Friday, December 6, 2013

Altair and Fomalhaut: Cold’s Cottonwood and Big Woman

Recently for my Ancient Astronomy class, I did a brief paper on Native American legends surrounding the stars Altair and Fomalhaut, which are two of the brightest stars in the southern sky of the United States. It is of no surprise that numerous Native American legends have been created surrounding these two stars, and the stars in their direct vicinity.  In the post, I used screenshots from the Stellarium.

One of these constellations is what the Greeks referred to as Aquila or the Eagle.  Within Aquila is a line of three stars that is often referred to as the head of the eagle or the head of Aquila, consisting of Altair and the two stars on either side: Alshain and Tarazed. These three stars are in a line that is fairly straight, and has led to many interesting myths.

One myth comes from the Maricopans, a tribe native primarily to southern Arizona. For the Maricopans, the head of Aquila was called “Cold’s Cottonwood,” a constellation that would appear in the sky at dawn in January, “when the yellow blossoms appear on the cottonwoods.” The flowering part of the cotton plant, known as a catkin, does resemble the stars in the head of Aquila.

Another myth is the Coeur d’Alene story of a trio of people running in a race, which is represented by “three stars in a row.” A good candidate for this constellation is the head of Aquila, as Orion’s Belt (a much brighter trio of stars in a row) is thought to have been a bark canoe.

While Altair was an important star for some tribes, for the Klamath of southern Oregon, the star Fomalhaut is more prevalent in their stories. “Kai,” or “Rabbit,” was said to be a star that would appear in the southeastern sky before the sun rose in May and June, and was supposed to be able to “freeze the lake by looking at it.” Fomalhaut, which not only can be seen in the southeast just before dawn in May and June, is also the brightest star in that particular area of the sky, making it a very likely candidate for Kai. Numerous other tribes had stories surrounding Fomalhaut as well, such as the Luiseño, who called Fomalhaut “Nawiwit Chawachwish” and believed that this star was a great chief who “went to the sky” after he died; and the Northern Paiute, whose star “Big Woman,” or “Paba’i-yü-mogo’tni,” also fits the description of Fomalhaut.


Miller, Dorcas S. Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations. Westwinds Press, 1997. (accessed December 7, 2013).

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