What do you think of when you hear the words astronomy, cosmology or stargazing? Are you inclined to think of the efforts of individuals such as Galileo and his observations of the night sky, or perhaps you are drawn to discourse surrounding the current exploration of space?
It may surprise you to know that the tradition of observation, storytelling and cosmology is an ancient one. It has local roots right here in the history and culture of the Imperial Valley’s First Peoples. Just like children and adults today come out to the desert to escape city lights and appreciate the universe around them, so too did those who came before us. For the Kumeyaay, the extensive study and stories produced by that wonder is Maay Uuyow – sky knowledge, evidence of which is ever present in the landscape of Imperial Valley.
Developing a world order
Across various cultures and peoples throughout time, there are stories which seek to center humans in the world around them. This is true of the Romans and Greeks, whose gods and goddesses ruled over both the earthly realm and the afterlife. The idea that earth is not the only home or plane of existence is not uncommon.
For the Kumeyaay the universe exists on three planes, referred to as “shells,” which incorporate the sky world, the earth, and the underworld. While each of the three planes exist independently, they can be interconnected at various points through different “portals” or “doors.” Individuals attuned to the existence of these portals, are also able to harness and use spiritual power. The observation of these cycles is incredibly important to the Kumeyaay, not just for recording the passage of time or the change of seasons, but also as an underpinning of their “faith, understanding, and gratitude for existence.”
Telling stories and telling time
Many of the constellations we know today were also observed by the Kumeyaay. While the grouping of the stars are ones we would recognize, the Kumeyaay named and identified them differently. These constellations are also used as moral and ethical guides, divided into groups such as the Watchers and Deliverers of Punishment. The constellation Emuu or Moutain Sheep, which we would recognize as Orion’s Belt, is one of the Watchers. As the name implies, it watches and observes human conduct, and guides people to travel the correct path. The Deliverers of Punishment serve as reminders to those who may stray from this path.
Additionally, Kumeyaay cosmology honors the cyclical pattern of celestial movements and the passage of time. The Kumeyaay year, or Kumeyaay Matt’aam, is divided into thirteen lunar months and four seasons following seasonal equinoxes and solstices throughout the year. The fall equinox on September 21 marks the Kumeyaay New Year and reflects the beginning of the acorn harvest or Kli’a ‘Emul. A staple protein for the Kumeyaay, acorns were used in the making of traditional foods such as Shawii. The most important date on the Kumeyaay calendar is the winter solstice on Dec. 21, known for its connection to the constellation Emuu.
The Ocotillo Observatory located on site at IVDM was built to connect man with the night sky, honoring the traditional observatories of the Kumeyaay. The solar cycle is important to the Kumeyaay in their beliefs, stories and calendar, and this observatory is aligned to the solstices and equinoxes. The walls are adorned with traditional Kumeyaay words and symbols. “Howka” is a traditional Kumeyaay greeting that means “May that fire within your body continue to burn brightly.”
Today, evidence of Kumeyaay cosmology is ever present in the landscape of Imperial Valley. Incorporated into earthen arts such geoglyphs, pictographs, and petroglyphs, and even painted onto pottery, the practice of observing the night sky played an important role in Kumeyaay beliefs and traditions.
To learn more about this tradition and its continued importance, read Michael Connolly Miskwish’s book “Maay Uuyow: Kumeyaay Cosmology” and join IVDM tonight for our seasonal stargazing event. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and begin with a presentation from Mike Rood before venturing outside to enjoy the stars.
Be sure to bring your own chairs, binoculars and telescopes. Telescopes will also be provided by IVDM so that everyone can enjoy the stars!
The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is located in Ocotillo. It is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.