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  • Sue Devick

Native American Eclipse Traditions

Solar and lunar eclipses have been recognized by hundreds of Native American tribes, and the various traditions that have arisen from these astronomical events are extremely diverse. While we do not have much documentation regarding the impact of eclipses on indigenous people, the oral stories and customs that have been passed down through generations provide insight into the behavior and beliefs that surrounded these occurrences, some of which are mentioned below.

The fact that some Native American tribes had an extensive knowledge of astronomy should be recognized. For example, the Pueblo descendants of the Mesa Verde and Chaco people studied the sun and were able to predict eclipses and to track Halley's Comet. These tribespeople have been taught not to fear an eclipse, but to consider such events as a time of transformation. Individuals who are feeling fear have done something wrong, and should pray with cornmeal (a traditional sacred offering), respect silence, and demonstrate acceptance of the transformation.

Similarly, the Hopi in Arizona recognize an eclipse as a time to pray and conduct ceremonies,

such as those associated with presenting traditional sacred names. Such times are very significant to the Hopi people. Another tribe in this geographical vicinity, the Southern Paiute, consider an eclipse as a reflection of love, as explained by the Smithsonian Institute; the sun and moon come together in a loving embrace during this event. Both are shown appreciation by the tribal members for providing light for their people, who had once lived in darkness.

The members of the Navajo tribe, who live in the modern-day Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, consider an eclipse an astronomical event that is so powerful that it should not be viewed due to respect. A similar amount of regard is also demonstrated by the Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin, who consider both solar and lunar eclipses as a time of transformation. "Ho-Chunk" means "people of the big voice," a name that replaced "Winnebago," a term that was considered derogatory.

Unlike the silent reverence practiced by many Native American tribes during an eclipse, the tradition of the Cherokees (whose ancestral homeland covers parts of modern-day Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama) was to go outdoors and make noise in order to frighten away a giant frog that was trying to eat the sun or the moon. When the wise elderly men of the tribe learned of this, they would shoot guns, beat on drums, and shake rattles while the women would bang pots and pans together in order to stop the frog. This story has been recorded in the Cherokee language as part of a film created by NASA for the Goddard Space Center in Maryland.

Further north, the behavior of the Ojibwe (also known as Ojibwa or Chippewa) of the Anishinabe Nation has changed over time in regard to solar eclipses; tribal members once believed that the sun had been extinguished and that human intervention was needed to relight it. Flaming arrows were shot into the sky for the purpose of returning the sun to its normal brightness. The Ojibwe are the largest tribe in North America, and their expansive homeland includes territory in both Canada and the United States, extending throughout parts of the Great Lakes region. The Anishinabe Nation consists of the Three Fires Confederacy, which is composed of the Potawatomi, Odawa (or Ottawa), and the Ojibwe people, whose homelands are also located in or close to this region.

Fullersburg Historic Foundation appreciates the extensive contributions of our Native American tribes to our country's heritage. We also acknowledge that indigenous viewpoints can, and do, evolve. A perspective from Ojibwe tribal leader Dave Courchene from the Eagle Clan of the Anishinabe is particularly fitting for the eclipse on 4/8/24:

"The fire of the sun is eclipsed by the darkness of humanity. Darkness may arrive for a time, but the light---the fire of the sun--will always return. The eclipse is an intimate union between sun and moon.

The Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon are in a sacred union, giving birth to New Life on Earth."

Sue Devick, M.A.

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