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Reachable Stars

Patterns in the Ethnoastronomy of Eastern North America

Written by George E. Lankford

Publication Year: 2007

Modern Westerners say the lights in the sky are stars, but culturally they are whatever we humans say they are. Some say they are Forces that determine human lives, some declare they are burning gaseous masses, and some see them as reminders of a gloried past by which elders can teach and guide the young—mnemonics for narratives. Lankford’s volume focuses on the ancient North Americans and the ways they identified, patterned, ordered, and used the stars to light their culture and illuminate their traditions. They knew them as regions that could be visited by human spirits, and so the lights for them were not distant points of light, but “reachable stars.” Guided by the night sky and its constellations, they created oral traditions, or myths, that contained their wisdom and which they used to pass on to succeeding generations their particular world view.
However, they did not all tell the same stories. This study uses that fact—patterns of agreement and disagreement—to discover prehistoric relationships between Indian groups. Which groups saw a constellation in the same way and told the same story? How did that happen? Although these preliterate societies left no written records, the mythic patterns across generations and cultures enable contemporary researchers to examine the differences in how they understood the universe—not as early scientists, but as creators of cosmic order. In the process of doing that, the myth-tellers left the footprints of their international cultural relationships behind them. Reachable Stars is the story of their stories.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi

In a project this big, with this many topics, and taking years, there are manifold debts that ought to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, there are undoubtedly many comments, suggestions, and clues that I have absorbed while forgetting the source. To those anonymous friends and helpers, many thanks. Fortunately, I remember many people who have graciously shared their time and knowledge with...

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pp. xiii

The images of the stars used in this book were produced from Carina Software’s Voyager II, v. 2.0, and SkyGazer, v. 3.25, available for the personal computer. I am grateful for their permission to use those images here. There are several excellent choices of software on the shelves, however, and all of them will do far more than is needed for this book on ethnoastronomy. It is one of the wonders of the computer revolution that...

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pp. 1-19

“The lights in the sky are stars,” proclaimed the title of a wonderful science fiction novel I read when I was young.¹ As the years went by and my perspective became more dominated by the study of folklore and anthropology, I realized this assertion was only one option. From a human viewpoint, the lights in the sky are whatever we humans say they are. Through the centuries we have produced a wide variety of explanations...

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1. Four Ethnoastronomies

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pp. 20-34

Ethnographers have the responsibility of recording all aspects of the culture of a particular people. That, of course, is an impossible task, for any human culture is far too complex ever to be captured or understood in toto, even by the people who live in it. Yet most of the available ethnographic information for the societies of the world has been gathered and recorded by individuals who were willing to undertake the impossible task.

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2. The Star Husband

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pp. 35-52

“A woman married a star.” Already we know this is an important myth, because the statement indicates a linkage of worlds, the human and the celestial, or the Middle World and the Above World. What happens when two separate worlds are linked? What are the costs? What are the rewards? How is the linkage accomplished? Should other humans attempt to do the same thing? As it turns out, this story is not fixed on...

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3. The Morning Stars

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pp. 53-71

Because of the 19th-century notoriety of the Pawnee ritual that involved a human sacrifice to the Morning Star, that asterism is still famous, at least by name. The continuing familiarity and the generic name “Morning Star” have left a general impression that belief in the heroic figure of Morning Star was widespread among Native Americans. In this chapter, however, we will see that such was not the case. What the available...

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4. The Morning Star of the Winnebago

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pp. 72-125

The Winnebago are Siouan speakers from Wisconsin. Their dialect is closely related to that of the Chiwere speakers—the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri tribes—and they are thus linked with them at least through the past few centuries. The possibility that the northern Siouan speakers are descended from the people of prehistoric Cahokia in the central Mississippi Valley is one of the reasons contemporary anthropologists are particularly...

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5. Stars in the North: Bears, Biers, and Boats

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pp. 126-161

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, with the latter’s Polaris, are readily identifiable by most people living north of the equator (see Figure 5.1). Although modest in magnitude and ordinary in color, Polaris is unique. It is the Fixed Star, the one that does not move. It also appears to be the one around which all the others move in great circles through the night sky. Those two important facts can only be determined by observation...

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6. The Star Cluster

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pp. 162-181

Of all the asterisms in the sky, the most universally recognizable is the Pleiades. What makes it unique is the close proximity of the 7 to 10 stars that it comprises. As opposed to most of the constellations, which are spread out across the sky in large unique patterns, the Pleiades is visibly a cluster, readily identifiable by even the most untrained eye. There is no other asterism that remotely resembles it. The cluster itself makes no...

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7. The Star Women

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pp. 182-200

“The Star Woman” is the title assigned to a myth text collected originally from Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet and brother of Tecumseh. After study of the original C. C. Trowbridge version, James Clifton rewrote and published “The Star Woman” and four other Shawnee texts. Here is an abridged version of the plot, with direct quotations from the Clifton rendition. White Hawk was a solitary Shawnee,...

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8. The Path through the Stars

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pp. 201-225

The largest constellation in the night sky is the Milky Way. It is barely recognized as a constellation in the Greek tradition, but it is considered a major player in the drama of the sky by peoples in the New World (Freidel et al. 1993; Sullivan 1996; Urton 1981). The “Milky Way” is identified in the Old World’s astronomy, of course, but it is not thought of in the same way as the constellations that make pictures in the sky. That is probably...

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9. The Starry Hand

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pp. 226-239

How can a departing soul gain access to the Path? Two assumptions about the sky seem to be prevalent: that the sky vault is solid, forming the basis of another world similar to the Middle World of humans, and that the sky, where it meets the earth disk in the west, rises and falls. The first assumption means that the soul must encounter a portal in the west that can serve as a passage to the other side of the sky. Without one, there...

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10. The Serpent in the Stars

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pp. 240-256

If the departing souls get on the Milky Way via the Hand constellation and its portal, what is their destination? Where in the sky are they going? The general answer provided in the ethnographic material is “on the Path to the south.” They have to travel south to reach the village of souls, which is located somewhere in the south or southwest, as some informants insisted. The “south” has to be connected with the Path, of course, so the search...

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11. Some Ethnoastronomical Insights

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pp. 257-275

The preceding chapters have been long and tedious. That is the necessary outcome of any search for type and oicotype groupings when the examination must begin with the texts themselves. The reader may justifiably feel overwhelmed with the flood of plots and variations, because it is a simple fact that human minds cannot maintain awareness of so many variables simultaneously. However, it is possible to build up the mass of...


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pp. 277-278


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pp. 279-297


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pp. 299-303

E-ISBN-13: 9780817380939
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817354282

Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indian mythology -- East (U.S.).
  • Indian cosmology -- East (U.S.).
  • Indian cosmology -- Great Plains.
  • Indian mythology -- Great Plains.
  • Ethnoastronomy -- East (U.S.).
  • Ethnoastronomy -- Great Plains.
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