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Before the Telescope: Palomar's Indigenous Astronomers

On May 10, 2024, the staff, astronomers, and docents of Caltech's Palomar Observatory, along with members of the Pauma Band of Indigenous people (one of the six groups that comprise the Luiseño tribe), alongside archaeoastronomy scholar and Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp, celebrated the release of a new digital exhibit featured on the Palomar website, the observatory's information kiosks, and at the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics on the Caltech campus: The First Palomar Astronomers.

Long before astronomers at Caltech, led by George Ellery Hale, selected Southern California's Palomar Mountain as an appropriate site for what was, for a time, the largest reflecting telescope ever made, the Payómkawichum people (now more often called Luiseño, the name given to them by the missionaries who built Mission San Luis Rey on their land) lived on and near the 6,100-foot mountain—or Paauw, as it was known in local languages—and observed the night sky. Using a combination of anthropological research undertaken in the early 20th century, artifacts found on Luiseño lands, and oral histories provided by members of the Native American tribes that are today captured under the Luiseño umbrella, a slide show was created to showcase the deep history of astronomical observations that have taken place at Palomar.

As Andy Boden, deputy director of Palomar Observatory tells it, this digital exhibit, along with four others on the Palomar website, were inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic: "If it wasn't online then, it didn't exist," Boden notes. Most of the information included in the digital exhibit comes from a 2005 article by Krupp that details Luiseño art, ritual, and culture associated with their practice of astronomy. The exhibit itself was the creation of Boden, Krupp, and Annie Mejia, media development consultant for the observatory. It was reviewed by Patti Dixon, professor emeritus of American Studies at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, and an elder in the Pauma Band.

The exhibit describes how the Luiseño watched the sky to track the seasons. Each month began with the appearance of a waxing crescent moon in the west, and the winter solstice was noted as the time when the sun "arrived home" and rested for three days before returning to its peregrinations. According to early ethnographic reports, the Luiseño had a sky specialist who was responsible for setting the dates of public events and serving as a religious functionary. The Pauma Band still celebrates an important holiday in the fall during the month called "Big Wind-Whistling Moon," when members go to Palomar Mountain to collect acorns and celebrate a feast featuring a dish called wiiwish.

Beyond this time-keeping function, the denizens of the night sky also feature in Luiseño stories about the creation of the world and the retreat of supernatural beings to the sky after death came into the world. For example, the Pleiades, which the Luiseño called Chehaiyam, were thought to be seven young women who climbed up to heaven on a rope to escape death. Coyote (identified as the star Aldebaran) climbed up the rope behind them, but the women cut the rope and Coyote fell backwards, where he continues to trail them in their movement across the sky. The Milky Way is important in Luiseño theology and ritual, appearing in the story of the world's creation, initiation ceremonies for girls, and rock art dating back many generations. It is said to be the destination of the soul after death.

Boden feels it is important to recognize the deep history of astronomy at Palomar Mountain. "What we do on a nightly basis at the Palomar Observatory is not all that different from what the Luiseño did," he says. "Like them, we are building narratives to help us make sense of the universe and our human connections to it."

The first Palomar astronomers digital exhibit and its recent dedication celebration continues a practice of including Luiseño astronomical practices and culture in discoveries made with the Observatory's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. In 2009, astronomers, tribal leaders, and archive specialist Jean Mueller, a Palomar telescope operator, collaborated to name several asteroids Mueller discovered after important figures in Luiseño creation narratives, including Tukmit (Father Sky, the original divine being), Tomaiyowit (Earth Mother, who created people along with Father Sky), and Kwiila (black oak, one of the first people to inhabit Earth). In 2022, an asteroid that circles the sun more closely than the planet Venus was named 'Ayló'chaxnim (Venus girl) by the Pauma Band, and its naming was celebrated at Palomar Observatory with traditional Pauma blessings, songs, and poetry.

Written by Cynthia Eller

Cynthia Eller