Cosmic Connections

Kifwebe moon mask, Songye, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early-mid 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Thunder Diety Staff, Yoruba, Nigeria; National Museum of African Art collection


Read on to learn more about these pieces…

Guest Voices: Cultural Astronomy of the Miami

Out guest post this week is by Tim McCoy, Curator-in-Charge, Division of Meteorites and Chair of the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He is also a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

Elder Mildred Walker with Myaamia Project Director Daryl Baldwin planting Myaamia miincipi (Miami white corn). Courtesy of Daryl Baldwin and the Myaamia Project

Just as in various African cultures, watching the sky has been part of the lives of my tribe– the Myaamia or Miami– for countless generations. Throughout our lives, the cycles occurring overhead and within our homelands define the days, months, seasons, and years. This deep knowledge of our place– from our ancestral homelands in the Wabash River Valley (of what is now Indiana) to removal lands in modern Kansas and Oklahoma –has shaped our language and culture.   After generations of loss of cultural knowledge, and a period in which our language wasn’t spoken, we are regaining this knowledge of language and culture.   As a planetary scientist at the Smithsonian and citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, I have worked within my community to produce a multi-generational curriculum about the earth and sky.

Corn in various stages of grinding. Courtesy of Daryl Baldwin and the Myaamia Project

At the same time, our community has worked to strengthen our understanding of links between cycles in the sky and those in our homelands.    With the coming of the next new Moon, wiihkoowia kiilhswa (the whippoorwill moon) will arrive. This time of the year is when the whippoorwills– a type of bird found in North and Central America– call to begin the mating season.   The whippoorwill’s call also marks the time for planting Myaamia miincipi (Miami white corn).   If we plant in this Moon, the corn reaches the milk stage during kiisiinkwia kiilhswa (the green corn moon) and good to eat as fresh corn.  In the fall, this white flour corn will be harvested and ground for flour and meal.  Thus, while the sky provides a marker of time, it is also closely linked to these ecological cycles occurring in our homelands.

Guest Voices: Moon, Months, and Language

Our guest post this week is by Dr. Claire Flanagan, Director of the Johannesburg Planetarium, University of the Witwatersrand.

Greetings from the Planetarium in Johannesburg, the biggest and busiest city in South Africa! We had huge fun this week investigating a simple thing: the month.

We’re designing a new show here for our grade 4 – 7 learners – about 30,000 of them visit us each year – and we thought we’d include some local culture in a “moon-phases” lesson.   Our theory is: the month was invented by people watching the moon go through its phases every 29.5 days, so everyone invented and named their own set of 29- and 30-day months.  You can’t make up a 365-day year out of these “lunar months” – they’re too short – so nowadays most people use the well-known January, February, etc.  But do the original month names still exist in South Africa?

Themba (left) studies Environmental Science at Wits University; Claire is the Planetarium astronomer, Karabo and Ray (right) are Planetarium interns.

In one hour, they came across at least ten different languages on campus, including French. “March” in French is “Mars,” which surprised Themba, whose home language is xiTsonga.  Ray was relieved to meet other students who also only know the months in English – English is the main language of teaching here in South Africa, and most people would use the English words for months, even when speaking a different language.

However, the mission was successful, and the group returned to the Planetarium with an hour of video footage and lists of months in eight languages.  Ray settled in to extract a selection of students from the footage, while Karabo set off to find out what the month names mean in his home language, seSotho.

The months in Venda, spoken in parts of northern South Africa.

Karabo’s task generated some lengthy and heated discussion – the three people he consulted debated fiercely over, for example, the meaning of “Pherekgong” (January), eventually agreeing on “the month of cooking chickens.”

Most of the month names we came across involve activities connected to the different times of the year – in seSotho, cooking the chickens is followed by planting the seeds, sprouting of the shoots, cooking the corn, and then laughing at the birds (who are struggling to eat the hardened corn).  As Karabo said, it’s like a story of the seasonal cycle of life, which we think would be perfect for our new Planetarium show!

Watch Ray’s selection of students: