Saturday’s Solar Eclipse Illuminates Traditions of Indigenous Peoples


On Oct. 14, an annular eclipse will make its way across the Western Hemisphere. The moon, farther from Earth than during a total eclipse, will block much of our view of the sun, leaving only a fiery halo of light in a darkened sky.

In the United States, the show begins in Oregon, then cuts through the Southwest before exiting through the Texas coastline. It will then cut across the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and through Central America, before dipping down into Colombia, passing through the Amazon basin and concluding along Brazil’s eastern coast.

Thousands of tourists are flocking to the path of annularity to catch this astronomical marvel, which will last about four minutes at any given point along the path. Many describe eclipses as spiritual experiences.

But there’s at least one place where people can’t venture to watch: the sprawling desert lands of Navajo Nation, whose tribal parks in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah might have made a beautiful backdrop for the public to view a celestial “ring of fire.” On Sept. 15, Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation announced that all parks would be closed during the eclipse to accommodate traditional beliefs.

“Navajo look at the universe as holistic,” said David Begay, a cultural astronomer and vice president of the Indigenous Education Institute. The alignment of the planet, moon and sun during eclipses is understood as one cycle within an interconnected cosmic order, said Dr. Begay, who is Diné (which Navajo people call themselves).

The park closures are a reminder that for Indigenous peoples across the Americas, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena have been experienced for millenniums and have played important roles in different cultures. Traditions like those in Navajo Nation represent a call for non-Native tourists to be respectful when visiting sacred Indigenous lands and sites.

And those encountering the eclipse in other parts of the Americas may also pause and consider peoples who made their homes among the canyons of the Southwest, around the pyramids of Mexico and Central America and in the rainforests of Brazil; and how the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies manifest in the lives of Indigenous communities.

The experience differed in Navajo Nation. Schools closed, employees were granted administrative leave, and people were encouraged to maintain “stillness in their homes, and not partake of food and water,” according to a memo from tribal leaders.

Dr. Begay has a distinct memory of driving down a road on the border of Navajo Nation in the hours leading up to an annular eclipse in 2012. Crowds of people were setting up telescopes along the highway.

“It was like that all the way up to the reservation border,” he said.

But once he crossed the line, the land was devoid of people until he made it to the other side hours later. Rather than a spectacle, many on the reservation saw the eclipse as a time for reverence and reflection.

Semira Crank, a Diné program director at the Bears Ears Partnership in southeast Utah, was taught during her upbringing to not look at an eclipse for two reasons. The first is practical: Looking at the sun can damage your eyes. But the other reason, she said, is that doing so can disrupt a person’s Hózhó, or spiritual harmony.

“It goes back to our origin stories,” Ms. Crank said. But she doesn’t want to share too much. “We keep these practices and our traditions, our culture and our language close to us,” she said of her family, acknowledging that other members of the Navajo community may feel differently.

“My ancestors kept it close to their hearts because they wanted to keep their identity intact while going through hard times,” Ms. Crank added. Those include the cultural repression of Native Americans — who were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924 — through religious boarding schools, as well as more modern systemic injustices.

But Navajo Nation isn’t the only tribe in the Southwest to experience the eclipse next weekend. Just north of the reservation is Bears Ears, a million-acre national monument with hundreds of thousands of cultural sites, including ancient rock carvings, cliff dwellings and giant rust-colored monoliths. More than 10 Indigenous communities, including the Hopi and Ute Indian Tribes, consider Bears Ears to be their ancestral homeland.

According to Ms. Crank, up to 20,000 people are expected to travel to see the eclipse around Bears Ears this weekend.

At Bears Ears Partnership, Ms. Crank and her colleagues have been preparing for this influx for months. She runs a campaign called Visit With Respect, which educates the public on how to visit the site responsibly in order to prevent land degradation, raise cultural awareness and help people stay safe. Some of the guidelines include not touching artifacts; removing digital location tags when posting pictures and videos online; and staying on designated trails.

On the weekend of the eclipse, ambassadors will be stationed through the region to remind people to follow this advice. Bears Ears Partnership has also curated a webpage for visitors to learn about Indigenous sensitivities before their arrival. One notable tip is to add a warning when sharing photos or videos of the eclipse on social media — or to avoid doing so altogether — in order to respect those who abstain from viewing the event.

Though tribes in the region are united in protecting the land, many emphasize that every community has its own beliefs regarding the eclipse.

“Some will see it as a rebirth, a rebalancing,” said Nancy Maryboy, a Cherokee and Navajo cultural astronomer who is the president of the Indigenous Education Institute. But other tribes consider an eclipse a bad omen, she said. Traditional Cherokee beliefs, Dr. Maryboy noted, view it as a giant frog trying to swallow the sun.

Even within tribes, people have varying practices. Dr. Maryboy expects that some Navajo Nation residents will practice mindfulness in their homes during the eclipse, while other people will be outside, eclipse glasses in hand. A few tribal park officials will work during the eclipse to help enforce road closures. In 2017, Diné College, a tribal college in Tsaile, Ariz., stayed open to teach Navajo youth about the cultural significance of the solar eclipse.

