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Navajos honor a solar eclipse by choosing not to watch

The Monument Valley Navajo tribal park at sunset.
Christian Mehlführer
Creative Commons
The Monument Valley Navajo tribal park at sunset.

Hundreds of millions of people in the United States are expected to watch the solar eclipse Monday. But many Navajos follow traditional teachings to give the sun “privacy” during the two-and-half-hour event. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about those traditions with Misha Pipe, an outreach science educator at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory with Navajo and Sioux heritage.

We’re talking about the upcoming solar eclipse, tell me a little bit about how Navajos traditionally spend their time during an eclipse.

During the eclipse we usually kind of hibernate. We go inside, go indoors. We close all the curtains and doors and windows, and we don’t let light in. And there’s so many teachings that reach back to this, and I’m not speaking for every Navajo…I’m speaking from what I’ve been taught and where I’m from, which is Valley Store area, but I was also raised in the Teesto area. And so we’re taught to not let the light in… We don’t look at the sun as well. We stay humble, we stay quiet, we stay in prayer and reverence at the moment, and until the whole thing passes, we choose to fast. We don’t eat and we don’t drink. We also don’t sleep. There are times where families get together; some I know do a little chant or do their prayers, some sing songs together. Others, they do storytelling. My mother, she sat us down and told us stories about her childhood and old traditional ways that were carried out when she was little.… And so it’s exciting to think that this grand event that is out of our control is happening, and dating back from generations we’ve always looked at the cosmos and we’ve always gave it the honors during certain events, and looking at it now, it’s this huge event that’s drawing thousands of peoples together, these big cities, and they’re preparing these instruments to look at it, and I’m a part of this little handful of people that will not be looking at it. In my own way, I’ll be celebrating differently.

Yeah, thanks for sharing that with me. I’m curious, these days everybody photographs eclipses or takes video of eclipses. Are there any cultural teachings about that, is it okay to look at images of eclipses or do you avoid that as well?

Right. There are a lot of families who choose to not look at them…. You’re taught at a very young age to have that moment of respect for what’s going on around you; acknowledge that there is something bigger and greater than just you…. You know, I had to tell my kiddos, hey, turn off your phones, your iPhones, your iPads, disconnect from the internet for a little bit.

Right, that makes sense…. You happen to work at Lowell Observatory, you work at an astronomical observatory which Monday will be inviting people in to see the eclipse and celebrate it. How does that work for you and what are your own plans for Monday’s eclipse?

When I first came to the observatory I was hesitate to look through the telescopes, I was very scared: what can I look at and not look at? I would go home and ask for advice to my elders. They always told me, take your medicines with you, take your prayers with you, take your smoke, make your offerings. Keep that balance with you. Because if you’re working out there, you’ll going to have to cross these paths sometimes, but ask for forgiveness in our own prayer and our own way. I came to terms with looking at the sun through telescopes out of educational purposes. I’ll set up a solar telescope and we’ll have kids look through it and I get to explain what they’re seeing. It’s really exciting because it’s their first time seeing those things. But when it comes to the eclipse, it’s still a huge no-no for me. I actually will not be at work. I’m actually pulling my kids from school, too…. I think it’s going to be really fun because right now I have twins who are five years old. They’re at the stage where they’re going to say, well, how come? Why? It’s my turn to teach them, this is what we practice, this is what we carry on. It’s been generations through generations that we’ve done this. Yes, we’re living in the modern times, but that’s not a reason for us to let go of who we are.

Misha, thank you so much for sharing some of these cultural teachings with us.

Thank you for reaching out, I really appreciate it. It means a lot that there is inclusion with this.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.