North Star
Back to ASTRO UTAH Home
Welcome to Project ASTRO UTAH
Our Goals

The Coalition

The Schools

Science Snippets

Interesting Links

Von Del's Astronomy Articles

ASTRO UTAH Newsletter

The Chief Star

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

One of the most famous stars is Polaris, the North Star. Strange, isn't it, that many people are unable to locate it in the sky. It is always there in approximately the same place, day and night. Even though it can not be seen in daytime, a person well-versed in astronomy could point to where it is located. My column today is written in hopes that readers will be certain they can locate this important star and that they know some interesting concepts associated with it.

Many people assume that Polaris must be very bright, but it is not. Its most outstanding quality results from its location, rather than from its relative brightness. Most people start by finding the Big Dipper in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Currently the Dipper is low in the north-northwest evening sky. Go from the end of the handle of the Dipper to the pair of stars marking the end of the bowl. The bottom star of the pair is Merak and the one at the lip of the bowl is Dubhe, Utah's Centennial Star (100 light years away). Sometimes this pair is referred to as "the Pointers," since the line from Merak through Dubhe extended onward about five times the apparent separation of the two stars leads to Polaris.

Polaris marks the end of the Little Dipper formed by the brightest stars of Ursa Minor, the Smaller Bear. Four of the small dipper stars are faint, making it difficult to locate, especially from lighted cities. When you have learned to locate Polaris, you know one of the most significant stars in the heavens, for Earth's axis of rotation points almost directly toward this North Star making it remain nearly motionless in our sky.

Polaris is the mariner's star. Alluding to this, Carl Schurz wrote:

"Ideals are like the stars. We will never reach them, but like the mariners on the sea, we chart our course by them."

And Christian Rossetti wrote:

M-^Eone unchangeable upon a throne
Broods o'er the frozen heart of earth alone,
Content to reign the bright particular star
Of some who wanderM-^E

Navajo people refer to Polaris as the "Fire Star." They relate it to two groups of stars on either side of the Fire Star--the Great Dipper, which Navajos call "Revolving Male," and Cassiopeia, which they know as "Revolving Female." The revolving pair are thought of as parents of all the other stars, and with the Fire Star they represent principles of home and family life, of being together around the fire.

A beautiful Paiute story pictures Polaris as Na-gah, a great sheep that climbed the ultimate mountain. He went up through an opening inside the mountain, but part way up rock rubble cascaded down to seal the entrance. Na-gah came out through a hole at the top to stand at the pinnacle of the cosmic spindle with hardly room enough to turn around. Shinob, the Paiute younger god, turned Na-gah into Poot-see, a star. Paiute people know him as Qui-am-i Wintook Poot-see, the only star that will always be found in the same place.

Ancient Chinese people called Polaris the "Emperor Star," and many Native Americans knew it as "The-Star-That-Does-Not-Walk-Around." I think my favorite concept about this star comes from the Skidi band of Pawnee Indians. These people referred to Polaris as the Chief Star. It was the supreme example of how Chiefs should behave. In the Skidi mythology we find instructions given by the creator to this star:

You shall stand in the north. You shall not move; for you shall be the chief of all the gods that shall be placed in the heavens, and you shall watch over them.

The Chief Star was said to communicate with the chiefs of the people to help them resemble the star that presides over his people in the sky. The pole star, then, was a symbol of stability, leadership, and guardianship, a concept deeply ingrained in Skidi society. The Chief Star, always present in the sky, represented all of the leadership qualities bestowed to the people through the chiefs. Skidi chiefs emulated the qualities they recognized in the Chief Star: they maintained rigorous control over their actions, voices, and temperaments, doing all they could to keep the type of order among the people which they perceived in the constant and consistent movements of the stars, especially in the stability of their mentor.

The North Star, the Great Chief in the sky, always visible in the night, was the supreme example known to all the Skidi and clearly related in their thought to their own chiefs. The people looked to these leaders to be like the celestial prototype and to guide them in smooth, consistent, and repetitive paths. They would perform needed ceremonies; they would plant and hunt and in all ways live in a well-ordered sequence. They would repeat the sequence each year, just as the stars of heaven repeat their seasonal aspects relative to both Earth and Sky. In this sacred way, under the guidance of both heavenly and earthly leaders, the Skidi believed that they should live as the sky gods had intended.

When you go out and find Polaris, look around at the majestic patterns in the heavens and consider the order, control and stability represented by this one star. Think of the Fire Star and those gathered around it for the warmth found only in families. Picture Na-gah standing at the cosmic axis, having conquered his greatest challenge, watching over his celestial flock. Consider the Great Chief in the sky and the qualities we might all seek in whatever leadership positions we occupy.

Copyright 1999-2002 The Clark Foundation.
Please direct all comments and queries to