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Indigenous Cosmology Wins: Kaibab Paiute Tribe Nets Dark Skies Award

The Kaibab Paiute Tribe has won a dark skies award for keeping light pollution to a minimum and preserving the night-sky view of the stars.

The ancients were accomplished cosmologists, part of a tradition of indigenous knowledge that intertwined with spirituality and survival. They had to be, at the minimum, in order to know what to plant, and when.

Flash forward to modern times, when light pollution threatens to mask much of our night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association, in conjunction with the National Park Service, is on a quest to heighten awareness of this issue and its environmental implications.

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A small tribe in northern Arizona has become the first “dark sky nation” in honor of its efforts to protect unspoiled nighttime views and a culture that is tied to the stars.

The Kaibab Paiute Tribe has about 250 members living near the Arizona-Utah border, north of the Grand Canyon. The tribe’s 120,000-acre reservation is surrounded by federally protected lands, including the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Another national monument, Pipe Springs, occurs within the reservation boundary.

All of those neighbors pitched in to get the attention of the International Dark-Sky Association, which recognizes dark-sky communities, said Daniel Bulletts, director of the tribe’s environment department.

“We have worked closely with the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument on youth education projects,” Bulletts told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We had the mutual idea to seek a designation. At the time, we weren’t really sure if we were going to be the first anything. We just recognized that our night skies are pristine, and why not seek a designation?”

The Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach. Since the program began, 10 communities, 22 parks and nine reserves have received designations. Two other International Dark Sky Communities, Flagstaff and Sedona, are in Arizona.

Convincing the tribe to support a night skies designation was challenging at first, because people took it for granted that they could look up at night and see starlight that wasn’t dimmed by the haze of light pollution, Bulletts said. But tribal members conducted outreach during annual stargazing events at Pipe Springs that highlight the importance of natural darkness to culture and wildlife. And astronomers from Bryce Canyon National Park brought their Star Lab equipment to the events several times. The Lab can project constellations skyward at any time of year, so people know where and how to look for them.

“People would kind of start looking for it,” Bulletts said. “Stories started to emerge through our oral archives, and tribal elders remembered them. Once that got started, we proceeded with the application.”

In order to earn the designation, the Kaibab Paiutes had to agree to a reservation-wide lighting ordinance, including wattage limits and requirements that lights be pointed down and shielded from above. The tribe also committed to ongoing efforts to showcase a cultural connection to the stars.

“One of our goals is to have storytelling and night watching,” Bulletts said, as well as “events in the summer, spring and fall that actually pertain to tribal stories about those different times of year.”

Photo: Tim Peterson

Abajo Mountains in Bears Ears, a 1.9-acre region in Utah that tribes, conservationists and others are working to preserve.