Arizona tribes talk significance of solar eclipse

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Associated Press

Posted on May 19, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Updated Sunday, May 20 at 5:11 PM

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Seven years old and lounging in a tree listening to the radio, Baje Whitethorne Sr. wasn't aware of the lesson he was about to learn.

His grandfather called him down from the tree, saying it was time to go inside their home on the Navajo reservation and wait while the sun died and was reborn. There was going to be a solar eclipse.

Whitethorne wanted nothing more than to eat, but he did what he was told. That day, he learned patience and a cultural teaching that he has passed on through a children's book he wrote about why Navajos shouldn't gawk at an eclipse like the one that will be visible Sunday in parts of the western United States.

"It was just the respect and honor you give to what nature does," Whitethorne said. "The sun is reborn, and in acknowledging what nature does, you take a minute to acknowledge yourself."

Many American Indian tribes view the sun and moon as cultural deities but the beliefs among northern Arizona's tribes and individual members don't all signal a need to stay clear of the ring eclipse, or annular solar eclipse, that hasn't been seen in the U.S. since 1994. Whitethorne says he will use the opportunity to read the first book he authored and illustrated 20 years ago, "Sunpainters: Eclipse of the Navajo Sun," to his grandchildren.

Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Tribe has no plans to go out of her way to watch it. Even if she did, it would be nothing more than a glance, she said.

"In our tradition they tell us as children not to look at the moon because it's such a powerful energy that if you gaze upon it too long, it can bring bad dreams," she said.

In the Hualapai culture, blocking out the sun could be interpreted as a bad omen, said tribal member Wilfred Whatoname Sr.

"We may have done something wrong to make that happen," he said. "That doesn't happen often, so people are led to believe that maybe we should take care of our lives a lot better."

Staring at the eclipsed sun can indeed cause a serious eye injury, and some Navajos have linked exposure to it to birth defects, or other physical and mental ailments. Whitethorne's grandfather covered the food and water outside their hogan decades ago to keep anything the livestock could eat or drink from being exposed to the eclipse as well, he said.

Navajos living in Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the reservation or people visiting Sunday already will be at one of six prime viewing spots for this Sunday's eclipse, where the moon will cover about 95 percent of the sun's diameter.

An eclipse is a phenomenon that the Hopi Tribe refers to as one piggybacking off the other. It is acknowledged in the tribe's history, but the director of the tribe's cultural preservation office said it isn't known to be taboo to look at it.

"Over time we've been exposed to eclipses on and off, but we don't have anything bad about it through our traditions," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma. "It's just an amazement."

Sitting on a blue chair inside his grandfather's hogan, Whitethorne imagined small children with paintbrushes restoring color to the landscape once the eclipse was over. He followed his grandfather's lead in blessing each direction in recognition of the renewal that had taken place.

And when they were done, he got to eat.

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