In the days before telescopes, space shuttles or satellites, ancient people learned to observe the night sky, watching for changes or repeat occurrences that could explain phenomenon on Earth or guide them in the cycles of human life.
You’ll find a window to some of their age-old wisdom Saturday at “Native American Storytelling and Science Under the Stars,” a free event put together by Arizona Science Center and Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa that bridges the gap between two astronomical perspectives — a Western one rooted in Greek and Roman mythology and that of Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa cultures.
An agricultural people who farmed corn, beans and squash in the Gila River Valley, Pima and Maricopa descendants still live in the Valley today, on the Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Communities. Akimel O’othom, or Pima, storyteller Tim Terry will share their lore next to the river that was his ancestors’ lifeblood.
“Beyond the resort’s pool area, the Gila River runs right through the property. We’ve picked a big grassy area in front of a place where the river has some little rapids. There’s a giant bonfire in the center and chairs for about 70. You hear the river in the background, and you see the stars overhead,” says Neil Goldstein, an Arizona Science Center spokesman.
Goldstein, a former planetarium presenter with a special interest in archeoastronomy, will familiarize attendees with the sky above them, pointing out easily recognized features and relating stories from Greek culture, such as the tale of Orion, the hunter constellation.
“Then we sort of flip it on them. Tim takes the microphone, and he uses the exact same sky but in a completely different way, telling stories of how his ancestors used the stars to know what time of the year it was and when to plant certain things,” says Goldstein.
He says there are differences among tribal stories and tales of volatile Greek figures like Scorpius or Zeus.
“There’s a lot of violence and infighting and anger in a lot of (the Greco-Roman) stories. The Native American stories are a lot more about how to respect the earth or the sky and what happens when you don’t. And the Native American stories have realistic animals. The animals they lived with are in their stories, not so much these fantastic mythological beasts you see in the Greco-Roman mythology.”
But, he says, “they are both based on a moral; in most cases, you’re going to learn a lesson from these stories.”
In addition to storytelling around the fire, Arizona Science Center staff will offer activities, including a set of scales programmed to display what your weight would be on different planets. Another activity allows you to feel how light or heavy a standard bottle of pop would feel on other planets.
Four telescopes will be set up for sky viewing, if weather permits, and planetarium staff will help spot and explain objects. Hot cocoa and light appetizers, such as chips and salsa, will be served. Additional snacks and beverages will be available for purchase.
“As mystic as this sounds, it’s just a beautiful opportunity to come and reconnect with the sky,” says Goldstein. “It’s a great family event, there’s a chill in the air, and it’s an out-of-the-ordinary way to kick off the holiday season.”