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The Duck Stars are Swimming in the Springtime Sky

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

My article "Groundhogs, Shadows & Growing Light" explained how Groundhog's Day is the cross-quarter day that can be considered to announce the beginning of spring. Indeed, February is the time when it becomes easy to notice lengthening days that bring with them all the things we associate with springtime. Now, I want to share with my readers a most interesting Native American method for determining the start of spring. It comes out of the Plains, from the Pawnee Indians, who lived their traditional lives in Nebraska and Kansas, but later moved to Oklahoma. This ingenious method involves all the observational factors that are important to know the change of seasons: stars in the sky, changes in weather, and the return of new life. It is much more reliable than watching the Groundhog's shadow.

The Skidi Band, one of four groups composing the Pawnee Nation, had the most astronomically oriented world-view that I know of. They believed that the first human, a female, came from the union of the Morning and Evening stars, and that the first male came from the Sun and Moon. They possessed sacred bundles and other artifacts that they believed were given to them by their stellar parents, their deities. Their calendar and all associated activities were determined by watching changes in the sky and associated changes all around them here on earth. They knew the stars well and had sophisticated methods for tracking them. Their traditions relating Earth and Sky ran deep and high, permeating everything they did: an elaborate round of ceremonies, planting of crops, hunting bison on the Great Plains, harvesting, and both their political and social organization. Even their homes were modeled after the heavens and they used their lodges as astronomical observatories for knowing time.

The Skidi Pawnee ceremonial year began with the appearance of a pair of stars in the early morning sky, just before the light of dawn masked them from view. This first annual early morning appearance of stars is referred to as "heliacal rise," the very first time the particular stars can be seen in the dawn light. From that first appearance onward, the stars of interest can be seen more easily each day as they rise earlier and earlier. The pair of helialically rising stars of greatest importance to the Skidi were named the "Swimming Ducks." When these stars stood in the pre-dawn sky, the Skidi priests began a vigilant watch of the weather. When they heard the sound of thunder rumble across the prairie from the west, but only after the Swimming Ducks were in the sky, they would get down the sacred bundles, open them and begin the ceremonies that would continue through spring, summer, fall and into the wintertime.

Thus, with the appearance of the Swimming Duck stars, these people noted with worship, song and joy in their hearts the renewal of life each year. They said that the Swimming Ducks awakened and alerted all the living things. With their appearance, flocks migrated northward, animals began their movements and gave birth to young, buds appeared on plants and gushing winds and waters enunciated songs of renewal. It all started with a pair of twinkling stars coming back into visibility.

My hope is, dear reader, that you now have a passionate desire to know what these calendar-setting stars are and even to get up early and go out to find them. Then, I hope you will tune in more acutely to the changes going on in nature: feeling increasing warmth of sun, watching for formations of migrating birds, listening for their songs and noticing sprigs sprouting from moist ground.

The Swimming Ducks are the two stars at the very end of the tail of Scorpius, the stinger of the scorpion. They are two of the stars that form the Navajo constellation "Rabbit Tracks," which I described in my column last August. Indeed, I find myself wondering if the other stars composing the Rabbit Tracks might have been thought of by the Pawnee as the rest of the flock of ducks rising upward in the sky to announce the return of life.

If you wish to find the Swimming Ducks, go out about one hour before sunrise, around 6:00 a.m., and look to the southeast. You will need to observe from a place without mountains, buildings or trees blocking your view in that direction. If you have an unobstructed view and clear sky, you will be able to see the fishhook shaped figure of Scorpius with bright and reddish Antares marking the heart of the scorpion. Follow the string of dim stars that form the body of the scorpion downward to where it curves to the left (east), then continue upward to the point of the hook marked by Lambda and Upsilon Scorpii, the Swimming Ducks. The stars appear to have about the same brightness and stand very close together. Another way to picture all these stars is as the letter "J." The ducks are at the left tip of the J.

I hope you will make the effort to get up early on a February morning to look at these stars, to sense the significance they have had for a group of Native Americans who, once upon a time, set their calendars by these otherwise not-so-impressive-looking little stars that have returned again to our night-time sky.

Note: Readers wishing more detail about this and related topics can find it in Mr. Chamberlain's book When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America, Ballena Press and Center for Archaeoastronomy Cooperative Publication, 1982.

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