Second-year doctoral student Jessica Benally remembers many nights of her childhood lying outside on her trampoline in rural New Mexico, feeling in awe of the expanse of the cosmos. At times, her grandmother would tell Navajo stories of the different constellations that were more than just celestial patterns in the night sky.
The Navajo strong connection to constellations, her grandmother said, helped with many aspects of life on earth, such as determining the planting seasons. Benally didn’t realize it back then, but in academic terms, she was learning archaeoastronomy.
It wasn’t until Benally’s years as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico that she began thinking about the stars in terms of both Navajo culture and mathematical concepts.
“To understand the rotation of the stars, like in Navajo archeoastronomy, you first become familiar with placing yourself as the origin to look at the stars. By doing this, you are orienting yourself to multiple layers of the environment by recognizing distances between stars and shapes to form constellations. From there you can map changes of the constellations' rotation from season to season.
“The rotational change of Náhookos Bi'ka' (Ursa Major) around Náhookos Biko' (Polaris) cut by seasons is similar to the 90 degree increments on the unit circle,” Benally says. “It first calls for a perspective change, being able to see an angle project from yourself out – toward the stars and constellations – rather than just seeing angles on paper."