BIG CYPRESS – With well-protected eyes tilted skyward, Seminoles joined millions of other North Americans as they watched the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental U.S. from coast to coast since 1918.
Depending on which reservation it was viewed from, 76 to 82 percent of the sun was covered by the moon’s shadow at the height of the eclipse a few minutes before 3 p.m. Aug. 21.
Many spectators wore International Organization for Standardization (ISO) compliant eclipse glasses; others used ingenious ways to view the spectacle through pinhole boxes or other similar apparatuses.
At the Ahfachkee School in Big Cypress, students made pinhole viewers from cereal, cracker and shoe boxes and watched the eclipse from the school grounds. Students who didn’t have parental permission to watch the celestial show outdoors gathered in the cafeteria and watched a live feed from NASA as it documented the eclipse’s journey across the nation. “Awesome” and “cool” were heard repeatedly as the students witnessed the start of the eclipse.
Principal Dorothy Cain treated students outdoors to a brief glimpse through ISO compliant glasses. Most jaws dropped at the sight of a sliver of the sun being covered by the moon’s shadow.
Eclipses have been viewed by mankind throughout the millennia and many cultures have legends to explain the phenomenon. Seminole legend has it that a toad is trying to swallow the sun.
“My grandmother Willie Mae Cypress Billie taught me that if you were sleeping when it happened, you had to wake up or he would take your spirit with him,” said Mary Jene Koenes, traditional preservation curriculum specialist at Ahfachkee. “There may be other stories from other clans that are all taught differently. Even in the same family there can be different versions.”
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress held an eclipse viewing celebration that coincided with its 20th anniversary. More than 100 spectators, some from as near as the reservation and others from as far as Germany, witnessed the once in a lifetime event while enjoying appropriately-named snacks for the occasion such as Moon Pies, Sunny Delight, Sunkist raisins and other sun and moon themed treats.
Jake Osceola demonstrated the Seminole legend of shooting flaming arrows at the toad trying to swallow the sun.
“Different families have different details, but it is a consistent story of a creature that wants to swallow the sun,” Osceola explained to the crowd. “Our legend believes it is a toad. People shoot arrows into the sky to scare it away. If I’m true with my shot, we should have the sun back.”
With that, he shot four modern versions of flaming arrows, which were fit with an LED equipped night fishing bobbers instead of real flames. The arrows met their mark and the sun returned to normal shortly thereafter.
At the museum’s village grounds, a crowd gathered to wait for the eclipse. Tribal Historic Preservation Office employee Bradley Mueller attached binoculars to a tripod and pointed them at the sun. He used the binoculars to project an image of the eclipse on a white board underneath. The contraption drew a crowd of curious onlookers, who had an opportunity to see the enlarged version of the eclipse.
Guy and Francoise Bouchereau traveled from Clewiston to attend the museum’s viewing party.
“We probably won’t be around for the next one, so we wanted to see this one,” Francoise said. “It’s fabulous.”
Families donned eclipse glasses and shared the experience together.
“I told my kids that their great-grandmother would have seen the last eclipse in 1918,” Danielle Frye said. “I wanted to connect them to that and to hear the story of the toad.”
Throughout Indian Country, many tribes have their own legends and traditions. The Crow Tribe in Montana believed the sun dies and comes back to life during an eclipse. The ancient Mayans believed an eclipse was an omen of bad tidings to come, which may have led them to study the sun, moon and stars in order to predict eclipses and other celestial events. The result was the Mayan expertise in astronomy and invention of the calendar.
The ancient Navajo tradition pointed to the sun’s power as being weakened during an eclipse which could bring calamity to the tribe. To avoid that, they would stop all activities and go inside where they didn’t eat, drink or do anything else to show respect to the sun and moon. Some Navajo still observe similar traditions and Navajo Nation schools were given the option to close Aug. 21.
The Temagami First Nation in Canada has a legend of a boy who set snares for a living and decided to snare the sun. When the sun didn’t rise the next day, his people begged him to set the sun loose, but he refused to go that close to the sun. Instead, he tried to get animals to gnaw at the net; all failed except a small mouse. The sun escaped and life went on as normal. The Cree, Innu and Menominee Tribes all have similar legends.
A few tribes have stories that mimic the Seminole legend, but with slight variations.
The Choctaw believed eclipses were caused by a mischievous black squirrel who tried to eat the sun. They believed the only way to stop it was to scare him away. Women and children created a cacophony of noise by yelling, shrieking, clanging bells, pans and cups to confuse the squirrel. Even dogs joined the ruckus by barking and howling. The Choctaw warrior men, however, remained calm and shot rifles at the sky as if they were shooting game.
The Eastern Cherokee believed a great frog was trying to consume the sun, so they beat drums, fired rifles and made noise to scare it away. When the eclipse ended, warriors danced to celebrate the great frog’s defeat.
“It’s kind of weird to think about how long ago the last one was and that my [great-] grandmother saw it,” said Charli Frye, 14. “I never knew they have a legend for this; it’s different from the other legends and it’s pretty cool.”