Students see night skies through Diné eyes

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

TSAILE, Ariz., February 2, 2012

(Courtesy photo - Fred Tahe/Diné College)

TOP: Left to right, Lance Alcott, Raquelle Sandoval, Avery Denny and Charles Coffey cluster around Coffey's telescope Jan. 24 at Diné College's Star Party in Tsaile, Ariz.

BOTTOM: Left to right, Kaelyn White, Marlyssa Jim and Curtison Bedonie wait in line while another student takes a closer look at Venus. Charles Coffey, far right, held a Star Party Jan. 24 at a Diné College parking lot in Tsaile, Ariz. (Courtesy photo - Fred Tahe/Diné College)

Students and community members braved 26-degree weather for the chance to be dazzled by the sight of the moon, Jupiter and Venus, as viewed through a telescope the night of Jan. 24.

The location was a parking lot at Diné College, whose 7,100-foot elevation and clear air guarantee some of Dinétah's best stargazing.

About 30 people gathered at the invitation of Diné College faculty member Charles Coffey to enjoy the Star Party, which capped off a day devoted to seeing the night skies through ancestral Navajo eyes.

Astronomy sessions held earlier in the day featured the traditional Navajo constellations and were held at the request of the students, explained Avery Denny of the Diné Policy Institute.

"They were asking for astronomy. So I talked to Robert Johnson, invited him to come up," Denny said.

Johnson, a cultural specialist with the Navajo Nation Museum, brought along the museum's STARLAB planetarium, a dome-shaped inflatable balloon that displays projected images of the Navajo constellations and can accommodate 25 viewers at a time.

It was the planetarium's first visit to Diné College, and Johnson said he was impressed by the participating students.

"Having visited colleges off the reservation, it was definitely an honor to get these adult students, who are at such a high level (of education), and tell them about the Navajo constellation," Johnson said.

For Jonathan Jones, a sophomore in the Diné studies program, it was time well spent.

"It was interesting. I didn't know about (the planetarium). Even though it's not like being outdoors, I got an idea of identifying stars and formations, it was informational," he said, adding praise for the extracurricular offering. "It does a lot... It's extremely positive and during my time here I've learned a whole lot about our culture. These (events) help you learn a lot about yourself."

Sophomore Curtison Bedonie saw the Star Party as a welcome study break.

"We spend all day studying, going to classes, and doing homework," he said. "This gives us some time to come out and socialize a little bit then go back to whatever we were doing."

Kaelyn White, a sophomore originally from Solano Springs, Ariz., said she had little knowledge about the Navajo constellation stories while growing up, having spent most of those years away from the reservation.

"Learning about Pleiades, in particular, was very informative," she said, referring to the Greek name for a star cluster that is visible through the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. "I'm a farmer but I didn't know that you weren't supposed to plant until she was gone."

As the evening progressed, Star Party attendees found respite from the freezing cold in Dine College's South Hogan, where a fire had been built for them.

Raquelle Sandoval, a freshman from Ganado, Ariz., was not new to constellations, but was glad for the Navajo interpretation of them.

"Back in high school I took an astronomy class," she said. "I think it ties us to our background, as Navajos. We have stories about the stars. We need to have someone tell stories about the stars and the background and what they represent."

Sophomore Lance Alcott admitted he had never seen a telescope. His family had gone stargazing, he said, but somehow he'd missed out on it.

"I wanted to really see the stars," he said. "I mean, I never knew that was Venus. I've seen pictures but it was really cool seeing it for myself."

Both Alcott and Sandoval want to see more campus activities like the Star Party.

Alcott, a senator in the Associated Students of Diné College, said, "We're having a meeting next month and we're going to talk about getting more events like this. Students need to get involved instead of being on Facebook. We need to have them get out there and do something."

He also called for more involvement by instructors, saying, "More instructors need to come or be more aware of these events. You have to be a leader in order for people to follow you and if more instructors came and talked to the students, maybe more people will show up."

Charles Coffey said he periodically schedules stargazing events for the students, and was pleased with the turnout.

Stargazing helps the students develop their critical thinking skills, he said.

"It opens up their imagination and increases their wonder," he said.

Currently, Diné College offers an introduction to astronomy course at the Chinle branch.

To schedule a visit by STARLAB and Robert Johnson, contact the Navajo Nation Museum 928-871-7941 or

For information on stargazing sessions at Diné College, contact Charles Coffey 928-724-6712.