lakota Star Knowledge sequence. Return to the Stars Menu for more aboriginal native astronomy. Or from the mnubar below, start learning about the stone medicine wheels which were this Turtle Island Earth's first (analog) computers..

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CREDITS: I drew the sunburst starquilt logo for these pages in FreeHand, using a starquilt by Elaine Brave Bull (Hunkpapa, Standing Rock) as a model. I colored and redrew the large winter solstice star-finder map, showing the Lakota constellations, using both the map in Lakota Star Knowledge and a winter starfinder as guides. The smaller maps are reductions of it. The Crab Nebula telescopic photo was taken by hobby astronomers Bill and Sally Fletcher, scanned from Astronomy Magazine Observer's Guide for 1996.

Page prepared by Paula Giese , text and graphics c. 1995, 1996

Last updated: Tuesday, July 09, 1996 - 12:16:36 AM