Local tribal members prepare for solar eclipse

Native leaders advise community to treat event with respect and reverence

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Tommy Lewis, superintendent of Diné Education on the Navajo Nation, is advising tribal schoolchildren to take shelter indoors Monday as the sky darkens during a rare solar eclipse. Taos Pueblo officials are asking schools to excuse tribal students for the day, so they won't be encouraged to view the event with their classmates or watch recordings.

"A solar eclipse can bring out negativity, suffering and misfortune, and at the same time it cleans the world with positive energy," Lewis wrote to Navajo students, parents and educators earlier this month.

For many tribal people, a total solar eclipse, when the moon blocks out light from the sun, is a time to remain inside, engaged in quiet personal reflection and renewal, rather than a time for festive gatherings and viewings with protective glasses and pinhole projectors.

The cultural meanings of a solar eclipse and the traditions surrounding such an event vary for each American Indian tribe. Many are reluctant to discuss them. But some tribal government leaders in New Mexico are reaching out to schools and teachers, asking them to honor students' preferences during Monday's eclipse, which will occur during school hours.

Though, New Mexico won't experience a total eclipse. In Santa Fe, for instance, the moon will cover about 80 percent of the sun at the peak of the event, around 11:45 a.m.

"Showing respect and reverence during an eclipse is very important, " Lewis said in his letter to Navajo families and teachers.

He is advising students to attend school Monday but to stay inside a building, and to abstain from food and drink, as well as other daily activities. "Show reverence and respect by being quiet and still," he said.

Navajo ancestors offered songs and prayers during the duration of an eclipse to "bring protection and hopes for positive renewal," he added.

RaeNita Lujan, manager of the Indian Education Program at Taos Municipal Schools, said the Taos Pueblo governor is asking the district to allow Pueblo students to take the day off. There are 275 tribal members, from Taos Pueblo and other tribes, enrolled in the district, she said.

Lujan declined to discuss the pueblo's traditions involving the eclipse, but said, "As Native people, we view the eclipse as a bad thing, not as this great phenomenon of 'let's go out and buy glasses and have a party.' "

In a letter Wednesday to Taos-area school superintendents, Taos Pueblo Gov. Ruben A. Romero said, "It is culturally inappropriate for our children to view the upcoming solar eclipse, either in person or via recorded images/photographs." The excuse from school is necessary, he said, so that students "will not be forced to view recordings of the eclipse in any of their classes after the event."

Other school districts in New Mexico are making teachers aware that the eclipse may not be a celebratory event for all their students, or are reaching out to tribal officials for guidance on accommodations they should make for tribal students.

Superintendent Veronica García has sent out a districtwide message emphasizing safety during the eclipse, as well as cultural sensitivity. Students can opt out of viewing activities.

"Please be aware that many Native American Tribes have various cultural beliefs as do others from various cultures regarding solar and lunar eclipses," García wrote to teachers and school staff. "Please be respectful of these beliefs and be sensitive that we don't single anyone out; and take our cues from the students if they are uncomfortable participating in any viewing activities (regardless of whether or not they've provided an opt out form or not)."

The district has 420 Native students from 23 New Mexico tribes and another 120 from neighboring states, said Nancy Davis, coordinator of Santa Fe Public Schools' Native American Student Services.

The cultural differences can be a great teachable moment, she said. "Teachers should be open and listening and not pushing their beliefs on their students. It's a significant event."

The Pojoaque Valley School District has asked pueblo governors for direction on how to address the eclipse with its 378 tribal students. "If anyone has to be excused, they will be," District spokeswoman Angela Lovato said.

Leo Vicenti, a museum curator at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque and a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, said his community also views the event as one of reflection with family.

"For us, it's not a time you're supposed to go out and do anything," he said. "Our belief is it's almost like night, a time you should be with your family and in the protection of your own home."

One Navajo staff member at The University of New Mexico said he couldn't talk about the tribe's spiritual traditions around the eclipse but pointed to the 1994 children's book Sunpainters: Eclipse of the Navajo Sun by Baje Whitethorne as an honest story on the tribe's beliefs.

The book speaks of the eclipse as a time when the Earth is reflective and renewed, and that is how individuals should approach Monday's event, said the staff member, who asked not to be named in the newspaper. "It is deeply, deeply respectful for the entire duration of the eclipse."

Nathan Hatfield, chief interpretive ranger at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, said the ancient peoples who lived in the Four Corners area were avid sky watchers. On Monday, National Park Service rangers will take a tour of a protected area that has a petroglyph known as Piedra del Sol, which probably depicts a solar eclipse in A.D. 1097, when the area was in the path of totality -- or the path under which the moon briefly but completely obscures the sun.

"They couldn't have missed it," Hatfield said. "I'm certain they thought it was very important. I would not be surprised if there were some kind of ceremony to recognize that."

The park superintendent has granted leave for the Navajo employees who choose to stay home Monday, he added.

"Each tribe does have different oral histories that have been passed down," Hatfield said. "I do know for certain a lot of traditional Navajo will not be going outside during the eclipse."

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.­com. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.

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