Native Americans have watched the skies for thousands of years. Every culture has developed stories about their origins, meanings, and place in their culture. August 12-13 the annual Perseid meteor shower begins and peaks on August 14, when up to 100 meteors can be seen each night, weather and moon phase permitting. This year the moon will be almost full, so meteors will be less visible.
Here are a couple of stories about Coyote and the Sky.
Coyote Eats the Sky
Long ago, Coyote was sound asleep. When he awoke, he was very, very hungry. He stretched and said, “I am going to eat the first thing I see!”
When he opened his eyes, he saw…the sky! He opened his mouth as wide as he could and sucked and sucked until he had swallowed the whole sky—sun, clouds, stars, the moon—everything.
Suddenly, everything went dark. No sun, no moon, no stars, just total darkness. The birds couldn’t fly, the animals couldn’t see where they were going and bumped into each other. Even the fish couldn’t see to jump up waterfalls to spawn.
“What are we going to do?” they asked. A small boy had an idea. “Let’s find that coyote and get the sky back,” he said. “Who is going to go with me?”
He had a little light that could shine the way and started off.
“I’ll go with you,” said Little Mouse. “I’ll go with you,” said Raccoon. “Me too,” said Fox. Then Deer joined in the hunt, as did Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Snake, Eagle, and even Bear.
Down the road a ways, they came upon Coyote, asleep, snoring, with a big full belly.
“How are we going to get the sky back?”
“I have an idea,” said Little Mouse. “When he snores, I am going to jump in his mouth, climb down to his stomach and try to pull the sky out of his tummy.” Mouse jumped in, grabbed hold of the sky and started to pull. but it was big and heavy and stuck.
“Help me pull,” he called. Snake slipped down and grabbed hold of Mouse and started to pull. Raccoon grabbed Snake, Fox grabbed Raccoon, Bobcat grabbed Fox and all the animals joined up, even the Big Bear, and they all pulled.
“Slowly, inch by inch, the sky came out and popped back up in the heavens above.
The sun came back! Clouds came back! Moon and stars were back!
“Eagle said, “I am going to carry the sky high up and hang it securely on the posts of the universe, so Coyote can’t pull it down again.”
That is why we have the sun and clouds, the moon and stars, and the birds can fly, the fish can leap, and the animals can see their way on the land.
Coyote slinked away, and never tried to eat the sky again.
The moral? Enjoy the light, feed the hungry, and treasure community and friendship.
Coyote Dances with the Stars
One night, Coyote was lying on his back singing a dance song, and he looked up in the sky, and noticed the stars were twinkling brilliantly. Coyote thought they looked like beautiful Indian girls and thought he would like to go up and see them.
So, Coyote went through the woods asking how he could go up to the sky. Spider said she could weave a long rope and the giant Redwood Tree said he could bend down to earth and throw Coyote up in the sky so he could climb all the way.
When Coyote got there, he discovered the stars weren’t just twinkling, they were dancing. Well, Coyote thought himself a very fine dancer, so he asked to join them in their dance. The star maidens answered, “You couldn’t dance with us, because we dance day and night, year after year, and we never stop.”
Coyote thought that, surely, if any girl can do that, then he, so big and brave, could also dance forever. The stars said no, but Coyote begged and pleaded, and teased until the girls said he could join them. So, Coyote joined hands with the stars, and he danced all over the heavens.
He got along alright for the first night, but the next night he was very tired. He didn’t want the girls to know he was tired, so he asked, “May I stop for just a moment, to get a drink?” The stars answered, “No, we told you. We dance forever and ever!”
They danced on, and Coyote began to get more tired, and his back was aching, his legs were aching, and again he called out, “May I stop to get a bite to eat, because I am very, very hungry!” And the stars said, “You must dance on and on, and never stop.”
Before long, the stars were dragging Coyote through the heavens. Coyote sank lower and lower, and soon fell back to earth. He fell so fast he looked like a shooting star.
Now, in the Klamath Region in Northern California, there is a great hole in the ground, where Coyote hit. So the next time you see a shooting star, you know Coyote is trying again to “Dance with the Stars.”
—Hupa story told by Grover Sanderson
Editor’s Note: The Perseid meteor shower will be dimmed by the light of the nearly full moon this August, but this astronomical event is still one of the best opportunities of the year to look for shooting stars.
The Perseid meteor shower is named for the constellation Perseus, the part of the sky—officially called the radiant—where the meteors appear to originate. The real source of the phenomenon is the cloud of dust and ice left in the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The Earth begins passing through that cloud in mid July and exits it at the end of August. When conditions are right, small particles of comet material create a spectacular display of shooting stars as they skim across Earth’s atmosphere,
Perseid meteors may be visible on any night during this time frame, but the shower peaks between midnight and dawn on August 12-13. The moon will be nearly full during the peak nights, but even with moonlight it is possible to see a shooting star or two once the sun sets, and the Perseid shower usually has a high number of fireballs, visible even with moonlight.
There are just a few minutes of full darkness between moonset and sunrise on August 13, the official peak of the shower. Skywatchers may want to aim for the hour before dawn on Monday, August 12, instead, when the moon sets about an hour before the sun comes up. NASA predicts a rate of up to 20 meteors an hour during this window in dark skies areas like the Santa Monica Mountains, less than the 50-75 meteors an hour during peak viewing, but still enough that the odds of catching a shooting star or two during are high.
To watch for the Perseids, pick a spot as far away from away from artificial light as possible with an open view looking north. The constellation Perseus is faint and can be hard to spot. It can help to look instead for the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia just above Perseus, and then look directly down for Mirfak, Perseus’ brightest star. An assortment of cellphone apps can help map the sky, but even without knowing where to find the radiant, one should be able to see a shooting star or two—the brightest appear to travel across the entire sky.
For more information on the Perseid meteor shower, visit NASA online: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/small-bodies/meteors-and-meteorites/perseids/in-depth/
For information on other upcoming meteor showers, visit the American Meteor Society at https://www.amsmeteors.org/meteor-showers/meteor-shower-calendar