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Opirikuts, Morning Star

The Wolf Band of the Pawnee, also known as the Skidi, lived on the plains of southeastern Nebraska, along the tributaries of the Missouri River. They were village Indians and built lodges of earth. In late spring, they planted corn, beans and squash, and when planting was done in June they packed up and set out on their summer hunt for bison. During these treks they lived in tipis as they trailed the animals that counted so strongly for hides as well as for meat. On returning from the hunt, it was time for harvest. Following that, there was time for the Skidi to be more at ease before a second buffalo hunt in winter. This was a time for storytelling, a time for the elders to pass on their wisdom to the young, a time to reflect on the traditions and ceremonies of their clan.

Tipis of the Plains Indians, including the Arapaho, Kiowa, and Blackfoot, as well as the Pawnee, were often decorated with celestial symbols. Animals, such as bears and elk, were also used in these designs, which were sometimes depictions of the traditional star-lore stories. The illustration here, showing the four-pointed Morning Star, with bears and cedar trees, is adapted from They Dance in the Sky by Monroe and Williamson.

The Skidi were keenly aware of the stars and the planets. They watched them nightly for guidance in their daily lives. The stories they told were keys to their success in keeping to the ritual of planting, hunting, harvest and worship. An example would be the appearance just before dawn of two stars they called the Swimming Ducks. This was a foretelling of the coming of spring. These stars are in the tail of the constellation Scorpius, Lambda and Upsilon Scorpii.

In particular, the Skidi revered Morning Star and watched this powerful warrior for advice in their affairs. They wished to follow his example of bravery in battle. This “star” was Mars; Venus was Evening Star.

In the Skidi story of creation, all things begin with Tirawa, the supreme One Above, who made the heavens and the stars. Morning Star began his journey in the east, traveling in search of Evening Star, who lived in the west. Each time Morning Star advanced, Evening Star placed obstacles in his way that he must overcome. [It is uncanny how like the Labors of Hercules is this Pawnee myth.] Among Morning Star’s tasks were to bring a cradleboard from a lodge in the heavens. He had to provide water to fall as rain and keep Evening Star's garden green. But these and other tasks he did accomplish, and eventually he came to the lodge of Evening Star. Yet even then, Morning Star had to conquer the four guards, Black Star, representing night, Yellow Star, representing sunset, White Star of the snow, and Red Star of summer. Now he had earned the right of marriage to Evening Star. Their daughter descended to Earth and married a boy who was the child of the Sun and the Moon. They grew and prospered and were the grandparents of all the people.

Perhaps the tasks were symbolized by the conjunctions as Mars neared one of the brighter stars along its passage from east to west and, overcoming it, proceeded in triumph; or it may be that each time the planet paused in its westward path and turned in retrograde motion, the Skidi thought of it as a reenactment of one of the encounters.

Mars is now our own Morning Star, rising about three hours before the Sun. It is located in the constellation of Leo, near the lion’s tail, Denebola, moving eastward into Virgo. It will not be of brave and commanding brilliance, however, for it will brighten only from magnitude 1.8 to 1.3 at year’s end. By next June, however, the red planet will have achieved opposition, presenting a disk of just over 20 seconds of arc, the best since 1988. But even better, wait until August 2003, when Mars will approach to within 0.373 a.u., the closest it has been to Earth since August 1924, when the Eastbay Astronomical Society was just five months old!

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