Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Eclipse Is Time For Prayer And Reflection

A modern take on a historic pictograph representing the solar eclipse of Aug. 7, 1869. Metallic pencils (gold and silver) on black composition paper. 
Cloud On Fire
Eclipse Is Time For Prayer
By Dakota Wind
Bismarck, N.D. (TFS) – The Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta call the solar eclipse Maȟpíya Yapȟéta, or “Cloud On Fire.” Other Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Seven Council Fires; Great Sioux Nation) tribes have different names for the eclipse, many calling it Wí’kte (Sun Killed). The New Lakota Dictionary, 2nd Edition, has a few entries for eclipse as well: Aháŋzi (Shadow) and Aóhanziya (To Cast Shadow Upon).

On August 7, 1869, North America experienced a solar eclipse. One group of Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna Dakhóta, under the leadership of Matȟó Núŋpa (Two Bear), camped outside Psíŋ Oyáŋke (lit. “Rice Place;” Fort Rice) for the occasion. Throughout the summer, the officers and soldiers told and retold the Húŋkpapȟa and Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna about the impending occlution. Dr. Washington Matthews, the post surgeon at Fort Rice, remarked about the palpable anticipation the month before the eclipse[1].

The day of the eclipse, however, found the Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna not filled with excitement or anticipation, rather, they were filled with a quiet reverence. Some loaded their pipes for prayer, others lit sage, burned braids of sweetgrass, and others offered cedar as their incense. Some of the Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna discussed the eclipse with the soldiers at Psíŋ, the soldiers in turn explained the science of the eclipse. After the sun returned, the Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna solemnly departed the fort.

The Swan Winter Count records the solar eclipse of 1869. 

It is worth observing that not one Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna winter count ever mentions the 1869 solar eclipse. The Chandler-Pohrt Winter Count (Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna) details a black circle for 1867 but the accompanying text and interpretation relate that this entry refers to a death (the filled in black circle can represent death, night, moon, or winter, within context). They undoubtedly saw it, but chose not to record it.

That same day, Aug. 7, 1869, some of the Oglála at Fort Laramie viewed the solar eclipse alongside the soldiers there. Matȟó Sápa (Black Bear) and recorded the eclipse on his winter count as a black circle with a few stars. The Oglála contended that the solar eclipse was in fact a great uŋȟčéǧi (monster; i.e. “dragon”) that swallowed Aŋpétuwi (the Sun) [2].

Concurrently, at Iyóȟaȟa Ipákšaŋkšaŋ (lit. “Winding Waterfall”)[3], the present-day waterfalls at Sioux Falls, SD, astronomer Cleveland Abbé observed a large presence of Iháŋtȟuŋwaŋ (Yankton) were present for the observation. Abbé made no further note of visitation with the Iháŋtȟuŋwaŋ, but did record that their attention to the non-native reaction was equal to their observation of the eclipse itself[4].

When a rainbow appears in the clouds like this, the Lakȟóta call it Wíačhéič'ithi, which means, "The Sun makes a campfire for himself." This was taken on the day of the partial solar eclipse in 2014, as seen from North Dakota.

At the same time, at Whetstone Agency in Dakota Territory, DC Poole, an Indian agent and physician, thought to increase his standing among his charges (it was the era of paternalism) by telling them he would take away the sun on Aug. 7, 1869, until he chose to bring it back. The eclipse came as he predicted (he took his prediction from an almanac). The Sičáŋǧu (lit. “Burnt Thighs;” aka Brulé) and Oglála watched the eclipse impassively until the occlusion reached its climax, at which point they drew their guns and fired, dispelling Poole’s "medicine." The doctor might be able to predict the event, but the Lakȟóta could dispel it. Poole wasn’t a real medicine man after all[5].

According to Oyúȟpe Wiŋ (Drags Down Woman; sister of Chief John Grass) the Sihásapa Lakȟóta were hunting on Makȟóčhe Wašté (lit. “The Beautiful Country;” Great Plains), when the eclipse occurred, “It became very dark. The medicine man told them all to fire their guns at the sun or it would never awaken again and they would be lost in the darkness. So everyone fired their guns at the sun and yelled very loudly, and wailed and cried and prayed. Finally, the sun began to get brighter and finally came to life again.[6]” This narrative indicates that this band of Thítȟuŋwaŋ regarded the eclipse as though the sun had died. They called it Wí’kte (lit. “The Sun Died”).

