Sky Watching with the Navajo (Wao of Saturn, Part II)

I’ve made a big deal of people’s reactions to their first view of celestial objects through a telescope. There’s several reasons for this, the most obvious being the thrill of thrilling other people with just a few mirrors and lenses and a bit of know-how, and the energy and excitement generated that keeps me going and fuels future observing sessions.

The other reasons are no less important, though I never considered them until I met a group of people who offered none of the verbal feedback I was accustomed to. Tuesday, an ex-seasonal ranger turned local school technologist named Brandon brought out a van full of Navajo teens and children to the Night Sky Program.

The night was vaguely promising. Lots of clouds but a good clear hole overhead that seemed to be getting bigger. It was the largest group this month, at 22 people. About half of them were Navajo, the other half were, for lack of a better word, white park visitors.

The hole in the sky opened up, the sun remembered the cue it learned in pre-show blocking and exited stage west. Saturn was visible and I turned the 17.5” Dobsonian over to it. It was low to the horizon, and so we were viewing it through a lot more air (read: turbulence, pollution, gunk) than if it were overhead. So it was a bit boily and not all that sharp. Still, the ring was clear across it, as was one of the planet’s largest and brightest moons, Titan.

The Navajo kids and teens waited patiently in line. The first little girl climbed up the ladder and peered into the eyepiece. I waited. Silence. I waited. Silence. “Do you…see it?” I finally asked.

“Yes.” The little girl got down. The next person, a teenager, bent her head to the eyepiece. I waited. Silence. I waited. Silence.

“Does it…look sharp to you? If not, you can focus it.”

“It’s sharp.” She got down and joined her friends. It went like this. It was very strange, though I didn’t reflect on it until later. I just knew something was different. The evening didn’t flow like I was used to. Albireo didn’t elicit a wow. Nor did the Ring Nebula. Nor did M13, the great Hercules Cluster. This was like meeting Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of the planet Pluta, and saying “Oh, hi…” under your breath while looking at the ground.

Since I can’t look through the telescope at the same time, or indeed, see what another viewer can see, the verbal feedback I’m used to receiving helps me pace my presentation, gauge its effect, and also provides valuable feedback on the critical issue of focus. Since everyone’s eyes are different, what’s in focus for me may not be so much for you. How do I know? How do you know? Maybe Saturn always looks that fuzzy.

With our Navajo guests, I was adrift with none of those clues, and didn’t even know that was what was happening. Something just felt “off” to me. Even the white guests seemed more subdued than I was expecting. Group dynamics is a sensitive thing; the Navajos’ reticence could have rubbed off on the group.
The sky didn’t last long. A big blanket of murk took over from the west and wiped away all the glittering points of lights and the hazy meander of the Milky Way. Everyone left, and as GB, Jack , Jim and I were breaking down the telescopes, I voiced my observation.

Jack thought that perhaps they were simply being reflective, overwhelmed by the experience. I liked that thought, but didn’t think it likely to explain such consistent results. GB thought it was cultural. In conversations since, other more familiar observers of the Navajo language and culture have agreed with GB’s analysis and filled in some details. Navajo will seldom ask questions when they tour Chaco’s ruins, for example. It’s an expression of respect on the one hand and a generally less demonstrative language on the other. To further innumerate this, I was told that Navajo don’t use please and thank you (rather, the Navajo versions of these phrases) as frequently as white people do, and that the standard greeting when you enter a store from the clerk is “What do you want?” And that’s not rude at all. It’s polite and direct.

I don’t want to overstate this case. Lots of damage can be done in this territory of oversimplifying cultures and languages. Tonight’s Night Sky program may reveal a dozen completely demonstrative Navajo youth and I’ll be forced to yank this blog entry. Maybe it was just the one group, or perhaps it was the fact that they were in a mixed group with lots of white people that kept them quiet. There’s a complex relationship there that I can’t begin to tease out, and several ways I could imagine that history of power encouraging them to keep quiet. Not least of which is truly linguistic: it was an English-speaking event. They may not have felt free to react to what they saw in Navajo, and may not have felt confident to translate it. Upon reflection, the possible explanations are numerous and impossible to tease out. All I know is what I sensed (or didn’t sense) and how it made me feel, and how it led me to think about this complex relationship between people, languages and power.
I wish I knew what they thought of what they saw, but I have to respect their right not to speak. I hope it stirred something within them. Brandon said that they are always pestering him to take out his telescope to show them things, which leads me to think that I should learn how to interpret silence as a way of communicating appreciation for the natural off-world.

Jupiter rises over my trailer (before I moved to the compound)

Jupiter rises over my trailer (before I moved to the compound)

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3 thoughts on “Sky Watching with the Navajo (Wao of Saturn, Part II)

  1. Maybe you forgot to take the lens cap off.
    I’m curious to hear how this plays out with other Navajo visitors, assuming you will have more. What is the usual nightly audience like, in terms of both numbers and demographics? Are you getting the usual ‘Wow!’ from other viewers?

  2. Ha ha ha! No, lenscap was on. I’m also curious…though I’m not sure how many more Navajo visitors we will get. When the tribal schools run field trips to Chaco, usually 1/3 of the students will not get permission to come. Some of the more traditional Navajo don’t like the idea of climbing around where dead people were…it’s a bit of a taboo. In terms of demographics and numbers, it’s hard to judge; the campground is closed so only the hard-core campers willing to rough it in one of the alternative (private) campsites or those who don’t mind driving down jackrabbit road at 11:30 at night will stay for night sky…very self-selecting. Chaco is a self-selecting kind of place anyway, with 27 miles of washboard dirt road from the main highway. That’s the reason it isn’t swamped beyond recognition by visitors like many of the other western National Parks. The demographic of visitors I’ve seen (given all the above) is middle class, white, and well-educated. Most of the people that come here are readers, and in general the ones that stay for Night Sky have some familiarity with what we are showing them. Many of them are from the West, and so have some regular access to dark skies and have definitely looked through scopes before. So they are not as flabbergasted as some of the Easterners I’m used to working with. But also, the dark skies and bigger scopes ratchet up the views, so there is still a lot of oohing and aahing. The rangers want to do more outreach to the local communities–meaning mostly tribal schools–since many don’t have the means (or desire) to come to the park. Long winded answer, but good questions.

  3. Enjoying following your postings, Doug. Hope you are enjoying yourself out there and look forward to seeing more pictures when you return.

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