Representatives of the Navajo Nation are asking NASA to delay an upcoming lunar launch after the space agency failed to consult them over plans to send human remains to the moon.
On January 8th, the Pittsburgh-based aerospace company Astrobiotic is set to launch the Peregrine lunar lander, which will deliver payloads from both Celestis and Elysium Space, companies which "bury" cremated human remains in space.
Now, the Navajo Nation is imploring NASA to stop the upcoming launch due to the fact that the moon is a sacred place in their – and many other – Indigenous cultures.
Navajo representatives say that dumping human remains on the moon amounts to nothing less than the desecration of a holy site.
The Moon as a Holy Site
In Navajo mythology, the moon, known as "Tł'éhonaa'éí," plays a significant role in their creation stories and cosmology.
According to Navajo beliefs, the moon, along with the sun, is seen as a pivotal figure in the creation and ordering of the universe. The moon is often personified and is believed to be a protector and guide. It's seen as a symbol of change, growth, and the passage of time, reflecting the natural cycles of life and the universe.
The history behind this belief is rooted in the Navajo creation stories, where celestial bodies like the sun and moon are not just inanimate objects in the sky but are imbued with spiritual significance. These stories depict the journey of the Navajo people through different worlds and highlight the moon's role in guiding and protecting them during these journeys.
Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren recently sent off an urgent letter to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, pleading with them to cease the cremation payload at once.
“We believe that both NASA and the USDOT should have engaged in consultation with us before agreeing to contract with a company that transports human remains to the Moon or authorizing a launch carrying such payloads,” wrote Nygren in his letter.
“It is crucial to emphasize that the moon holds a sacred position in many Indigenous cultures, including ours,” he explained. “We view it as a part of our spiritual heritage, an object of reverence and respect. The act of depositing human remains and other materials, which could be perceived as discards in any other location, on the Moon is tantamount to desecration of this sacred space.”
Numerous memorandums and executive orders have been issued in recent years promising to consult with tribal leaders on issues that impact them, most recently the “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships,” issued by President Biden in 2021.
That memorandum pledged to more fully involve Tribal communities in policy matters that might affect them, and another 2021 memorandum promised to “ improve the protection of, and tribal access to, Indian sacred sites.”
Just a few years later, Navajo leaders say the federal government isn’t holding to their agreement. President Nygren believes that the upcoming lunar launch – and the lack of communication with Tribal leaders about them – explicitly violates these memorandums.
Sacred sites are defined as "places that afford views of important areas of land, water, or,” he says, “of the sky and celestial bodies."
Dark Side of the Moon
The Navajo and NASA have had a complicated relationship. While lunar missions have obviously been a key aspect of the agency mission since its inception, NASA has had to reckon with Indigenous groups' beliefs about the moon as a sacred site.
In 1998, the two groups butted heads over the lunar burial of scientist Eugene Shoemaker, an incident which President Nygren cited in his recent letter.
“At the time, Navajo Nation President Albert Hale voiced our objections regarding this action,” Nygren wrote. “In response, NASA issued a formal apology and promised consultation with tribes before authorizing any further missions carrying human remains to the Moon.”
“The moon is revered, and it regulates life cycles, according to Navajo traditions and stories,” wrote Hale at the time. “To send something like that over there is sacrilege.”
A Frayed Relationship
Since then, NASA has done some work to recognize Navajo beliefs.
They even produced a short film a few years back sharing perspectives of Navajo elders on space and lunar exploration:
And yet, despite these efforts, a similar conflict is playing out again.
What do you make of the situation? It seems highly unlikely that NASA will stop the upcoming launch, but did they break their pledge to the Navajo Nation by failing to consult them beforehand?
Is this just another broken promise on behalf of the United States government to Indigenous communities?
Many Indigenous groups apply religious significance to the moon; should NASA better take this into account when planning missions?