LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Momaday, Falling Stars And Two Extraordinary Nights in November

This is a significantly revised version of my original blog posted on Wednesday with the addition of details I’ve located since that date as well as updates on the Thursday’s Unicorn showers.

Although the annual Leonids meteor showers have come and gone, the news about a potential “rich burst” of shooting stars from the Unicorn meteor showers has me thinking back to two remarkable nights in my life during Novembers long past.

I follow the website “Earth & Sky” and here is something it has to say about the Unicorn meteors:

“You might catch a rich burst of meteors from the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. At its peak, it was said the showers ‘could’ produce a burst of 100 meteors in just 15 minutes.”

You can read more about it at “Earth & Sky” as well as this article on the CNN website including the times to watch. However, the 2019 Unicorn showers were a bust I can say, from both my observations — we saw two — and this “Earth and Sky” post, which says they were “elusive.”

Unlike the more recent showers, on an extraordinary night in November 2001, the Leonid meteor showers were exceptional, just as predicted in the media. That night, I made plans with a friend to drive to a dark place near Richardton, N.D., where we bundled up, positioned our lawn chairs for the display, scrambled into sleeping bags and sipped on hot tea from a thermos. While the night was somewhat cloudy, the show was still spectacular, with massive explosions of green and purple near the northern horizon, so large one could imagine the sound. Many viewers documented that night, and some accounts and photos are widely available including here. Interesting historical accounts of past Leonids are in this story from The Washington Post, including fascinating details of an 1833 meteor storm (more about that later).

About the time of the 2001 Leonids, I began work on a rewarding project as part of my responsibilities as library director at Dickinson State University, a collaboration with the Department of Language and Literature, to bring contemporary authors to campus. The co-coordinator and my partner in this venture, Dr. David Solheim, came up with the program’s name: “Heart River Writers’ Circle.” Solheim made the arrangements with the authors (he had been bringing authors and poets to campus for many years by then) and I handled the other details, mostly administrative and public relations, as well as the follow-up book discussions held in the library and open to anyone who wished to attend. He and I were somewhat stunned when the DSU president (and his wife, who was very enthusiastic about the project) told us to “think big.” We stood in the hallway for a time looking at each other and then plunged ahead on a literary project that heightened attention to writers and survives to this day, long after our retirement.

Thus, it was that our second visiting writer for the series was Pulitzer Prize winner author N. Scott Momaday. His reading was a big splash, the auditorium packed including with tribal college students who were bused in for the evening and breakfast with the author the next morning. But first, I had the honor of dining with Momaday at the President’s house before the reading, where Solheim and I were allowed to invite a few of our own guests. It was an intimate gathering and I invited the man I was dating (who became my husband, Jim) and friends Debi and Ken Rogers. (Ken had graciously agreed to lead a future book discussion for “In the Bear’s House.”)

As we gathered that night for supper, Momaday, who is Kiowa himself, told us a story in his beautiful, sonorous voice of the Kiowa people being awakened on a winter night by a massive meteor shower many centuries ago. This was the 1833 Leonids, he said. He told us the story from the Kiowas Calendar History, described here in the Calendar history of the Kiowa Indians by James Mooney, available at Gutenberg.org:

Fig. 64—Winter 1833—34—The stars fell.
Fig. 64—Winter 1833—34—The stars fell.

“D’ä´-p’é’gyä-de Sai, ‘Winter that the stars fell.’ This winter takes its name from the memorable meteoric display which occurred shortly before daylight on the morning of Nov. 13, 1833. It was observed throughout North America, and created great excitement among the plains tribes, as well as among a large part of our own population; the event is still used as a chronologic starting point by the old people of the various tribes. It is pictorially represented on most of the Dakota calendars discussed by Mallery in his valuable work on the ‘Picture Writing of the American Indians.’ Set-t’an was born in the preceding summer, and the small figure of a child over the winter bar indicates that this is his first winter or year; the stars above his head represent the meteors.

“The Kiowa say it occurred in the winter season, when they were camped on a small tributary of Elm Fork of Red River, within the present Greer county, Okla. The whole camp was asleep, when they were wakened by a sudden light; running out from the tipis, they found the night as bright as day, with myriads of meteors darting about in the sky. The parents aroused the children, saying, “Get up, get up, there is something awful (zédălbe) going on!” They had never before known such an occurrence, and regarded it as something ominous or dangerous, and sat watching it with dread and apprehension until daylight.”

After he told us this story, many of us shared our memories of watching the 2001 Leonids.

Momaday is also on my mind because the PBS series “American Masters” aired the splendid documentary “Words From A Bear” this week — a film I’ve been waiting to see. (We narrowly missed its screening by one night last winter at the Sundance Film Festival when we passed through!) From the film’s website:

“American Masters examines the enigmatic life and mind of National Medal of Arts-winner Navarro Scott Momaday, the Kiowa novelist, short-story writer, essayist and poet, in the Season 33 finale.”

The film is streaming now; you can read more about the film here.

For the Heart River Writers’ Circle events, I prepared bookmarks to be given out cleverly promoting both the author’s upcoming reading and the later book discussions. I have many of those bookmarks to this day, tucked into the books I would purchase for my personal collection. After the readings, the authors signed their books at a reception, thus it is we have many signed books here at Red Oak House.

Someone snapped a photo of Solheim and me with Momaday that night, but sadly, I don’t have that photo. I do have the memories though, just as burned into my synapses as that night I watched the Leonids, or the times I watched the Halley’s and Hale-Bopp comets, or the night my daughter and I slept out on a hay bale stack to watch the Perseid meteor showers.

Do pause tonight (or some other night in the future) and take in the meteor showers, for moments to fill your life with awe.

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