While millions around the world will flock to view the annular solar eclipse on Sunday at sunset, many who are smack in the middle of its shadowy path will avert their eyes. Eclipses are a bad omen in much of Indian country, and the indigenous world in general, from the Navajo to the Maya.
It's not easy to obtain information about astronomy from the Navajo this time of year; such things belong to storytelling season, during the winter months, said Rudy Begay, a Navajo cultural resource specialist consulting with various federal programs.
“The moon and the sun are sacred the way they were created, and you are not supposed to watch the moon or look at, stare at it for a long time," he told Indian Country Today Media Network. "It affects your mind and your body. Especially for a woman that’s carrying a baby. Because when there is an eclipse either lunar or solar, this is a sacred time where the sun, the moon and the earth is kind of like in an intimate position when they line up, so it’s such a sacred thing that’s happening, you don’t look at those things that are happening out in the sky.”
If a pregnant woman sees an eclipse of any kind, be it solar or lunar, it might "affect the mind of the woman or also in the future it will affect the health of the baby,” Begay said, and a special ceremony must be conducted to rid them of the influence.
During an eclipse, "every man, woman and child—they have to show reverence, and they don’t eat, they don’t drink water, they just go into the house until it passes," Begay said. “And then they show respect for the moon and the sun.”
The Maya too, found eclipses to be disturbing. Although many representations of eclipses appear in Mayan art, such events were generally understood to portend bad tidings.
"Solar eclipses, known as chi' ibal kin, or 'to eat the sun,' were a particular cause for distress among the Maya people," the website Starteach.com notes. Mayan priests went to great lengths to predict eclipses and calculate all manner of astronomical phenomena.
Navajo ethnobotanist Arnold Clifford went a bit deeper, still without telling stories.
"The stars are not just there," he said. "There’s a purpose for them out there. They’re very powerful. It’s a place of death out there. It’s a place we don’t really want to talk about, out there. It’s a place that we’re supposed to avoid. It’s a place reserved for the holy people, for specific types of holy people."
The sun shines daily but a toll must be paid, he said. "Each day when the sun shines for us there are people that die for it. That’s a cost we pay to the deity to keep that thing in motion," Clifford said.
On a solar eclipse day, the sun's power weakens. When that happens, calamity is sure to follow.
Sometimes he has a bad day," Clifford said of the sun. "When he turns, he sends evil, thinks evil thoughts. That sun will turn black. When this turns black, it brings calamity to the Earth."
Therefore during an eclipse the ancient Navajo "would stop all activity," Clifford said. "They’d stop the ceremonies. They didn’t eat, they didn’t drink water, they stayed inside, they didn't go outside. They avoided all that darkness, that evil influence that was coming down on them."
Much of that still holds true today, said Melba Martin, an educator and amateur archeoastronomer who serves as a liaison for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Navajo reservation.
“The eclipse coming up on May 20 occurs right above one of our schools and right through one of our very sacred areas—several sacred areas," she said. "Our national park is within a mile of this. They are refusing to let people even in with telescopes, outsiders. Excellent viewing opportunity, but they’re refusing."
However, she said, she has been asked to do a presentation about the eclipse 60 miles away, at Navajo National Monument.
“I will do a presentation inside, and that will be for the people who do not want to go outside but do want to learn about the sun and the moon from a science perspective and some culture," she said. "The people who can—the non-Navajo, and there are some Navajo who do not take advice and will go out there and view eclipses—we’ll be giving them the science opportunity outside the monument."
Canyon de Chelly, however, is not doing anything of the kind, she said. Luckily the eclipse falls on a Sunday.
“It’s coming right over our junior high school as a matter of fact,” and just a few hundred yards from a sacred site, Martin said. "But again, the park has decided no. We’re not going to allow telescopes in there."