Fires of Hope | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Fires of Hope

Mar 9, 2019

This is not an attempt to rekindle an old controversy, but in my opinion, our state’s flagship university missed an opportunity when a few years ago it selected a new nickname for its sports teams. It seems to me the selection process was crippled by lingering commitment to the previous, objectionable nickname. The result was “Fighting Hawks,” which is getting some traction, but is, well, uninspired.

The selectors gave short shrift to a proposed nickname that would have been much more inspirational: Sundogs. There is a name that is grounded in the prairies and lifts our eyes to the skies.

I’m talking to prairie people, in the dead of winter to boot, and so I don’t have to explain what a sundog is, but before I explore the sundog in regional culture, I’ll be a spoilsport and define it in semi-scientific terms.

More formally known as a parahelium (plural parahelia), meaning beside the sun, sundogs are refractions of light through ice crystals in the atmosphere. They commonly appear 22 degrees on either side of the sun, reddish on the side nearer the sun, bluish on the other. On striking occasions they arc around to join in a halo. On a particularly lucky day you may see double sundogs, with the second set at 46 degrees. Sundogs can occur any time of year, but they are most common and, I think, most welcome, during the coldest stretches of winter.

Nineteenth-century settlers in Dakota Territory described the dogs of the sun and ascribed commonsense meaning to them. Observed the Bismarck Tribune on 26 March 1880: “An unusual atmospheric phenomenon was noticed Monday about 5 p. m., consisting of brilliant sun-dogs on each side of the sun on a line drawn parallel to it and the horizon, while above the sun was a crescent describing an arc of about 30o with all the colors of the rainbow. Two other crescents similar to the first, and each side of it were yet higher up in the heavens. The outer rims of the crescents turned toward each other showing three distinct arcs.” A triple sundog!

The Emmons County Record of 15 February 1895 published a nice description of a double sundog, while others discussed the meaning of the recurring phenomenon. Most concurred that it forebode extreme cold. The editor of the Cooperstown Courier in 1884 acknowledged the general belief that sundogs were “weather-wise indicative of cold snaps, while others think they denote simply heliocaninity.” You have to think about that a minute.

Here is another way of looking at the question. My friend Dakota Goodhouse says, “Long ago, a man went out to pray when the cold gray winter seemed to linger too long. The constant bleak gray days began to effect the people’s dreams. He came back and instructed the camp to select two groups of youth to go out east of camp and build two fires, then to return. Everyone came together in the center of camp and prayed. The sun broke through the clouds and as it rose into the sky, the two fires rose into the sky with it. For the Húŋkpapȟa, the sundog is a promise of hope and light.”

The Húŋkpapȟa call this fiery promise the Wíačhéič’ithi (wiacheti), meaning, the sun makes himself a campfire.

I like this story better. The sundog looms over a frigid landscape, but the Wíačhéič’ithi lightens us with hope.

~Tom Isern