Wednesday, May 6, 2009


November 12, 1833, meteor
storm over Pennsylvania,
contemporary woodblock print.

On the night of November 12-13, 1833, the skies were lit by a storm of meteors. This entered the records of Anglo astronomers as an extreme manifestation of the annual Leonid meteor shower, but was remembered by Native American observers as the "Night the Stars Fell". The Leonid meteor shower is an annual display, which occurs in, mid-November and is usually a rather sedate display (Moore 1965:209). This annual show is caused by material from comet Tempel-Tuttle. Roughly every thirty-three years, however, the display is extreme.

Estimates of the frequency of meteors in this storm run in the neighborhood of tens of thousands per hour. Among the preponderance of people who did not expect this occurrence the range of responses would have run the gamut from wonder to terror. Among Native Americans the night the stars fell has been remembered in historical records, especially in the winter counts produced as records by the tribes of the Great Plains.

Lone Dog Winter Count,
Lone Dog, Yankton Lakota,
collected in 1876.
The pictogram for 1833-4 is low
in the picture, to the left of center, comprising
a crescent moon surrounded by stars.

The first Winter Count known to Anglos was Lone Dog’s Winter Count, which started with the year A.D. 1800-01. Lone Dog was a Yankton Lakota who painted his record on a buffalo robe, starting in the middle and spiraling counterclockwise outward. His Dakota name was Shunka-ishnala, which translates as dog-lone. Lone Dog was not of sufficient age in 1800 to have started painting this count. Either he inherited this project from a predecessor or he gathered his earlier traditions from tribal elders and worked back. Lone Dog’s record for the winter of 1833-34 shows a cluster of red spots around a black crescent moon (seen in the lower left quarter of the illustration) and represents the meteor storm of November 12, 1833. The Lone Dog calendar was collected in the fall of 1876 by Lt. H. T. Reed of the First U. S. Infantry, while he was stationed at Fort Sully in Dakota Territory, just North of present Pierre, South Dakota. “Reed used black and red ink to trace the pictographs onto a square of cotton cloth, working from a duplicate of the buffalo hide calendar of Lone Dog. The cloth copy traced by Reed was used as the basis for the image of Lone Dog’s calendar seen in Mallery’s “A Calendar of the Dakota Nation”. The cloth was photographed and then superimposed onto a buffalo robe, thus re-creating the original winter count kept by Lone Dog. The present location of Reed’s copy is not known, and the photograph in Mallery’s papers is the only known image of it." Many various copies of Lone Dog’s Winter Count are know in various media, on hide, cloth, and paper.

This event turned out to be a boon for students of Native American art because it was such a significant event that it was used to portray that year in almost every known winter count. This means that there is a single, known fixed point that can be used to align other winter counts and allow students to extend the scale in both directions.

So, what does this have to do with rock art? I cannot believe that an event which had such an impact on the Native American cultures would only have been pictured in winter counts. Polly Schaafsma believes that only half of the Navajo star ceiling panels were created before the date of the Night the Stars Fell. This means that the other half would have been created later. Given its impact is it not reasonable to assume that many of the latter star ceilings would represent that amazing night?

Star panel, Picture Canyon,
Baca County, Colorado.
Photo: Mike Maselli.

Beyond that, as we know the interpretation of rock art records from the past can be modified or changed by later cultures, according to their interests or needs. After the night of November 12-13, 1833, I am pretty sure that anyone who saw a rock art panel with recognizable star images would have associated it with The Night the Stars Fell. So that might not have been the original intended meaning of the rock art panel, but it could well have been believed to be the meaning of the panel when interpreted by later cultures.

So now we have the question of what does a rock art panel really mean, and to whom? If a petroglyph that had been created with a specific intended meaning by an early culture, but was generally understood by a later culture to have a different meaning, what does it mean? Does it carry the old meaning, the new meaning, neither, or both? I believe that in total, it has to be considered as to now carry both meanings.

A very interesting book on this subject is The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian.

Another interesting book on the astronomical knowledge and beliefs of Native Americans is Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations.

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