“It’s really up to the individual,” Dr. Maryboy said. “There’s no right way.”

On Oct. 14, she and Dr. Begay are partnering with the San Francisco Exploratorium to host an event in Bears Ears’ Valley of the Gods, Utahn backcountry decorated with colossal red rock monuments. Navajo legend says these structures were once ancient warriors, frozen in time.

The event, which will be streamed on the Exploratorium’s website, will explore the science behind the eclipse, couched “within the cultural protocols and perspectives of the place,” Isabel Hawkins, an astrophysicist at the Exploratorium, said.

Both Dr. Maryboy and Dr. Begay were raised in traditional families. “So we have to walk in both worlds during this eclipse,” Dr. Maryboy said.

In the time leading up to annularity, the two astronomers plan to share Navajo knowledge of the cosmos with the broader public, including how the land relates to the sky and how to understand the movement of the stars.

But before the moon engulfs the sun, Dr. Maryboy said, she and Dr. Begay will duck into a hogan, or a traditional Navajo dwelling, to honor the eclipse their own way.

As the eclipse travels farther south, it will meet the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The region is home to the Indigenous Maya people, whose culture stretches into other parts of Mexico and several Central American countries that will also experience the eclipse. The Maya have a well-established astronomical tradition, and for centuries they have predicted the cycles that result in solar eclipses.

They and other Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America have historically had an adverse view of eclipses.

“Nowadays it is a spectacle of nature, but in the past it was interpreted both in the Maya region and in the rest of Mesoamerica as an omen of something,” said Jesús Galindo Trejo, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has studied how the Maya people tracked the cosmos.

For Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as the Lacandón Maya in what is now Chiapas, eclipses were associated with destruction.

That could come in the form of drought or disease and also have harmful effects on individuals. Dr. Galindo Trejo said that some pregnant women avoided viewing an eclipse, believing it would be especially precarious for their unborn babies.

Many places in the Yucatán Peninsula this week, nonetheless, are preparing for a more festive experience.

Officials from the Institute of Art and Culture of Campeche in August hosted a news briefing inviting people from Mexico and other countries to witness the eclipse in Edzná, one of the Mexican state’s most popular Maya archaeological sites. Officials noted that many hotels had already closed reservations, and that officials had planned to set up alternative viewing sites because of the number of tourists expected.

Organizers will also host a “festival of the sun” in Campeche to celebrate both science and the music of the local community.

“The old tradition is being lost,” Dr. Galindo Trejo said.

But he noted that throughout Mexico, including in the Yucatán Peninsula, there is an effort to make sure people experiencing the eclipse remember Maya heritage. Local authorities have created and are distributing materials that examine different myths and truths about the Maya people’s history with eclipses.

For all the past negative associations around eclipses, Dr. Galindo Trejo said, “it is a wonderful sight worth watching.”

Among Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, astronomy guides daily life. Constellations are named after plants and animals, while moon phases may dictate the right moment to harvest, go fishing or birth children.

“Before going to sleep, at sunset, I would hear my father pointing at the universe, talking about the constellations, what phase we were in,” Jaime Diakara, an anthropologist, said. He is a member of the Desana people, one of at least 22 Indigenous groups living in the Rio Negro basin, a region deep in the Brazilian Amazon where the annular eclipse will pass over.

“It became this big-screen television for us, showing all these images of ancestral mythology,” he added.

When the moon begins to eclipse the sun, the Desana may grow uneasy.

“The white man thinks an eclipse is something beautiful,” said Durvalino Kisibi, a Desana leader and healer whose village, Wãhtī Peayeri Buri, is a three-day journey by boat from the region’s biggest town. “But for us, it’s bad news.”

In Desana communities, those who are fishing or hunting may scurry back to their villages. Children are ushered home and told to latch the doors. Elders circle the long house, known as a maloca, linking hands in prayer. As they sway and chant, a village healer burns sacred herbs to chase away spirits carrying misfortune.

“Our rituals are like a vaccine that protects us,” Mr. Diakara said.

Different communities have varying explanations for what causes an eclipse.

For some Guarani people, eclipses are seen as caused by an evil spirit that is embodied by a jaguar constellation. When the sky darkens, the Guaranis shout and clamor in a bid to scare away the jaguar, believing that the end of the world will occur when the constellation devours the moon, the sun and other stars.

While these traditions are not always valued by the scientific community, these two worlds could coexist, said Yuri Berri Afonso, whose father, the Guarani astronomer Germano Bruno Afonso, developed an Indigenous solar observatory tool.

“Science looks at these explanations and often ridicules them,” said Mr. Berri, who helped digitize the tool before his father’s death in 2021. But the ancestral knowledge of Indigenous people “is what has helped them survive. And one view of the universe doesn’t have to cancel out the other.”


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