Indigenous Americans and Carl Sagan agree: We are star stuff

In the language of the Diné (what the Navajo call themselves), the word for "star" is "sitsoi yoo." But that word means more than just "star." According to Nancy Maryboy of the Indigenous Education Institute, sitsoi yoo means something closer to "my ancient relation from which I came," a reference to a traditional Diné belief that humans were born from stars. Remind you of anything?

I'm currently attending the 6th Science Center World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. Tomorrow, I'll be talking about how science museums are failing adult visitors, but I've also gotten the chance to sit in on several really interesting panels. The anecdote above comes from a panel on Indigenous Astronomy, which I hope to write some more about in the future.

Image: Sergio Eguivar — Buenos Aires Skies, via Astronomy Picture of the Day


  1. I wouldn’t say that they agree but more that their views are reflected in a similar light on a surface level.

    1. I wouldn’t say that they agree but more that their views are reflected in a similar light on a surface level.

      You could almost say it’s the same light.

      Granted, how star stuff got into people could be a snagging point, but the similarities between cosmology and cosmogony/creation myths are still kind of striking. How intuitively obvious is it to look at the night sky and think, I’ll bet my progenitors descend from those little points of light? Proof that even in technologically primitive societies there were geeks :)

    1. Teleology makes for first rate fiction :)

      I never noticed before that she says molecules burning in stars. Well, dammit Jim, I guess JMS is a writer, not a physicist.

  2. “Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about how science museums are failing adult visitors,…”

    Definitely looking forward to this one as well if you decide to post it!

  3. What, nobody’s linked the obligatory Moby song yet? I must fix that:

    (If the video’s region-locked, it is, of course, “We Are All Made of Stars”.)

  4. Even the most remotely unskeptical mind could look at the night sky and then think, “I bet the sun is one of those stars, just really close to us.  And the stars are just suns far far away.”  And then connect that with the prior realization that without the sun, nothing lives.  Therefore we came from the sun.  Therefore we came from the stars.

  5. The Dineh also have a legend that this is the fifth world, and that they came to this world up a ladder through a hole in the ground, with water rising behind them. It could be a retelling of crossing the Bering, or it could be an allegory of birth.

    Some Dineh who have faith in the origin tale find the science-based assertions of evolution and of a round planet circling a sun, to be offensive.

    Linguistic analysis has shown that the Dineh language classes shapes into points (sand), lines (snakes), planes (earth/land), round/cylinders (hogans being an example), among others.

    Humans (Dineh) are neither sand nor snakes nor earth nor hogan nor this nor that — When they came here from the Fourth World, there was neither Sun nor Moon, and no stars.

    This world is a “blanket”, and at every edge, the blanket rises and becomes the sky.

    By their reckoning, the stars are ancestors who lived in this world and who have ascended/passed on/risen — and became the stars. There was a boy who carried the sun and a boy who carried the moon; they were the first to go up. Just as they came from the Fourth world, so still they rise.

  6. “my ancient relation from which I came” could be said while standing over a gravesite containing one’s dead relatives.  It doesn’t mean “I came from this grave” any more than it means “the relatives from which I came are now in this grave”.  Therefore, referring to the stars as “my ancient relation from which I came” might be another way of saying “my relatives are up there now.”

  7. I too, would like to hear the the talk on how Science Museums are failing adult visitors.  Our local science centre had a Harry Potter show a while back.  I know they’re desperate for revenue, but come on. (They did give me a thoughtful reply to my somewhat indignant email, I’ll give them that much)
    also, for folks interested in native cosmology and such, have a look at the free program Stellarium, which has modes for viewing the constellation art in the mythologies of various native peoples. The Inuit have a constellation called “Blubber Container”, for instance.   

  8. We are made of star stuff is a nice way to say we are really nuclear waste. Our atoms were too far up the curve of binding energy to contribute to the proper function of our parent stars. We took our stars off the main sequence and caused a nova or super nova. Then we were spewed all over our local galactic arm. As usual humans destroy and litter in order to create. :)

  9. Ugh. Carl Sagan’s entire philosophy as described in “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” was that science in itself is a wondrous thing  — I don’t think he’d appreciate a comparison of an cool, yet empirically testable, hypothesis of science to the mythology of the Navajo.

    1. As much as he went on about holding science up as a candle, it against the darkness of pseudo-science and bad science, not against the darkness cast by traditions of hope.

      I think at least he would appreciate the wordplay, and that the comparison furthers the communication of science to even one mind which may have lacked it.

  10. Sorry to be a party pooper, but according to Young and Morgan’s dictionary (“The Navaho Language”, U. of New Mexico Press 1987), the word for “star” in Navaho is “sǫ'”. It’s related to the verb for glitter or sparkle.

    1. It can also refer to wood embers, a distant light, sparks up from a fire, and one jokester used it to refer to Das Blinkenlights (on a computer).

      There’s a movie, stars Val Kilmer as a Fed (aside: he went on to play Batman!) talking with an elder Dineh through an interpreter. He asks for something from the older gentleman, who then talks and talks and talks and talks (while the interpreter stays silent). Kilmer’s character demands the interpreter tell him what the gentleman said. The interpreter says “He said ‘No.’ ”
      He literally said that he needed to bring the sheep in off the mountain, and get water, and shear the sheep, and cull them, and card the wool (all things that would not happen for quite some time) — because, among cultural Dineh, saying “No” outright is a nasty insult – it denies that the other person’s request and their motives have any merit, which is tantamount to labelling them a purely evil force.

      A good amount of context (and an understanding of culture and canon) is often needed to understand Navajo. It’s why they were used in WWII as Code Talkers, and it’s (one of the reasons) why you can’t pick it as an option in Google Translate. Or pretty much any translation software.

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