For Zena Merculief, the chance to learn something about astronomy—a new subject for her—brought her from St. Paul Island, Alaska, to take part in the camp. Although she has participated in summer programs before, she admits that this one “is very different.”
Her previous experience in summer programs is limited to Alaska.
“Here, the weather, the culture, the people—it’s all quite different,” she said.
Jolanda Villalobos of Lapwai, Idaho, is Nez Percé,
“My astronomy teacher invited people who they thought would be interested. I found out last week that I’d been accepted. The University of Idaho’s space program funded my plane tickets, and I found out when they called to confirm my reservations,” Villalobos said.
She explains why star knowledge differs from tribe to tribe.
“It depends on what kind of animals and characters each tribe has in their oral history,” she said. “It also depends on where you come from. The environment can have an effect on the stories,” Villalobos said. “Areas with harsh weather may have more negative stories.”
“It’s good to be here, it’s a good opportunity,” Alethia Little said. “I’ve made new friends.”
This young woman from Black Mesa said that what she really wants to be is an aerospace engineer.
Britteny Davis of Shonto said that one of her earth science teachers recommended her for the program.
“Today I am learning about the stories of the stars. They are different for different cultures, for example, how the stars came to be.”
She said she was amazed at how big the telescopes at NAU are, and how many planets there are “out there” that she didn’t know about.
“I enjoy the teachers,” Davis added. “They’re really nice!”
Crystal Lee, also of Black Mesa, said that she wouldn’t mind returning next year.
“I never knew about Native American astronomy, and now I’m learning a lot about all of the stories,” she said.
Cole was thrilled that the students had been so impressed with the telescopes. NAU has six 10-inch telescopes and one 24-inch one that is quite famous.
“It was used by the first lunar astronauts to study their landing site,” Cole said.
Still, he admitted that these aren’t as impressive as one might think.
“Actually, they provide light-gathering ability, not magnification,” he said. “But this allows you to look at faint objects that one could not see with the naked eye.”
One such object would be a supernova—a rarely observed nova outburst in whereby a star’s maximum luminosity may reach 100 million times that of the sun. Unlike exploding stars, another object that would be difficult to see without a telescope, a nova fades to its former obscurity in time.
Cole’s love of stars is obvious—he speaks of them in very human terms.
“Stars are born, they live and they die, just like people,” he said. “They go through obvious life phases that are very predictable—infancy, adolescence, adulthood and old age. We can observe them in their death throes, and sometimes these can be very dramatic!”
According to Cole, our own sun is middle aged.
“It has about five billion years left,” he said.
Cole said that ancient cultures tied astronomy very closely into their lives, infusing not only their spiritual lives, but their practical, daily lives.
People looked to the stars to know when to plant, when to hunt certain animals and when not to. Modern scientists have looked back on this knowledge with the wisdom of hindsight and found it quite valid.
One example Cole offered is the constellation the Navajo know as “Rabbit Tracks,” or Scorpios, a more universal name. Rabbit Tracks appears in the fall and winter, and only when it is visible is it permissible to hunt rabbits.
During the spring and summer, rabbits breed, give birth and raise their young. If the mother of a nest of baby rabbits is killed, her children will perish shortly afterward. If rabbits were not allowed to reproduce, there would not be enough of them to sustain populations dependent upon them as a food source.
This knowledge reflects indigenous wisdom that unless humanity interacts with nature in a sustainable way, the clan will die out,” Cole said.
A lot of this knowledge is dying out, Cole adds. Only a few people are dedicating their lives to passing this traditional knowledge on to a new generation of stargazers.
For more information about the NAU/NASA Space Grant Program, visit www.spacegrant.nau.edu.