Significance of the Sky in Chumash Native American Religion and Culture

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  • Topic: Sun, Chumash people, Sky
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  • Published : December 16, 2012
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The Chumash people are a group of Native Americans, originally inhabiting southern and central California coastal regions, as well as several islands off the coast. The ancient Chumash built plank boats, weaved intricate baskets, and painted elaborate cave and rock artwork. They were also known for their knowledge of astronomy and their cosmology. Celestial objects greatly influenced the culture and religion of the Chumash people. As in many early civilizations, the sky was a thing of wonder and awe. The early Chumash looked to the heavens for answers, thus basing a religion off the celestial bodies. These people practiced rituals and prayed to these objects, hoping for good health, bountiful harvest, and continued balance in their world.

Many experts consider the Chumash to be a shamanistic people. The Chumash believed in a spiritual world, outside of the natural world. These ancient peoples were dedicated to communicating with the “other side”. The Chumash felt that by entering the spirit world, they could find answers, such as cures to diseases, and even see the future (Wikipedia, Shamanism). Similarly, the Chumash, like many Native American cultures, believed in animism. Animism is a spiritual idea that humans, animals, and all things associated with the natural world have souls. This idea pertains to natural phenomena, such as thunder, as well as geographical features, including mountains, islands, and forests (Wikipedia, Animism).

The Chumash had many deities, embodied as celestial objects, and they believed these gods kept order and balance in the natural world. During the night, a gambling game between two forces decided the fate of the world. The pole star, Polaris, known to the Chumash people as Sky Coyote, was in charge of one team; the Sun God led the other team (E.C. Krupp 1983, p. 71). While many of the planets were important to the Chumash people, Venus was of great significance. Depending on when it rose, Venus could have a positive or negative connotation. When it rises as the Morning Star, Venus is a kind god. When it rises as the Evening Star, Venus is the evil chief of the underworld (Windows to the Universe, The Chumash Tribe). The Morning Star paired up with Sky Coyote, while the Evening Star was on the Sun God’s team. This game continued yearlong, and at the winter solstice, the Moon added up the scores (Krupp 1983, p. 71). The Chumash held major religious festivals throughout the year, but the most important festival occurred around the time of the winter solstice. During this time, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, meaning the Sun is at its maximum southern point. If the Sun God were to win over the Sky Coyote after a year of gambling, the Chumash believed the Sun God might decide to continue south and leave the earth in an eternal winter. Fearing this possibility, the ancient people perform dances and rituals, which included prayers to the Sun God and rhythmic chanting (Windows to the Universe, The Chumash Tribe). However, if the Sky Coyote prevailed in the gambling game, the cosmos would remain in order and nature would maintain balance (E.C. Krupp 1983, p. 71). The Sun played another significant role in Chumash religion and in the daily lives of the Chumash people. In the Chumash civilization, the Sun God personified the Sun, travelling across the sky during the day with a bark torch, illuminating the world. When the Sun God finished his daily journey, he whipped the sparks off his torch and sent them into the sky. These sparks created the stars in the night sky (The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Chumash Life). Other sources claim that the Chumash people held a different view of the stars. According to Dr. John Anderson, the ancient Chumash people believed that the planets and stars were souls. When a person died, his or her soul ascended to the world above. The dimmer stars were the souls of humans who previously lived on the earth. The brighter stars and...
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