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Tracking Rabbits in the Sky

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Many people know the constellation Scorpius, consisting of a curving string of stars nicely visible low in the south on August evenings. You can easily find it on cloudless nights if you have an open horizon to the south. One bright, reddish, star gleams amid a chain of others that together resemble a fishhook, the letter "J," or the body of a scorpion.

The brightest star in Scorpius, the one with slightly red color, is Antares, a name that means "Rival of Aries," or "Rival of Mars," since Mars is the Roman name for the Greek God the planet derives its name from. In its movement through the zodiac, Mars appears to pass Antares: actually the star is some 60 thousand times farther away than the planet when they seem to come together in our sky. Since they both have reddish glow, the star acquired a name symbolic of its eyeball relationship to the warrior planet. You might appreciate this more fully when next you have the chance to see the ruddy pair lined up as if doing bloody battle in the heavens.

Currently, a still brighter object gleams near Antares: it is an interloper, the planet Jupiter, named after the King of Gods of classical mythology. Considerably brighter than Antares, Jupiter casts a more yellow light. It is easy to find, the brightest object in that region of the sky.

It is neither Jupiter, Antares, nor Scorpius that I wish to enlarge upon in this article. Rather, it is the tiny bunch of stars that marks the stinger of the scorpion, the tip of the fishhook, or the end of the "J." I keep rediscovering these stars in new forms. Like most others, I first learned them as the tail of Scorpius. Then I found that they set the Skidi Pawnee ceremonial calendar (more about this in a future article). More recently, from the Dine', the Navajos, I learned to recognize them as "Rabbit Tracks," and in my judgement, this is the best example of stars actually looking like a pattern they are named for. I want to pass this Navajo knowledge of the sky on to you.

Imagine, in slow motion, a rabbit making tracks as he is chased by a bobcat, coyote or other hunter in the hills. See how he plants his front paws on the ground, one after the other in a line. He leaps, and his two back feet come down together, side by side in front of the line of the first two prints. He leaps again and again to repeat the pattern, over and over. Any expert in tracking will recognize rabbit tracks right away, and he will easily recognize them once he finds them in the sky. The pattern of stars at the tail of Scorpius is a perfect rendering of a set of rabbit tracks. Go out and find them. Commit them to memory. Then look for them in the sand and snow.

For a very long time, this pattern has conjured up images in the minds of people who have lived close to nature. From these tracks, they could picture the rabbit hopping along in the sand, and if they were hungry enough they might picture him roasting over the fire. For the Navajo, these four stars are "the Hunters Guide." They appear just before sunrise when winter weather breaks. Earlier and earlier they rise as the young rabbits are born down here on Earth. By summer, they are standing upright in the evening sky as darkness comes. When fall arrives, they are tipped on an angle to the southwest: the signal for Navajos that it is time to hunt.

I had no idea of how well known rabbit tracks were until I began encountering them in Native American rock art. Along the banks of the Colorado River in southeast Utah, for example, there is a petroglyph panel that includes a line of rabbit tracks, and famous Newspaper Rock located in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park has sets of rabbit tracks running through the center of the collection of images. I know of several additional examples in Dinetah, the traditional homeland of the Dine' in northwestern New Mexico.

The classic Navajo sand painting of Mother Earth and Father Sky includes recognizable star patterns, one of which is Rabbit Tracks. In addition, certain Navajo ceremonies make use of gourd rattles with small drill holes showing stars. The patterns differ from rattle to rattle, but frequently one can recognize Rabbit Tracks among them.

In recent years some of my friends and I have located rock art in Dinetah that includes groups of stars pecked into the rock as patterns of tiny holes, very much like they are in Navajo ceremonial gourd rattles. I have cataloged 18 examples of such rock art star patterns and 7 of them include Rabbit Tracks. Most of this rock art was probably made in the early 1700's, when Pueblo people moved into Dinetah with the Navajos, fleeing their pueblos to escape the Spanish.

Now, I am becoming convinced that the Rabbit Tracks stars were known by these Pueblo people as well as by the Navajos. Two distinct evidences suggest a long tradition for the Rabbit Tracks in the sky. One lies on the bank of the Colorado River, near Moab, Utah: a rock art panel includes an irregular line surrounding a set of tiny pits, a perfect depiction of Rabbit Tracks. Secondly, one of the most important publications on the Zuni people, recorded in the 23rd Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1904, includes a photograph of rock art removed from a place near Zuni Pueblo. Pecked into the rock were sets of tiny pits: one set was a fine representation of rabbit tracks. The text with the photograph identified the patterns as stars, although it did not mention Rabbit Tracks.

Each of our lives is a running set of stories, unveiling themselves as we live from day to day, year to year. I grew up hunting rabbits, but not until I discovered Rabbit Tracks in the sky did I pay any attention to how rabbits move and how they make their tracks on the ground. Now, I notice them everywhere I go and I never see these stars in the sky without thinking of the enticing ideas that have been associated with them, some known and others lost through time and the disappearance of those who mentally superimposed their own particular patterns over the stars.

Go out on these warm, clear August evenings. Look to the south to find four gleaming stars: a pair close together, side by side, with another, more widely separated, pair in a vertical line below. Rabbit Tracks! Perhaps you can find some group of stars nearby that your own mind will turn into the rabbit that made the tracks that sparkle in your eyes.

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