A partial solar eclipse as seen from North Dakota in 2014. 

The Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ Dakhóta (lit. “Leaf Dwellers;” Wahpeton) at Portage la Prairie and Griswald in Manitoba informed anthropologist Wilson Wallis in 1923 that the solar eclipse served as a warning to prepare for disaster. The eclipse signified the end of the world; or that great conflict was soon to break out in the world. Also, a lunar eclipse signified the same warning. The luminaries, Aŋpétuwi and Haŋwí (the Moon) favor the Dakhóta and give them an early warning to prepare them[7].

Maǧáska (Swan), a Mnikȟówožu (lit. “Those Who Plant By The Water) Lakȟóta man and winter count keeper, seems to be the only one who outright recorded that they experienced fear when they witnessed the 1869 eclipse[8].

The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ have many words to describe the solar eclipse.

Aháŋzi[9]: Shadow

Aŋpétuwí Tókȟaȟ'aŋ[10]: Disappearing Sun

Aóhanziya[11]: To Cast A Shadow Upon

Maȟphíya Yapȟéta[12]: Fire Cloud

Wakhápheya[13]: Of A Singular Appearance

Wí’Atá[14]: Sun Entire

Wí’kte[15]: The Sun Died

Wí’te[16]: "New Moon"

Does the solar eclipse serve as a warning of calamity and war? Is a great dragon devouring the sun, or is it the false medicine of a white man? The eclipse is a call to remember the mystery of creation. I imagine that the Dakhóta in Sioux Falls were amazed at the non-native reaction to the sacred balance of light and darkness of the eclipse, wondering, perhaps, why such regard couldn’t be held for Makȟóčhe Wašté, for each other, and for their fellow human beings.

What do the Lakȟóta and Dakhóta do during an eclipse? Some fired guns. Others felt an inexplicable fear. Others, a need to prepare for war. The Húŋkpapȟa pray. The Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna pray. They pray for others in that sacred moment. The sky is visibly wakȟáŋ, it is with-energy. They burn incense to carry their prayers.

Lekší Cedric Good House (Húŋkpapȟa; Standing Rock) maintains the tradition that the solar eclipse is a time of prayer, and to reflect. 

Visit the Native American Mint for more information about this curious coin

The Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation and the Native American Mint have teamed up to produce a silver coin with a face value of $1.00 to mark the eclipse event. The coin is regarded as legal tender, but only on the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation. The face side of the coin features a map of the western hemisphere with the path of the moon detailing the eclipse. The reverse features an image of the moon in front of the sun. There is absolutely nothing cultural about the coin in its imagery.

The next solar eclipse over North America will be on April 8, 2024[17].






[1] Powell, J. W. Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1882-'83. Washington, DC: Washington Government Printing Office, 1886.
Time: The Dakota Winter Counts, page 126.
[2] Ibid., page 125.
[3] Mr. Kevin Locke, August 2017.
[4] Ibid., page 125.
[5] Hollabaugh, Mark. The Spirit and The Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos. Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indian Series. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Eclipses and the Aurora Borealis, page 112.
[6] Welch, A. "Life on The Plains in The 1800's." Welch Dakota Papers. November 1, 2011. Accessed August 11, 2017. http://www.welchdakotapapers.com.
[7] Ibid., page 114.
[8] Greene, Candace S., and Russell Thornton. The year the stars fell: Lakota winter counts at the Smithsonian. 1st ed. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2007.
Page 265.
[9] New Lakota Dictionary, 2nd Edition. 2008.
[10] Mr. Warren Horse Looking, 2014.
[11] New Lakota Dictionary, 2nd Edition. 2008.
[12] Húŋkpapȟa word for solar eclipse.
[13] Ms. Leslie Mountain, 2014.
[14] Mr. John Eagle, 2014.
[15] Many Lakota Winter Counts.
[16] Anonymous Lakota man, 2014. Note: this can also be found on a few winter counts.
[17] McClure, Bruce. "When’s the next U.S. total solar eclipse?" http://earthsky.org. Accessed August 15, 2017. http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/whens-the-next-total-solar-eclipse-in-the-us.


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