Chaco Canyon and the Night Sky

One of the striking features of Chaco is the dominating sky. With few trees or other impediments to the view, the sky feels omnipresent. When you combine the lack of horizon while actually in the canyon proper, and the high cliff walls, there is a “cocoon” sensation. Each edge of the canyon you see, even through the Fajada or South Gaps, looks like the edge of the world. At night, the lack of surrounding light pollution leads to spectacular stargazing. Planets and stars pierce the night sky like diamond needles. The rising of the moon is dramatic and arrives on stage like a movie star making a grand entrance.

Perhaps even more than ancient peoples elsewhere, Chacoans strove to be at one with the natural cycles of Father Sky and Mother Earth. Tracking the seasons was not just ceremony and theater; planting or harvesting at the wrong time would mean the difference between a surplus andpossible starvation. In the Zuni language, the word for life is the same as daylight: tekohanane.     

For a culture that lived at the mercy of the rains and natural forces around them, being able to track and anticipate the sun and moon cycles must have provided a much needed sense of control or connection. As the days leading into winter grew shorter, with the noon sun lower, a sense of dread may have descended upon the people, as they perhaps did not know for certain that the cycle would reverse. There must have been relief each year after the winter solstice, when the sun would slowly rise earlier in the day and reach higher into the sky. Ceremonies, festivals, and feasts would certainly celebrate these major annual milestones—going from the depths of winter to a tepid first step back to spring and into the full blossom of summer. Sun Priests would bear the responsibility of erecting tracking stations, monitoring the results, and making pronouncements that all would be anticipating. They held an important, prominent role in the community. 

This responsibility did not stop with the decline of Chaco, it has continued with some of the Pueblo descendants, including the Hopi. Don Talayesva, a Hopi Indian born in 1890 wrote an autobiographic book called “Sun Chief”. He wrote:

“The point of sunrise on the shortest day of the year was called the sun’s winter home and point of sunrise on the longest day its summer home. Old Talasemptewa, who was almost blind, would sit out on the housetop of the special Sun Clan house and watch the sun’s progress toward its summer home. He untied a knot in a string for each day. When the sun arose at certain mesa peaks, he passed the word around that it was time to plant sweet corn, ordinary corn, string beans, melons squash, lima beans and other seeds. On a certain date, he would announce that it was too late for any more planting.”

The Zuni Indians have similar rituals, whereby the Sun Priest and Master Priest seat themselves in a specific place and watch the play of the sun and shadow. Notches are made in a calendar made of pinewood. This calendar would guide the labor schedules, religious ceremonies, even recreational and leisure activities.