Native Village
Youth and Education news
 Volume 2, February 2011

Milky Way central to Native American stories
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Arizona: Lisa Palacios is a Tohono O’odham graduate student at the University of Arizona. She remembers her mother telling her the Tohono O’odham about how the Milky Way galaxy was created.

“My great-grandfather used to tell my mother traditional O’odham stories when she was a little girl,” said the American Indian Studies major. “She then told me those exact stories when I was a little girl.”

The version of the Milky Way story Lisa remembers features Coyote. Coyote is a trickster who doesn’t listen and  ends up in trouble.

One day, Coyote was playing in someone’s kitchen among the cooking utensils. He was trying to find some food to eat, but then he heard someone coming. He grabbed the first thing he saw, which was a bag of flour, and ran. He thought the best way to escape was by going into the sky. As he ran into the sky, the bag tore open. The flour flew everywhere, creating the Milky Way galaxy.

“The Milk Way galaxy is a trace of what Coyote shouldn’t have been doing,” Palacios said. “Not to mention, it gives me insight of how my people made sense of their surroundings.”

Long ago, elders in each O’odham family told traditional stories to their children and grandchildren. The stories were told during winter because of the long nights and for safety reasons. The O’odham say the dangerous animals are hibernating and can’t harm anyone.

Today, too many elders don't know the stories from their family or area. Most old stories are written and illustrated in books.

Lois Liston is a Tohono O’odham traditional arts teacher at Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School in Tucson. Ha:san is a bicultural high school for Native youths interested in attending college. One of Liston's jobs is to enhance her students' cultural knowledge by telling these old stories.

“I like telling traditional stories to students because there are so many different versions,” she said. “When I share stories, I always tell them, ‘This is how it was told to me.’”

Other versions of the Milky Way story have Coyote spilling cornmeal to form the stars, or Coyote stealing white tepary beans and scattering them while trying to escape.

Another Tohono O’odham Milky Way story describes an old man and a young boy.

An old man was mean to his grandson, so the boy decided to leave and went up into the sky. The grandson lay in the sky and could see his grandfather down below. The grandfather could not find his grandson and began to feel badly about how he had treated him. The old man walked around crying as he looked for the boy. After time had passed, the grandson also began to feel badly and decided to come back down to give his grandfather a way to be with him. The boy told his grandfather that he had left because the old man was mean to him, and so he had made a new home in the sky. The boy gave his grandfather some seeds and told him to plant them. In four years, the old man would have enough seeds so he would never go hungry. The grandson also told his grandfather the seeds were white tepary beans. The gray streak above in the sky was made of these beans, and this was his home. He told his grandfather that whenever the old man missed him, he could look up and see him across the sky.

Each traditional story carries a deeper meaning. O’odham stories show that everything has a purpose.

“The importance of any story is what is it trying to teach you,” said Ron Geronimo, a Tohono O’odham language teacher at Tohono O’odham Community College.  “In this story, it is trying to teach us about how we should treat people and each other.

“I’m O’odham, and I’ll always be O’odham, so these stories are a part of me,” he added. “If I choose not to value my own culture, then I would have a conflict with who I am."

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