Like many other Indigenous people of North America in a number of other places, the Great House of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert was carefully aligned with the sun. In fact, 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the Great House. First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.
There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes.
As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. What is the Lunar Standstill? For the first half of each year, the moon rises during the day in phases from near-full to a mere thin crescent, rising earlier each month from early afternoon to early morning. In July, the moon rises between the rocks as a nearly invisible new moon around dawn. From August through November, the waxing moon rising between the rocks, ranges from crescent to nearly full. Moonrise continues to come earlier each month, from just before dawn to just before sunset. Finally, the full moon rises between the rocks at sunset near the Winter Solstice in December. The duration of the moon’s passing between the spires was different for each rising but generally lasted from five to fifteen minutes.
The moon’s orbit of Earth oscillates or wobbles, gradually causing the moon to rise at different points on the horizon over the years. Actually, I never learned that the orbit of the moon around the earth is not as perfect as I thought. The entire cycle of the wobbling moon takes 18.6 years, and apparently the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert understood these imperfections, because they had observed. Even though I have never observed them. Have you?
At the termination of each of the swings of the moon, the moon seems to pause for about 3 years! There was such an apparent pause in 2021 and one in 2004.
At each end of its swing, the moon appears to pause for about three years, rising at the same point on the horizon before beginning to move. The cycle is complicated. That apparent pause is called the Lunar Standstill. There are places in North and South America where the indigenous people noticed these movements and sometimes built structures to take these movements into account. They paid a lot of attention to how these movements aligned with local landmarks such as rocks rising above the horizon.
No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had. I have my own theory. Religion at its foundation is about connecting people to each other, other creatures, and the world. These alignments help establish these connections.
When we get the glorious opportunity to visit a place like Casa Grande or one of the other sacred sites of North America we can’t help but wonder who were these amazing people who built these astounding canals and structures and then watched the sky so intently. What were they looking for in the sky? Those first Spanish missionaries asked the locals here why that was the case, but the indigenous people had a difficult time explaining it to the newcomers. Perhaps they thought the new arrivals were too ignorant to understand.
To indigenous people of the American Southwest, as in so many other places around the world, the fundamental notion of spirituality and religion came from the notion of connection. That was always, at least until recently, the basis of religion around the world. In India the original meaning of the word “religion” comes from the Indo-European word “religio”, which means connection or linkage. Religion is what connects us. It connects us to other people, and it connects us to the world.
In many North American languages, the name for the tribe means “the people”. In other words, we are the people. Many North and South American people saw the connection between them and the world in how the stars or other celestial bodies aligned with the lives of people. It connected them to each other. It was the same with the ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert.
Unfortunately, adherents to some of the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam forget the importance of connection and instead concentrate on what divides us from other people or the world. They see religion as something that makes them superior to others. In my opinion when this happens religion has gone off the rails, and in fact, in some cases is not actually religion at all, but its opposite. Religion can become sacrilegious!
These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House. It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,
Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo. Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.
The indigenous people here who consider themselves the descendants of the Ancient Ancestral Sonoran Desert people call this sacred place Siwan Wa’a Ki. To them it is a place to come and sing songs to the Huhugam Spirts. The non-O’odham call this sacred place Casa Grande Ruin. It was well known to their people and was mentioned in the O’odham legends.
What is clear is that this is a place Great Spirit.