“An eclipse is caused by the death of the orb, which is revived by the immortal bearers of the sun and moon. During an eclipse of the moon, the family is awakened to await its recovery. Similarly, a journey is interrupted and work ceases during an eclipse of the sun. Songs referring to the Hozhoji, or rite of blessing, are chanted by anyone knowing them, otherwise the passing of an eclipse is awaited in silence. It is not considered auspicious to have a ceremony in progress during an eclipse of the sun or moon, and a ceremony is often deferred on this account. The rising generation, however, pays little or no attention to this custom.”
p 41, Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, time and Astronomy in Navajo Sand painting: 1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce, University of New Mexico Press.
A warm juniper scented breeze caresses Janice, our son Erik and me as we sit on an ancient wooden bench under a sheltering ramada on a rocky bluff overlooking the iconic mesas of Monument Valley, Utah. We are in front of the historic Goulding’s Trading Post. A few feet behind us are the fragile remains of a rude, rustic adobe hut where Himself, John Wayne, spent the nights when he was being filmed in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache(1948), The Searchers (1956) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949).
The Almanac promised that the moon will rise in the east at 7 pm and the lunar eclipse begins at 7:45. I love the colors of the eastern horizon after sunset: red, orange and purple. For less than ten minutes, a couple of the famous mesas actually change from dark red to luminescent gold, then quickly fade back to red, becoming dark shadows in the desert dusk.
There is the moon rising as promised! Strange to look around us and see, in the Goulding’s Resort with all the rooms full near the end of peak season, we are alone. No one else is around. A slight shadow appears on the left edge of the moon and the magic begins. Eclipse. We have perfect seats for a rare celestial show. The eclipse unfolds slowly, but after forty-five minutes the moon is completely covered and then the promised conclusion: expecting a dark circle, instead the dark circle begins to glow red. Amber lights emanate from the darkened circle. Surrealistic. We are totally alone.
The next day, as I pay for some postcards at the Gouldings RV Park office, I ask the Navajo/Dine’ receptionist: “Did you see the eclipse? It was beautiful.”
Without making eye contact, she responded softly, “We try to avoid doing that.”
An hour later, we met with our Dine’ guide, Harry Nez, who took us to remote Mystery Valley and a long drive on deep sandy roads in his four-wheel drive GMC, exploring Anasazi ruins and pristine petroglyph rock art. I asked Harry about the Dine’ traditions concerning a lunar eclipse.
“The moon is sacred to the Dine’ and you don’t stare at the moon. It will affect your body. A pregnant woman is especially in danger. The way the sun and moon and earth line up is a special, sacred time. We need to show reverence. My family doesn’t eat or drink during this time; we stay inside our hogan.”
Harry expertly weaves through sagebrush and creosote, maintaining his speed so that we are not caught in the precarious deep sand. Erik loves this dramatic movement of the car, but I hope I do not get carsick.
Navajo cultural specialist Rudy Begay shares more information about the Dine’ respect for the spiritual power of the lunar eclipse:
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 a baby,” requiring a special ceremony for purification. (“Avert Your Eyes: Eclipse Viewing Taboo in Navajo and Other Cultures”, Theresa Braine, 5/19/12. Indian Country. American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico).
Navajo ethnobotanist Arnold Clifford reveals:
“The stars are not just there. 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.” (Theresa Braine).
We finally arrive in a sheltered canyon. A huge overhang of rock creates the illusion of the apse of a Gothic cathedral. In a place high above, an eroded circle in the overhanging rock presents an ancient arch. We sit in the sand beside an Anasazi ruin. Harry takes a covered object from his car: a Navajo flute. He surprises us with a haunting, ancient tune that echoes in the canyon.
After several hours visiting Mystery Valley, we travel on a firm, dirt road to the nearby paved highway.
Harry Nez with our son Erik
In the silence of our last minutes with Harry Nez, I had these thoughts about the moon: our Euro American mind may discount these taboos of the Dine’ during a lunar eclipse. Nevertheless, we know the moon has power. Janice, Erik and I live near the Pacific Ocean and the pull of the moon effects the tides. Janice, in her forty-five years at Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, California, can tell us stories about the increase in births during a full moon in the OB unit. The ER where she has worked becomes “crazy” with odd cases, intense activity and an increase in psychiatric admissions during a full moon.
A month after our Monument Valley journey, I walk with our son Erik in the hills surrounding our home in Laguna Niguel, California. A large, orange November full moon looms right in front of us. “Where is the moon? I ask Erik. “Over there.” He keeps his attention on the moon as we walk our mile- long circular route and begin to climb a hill heading home. Because we walk in a circle, the placement of the moon seems to change. “Where is the moon now?” I ask Erik.
“Did you move the moon with your finger?”
“He holds his index finger up to the moon and moves the finger sidewise.” Mentally four years old, he has not lost his sense of enchantment and wonder.”
“You are moving the moon, Erik!”
“I like it,” he laughs.
Sacred Land Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners, Robert S. McPherson. 1995, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University.
The Owl in Monument Canyon: And Other Stories from Indian Country, H. Jackson Clark. 1993, University of Utah Press.