When some Cree people look at the sky during summer months, they see Ochekatchakosuk, a group of stars in the shape of a fisher, a weasel-like animal related to the wolverine. According to Cree teaching, a long time ago (likely during the Ice Age), there was no summer in the northern hemisphere. The animals of the region wanted to find summer and bring it back, and the fisher, Ochek, was selected for the task. After he succeeded, he escaped into the sky, and the Creator stamped his shape into the stars. In spring and summer evenings, Ochek is located high in the sky, inviting celebrations of warmer weather; in autumn and winter, he appears closer to the horizon—a reminder to be grateful of the passing seasons.
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Few astronomers know of Ochek, though the constellation’s tail is likely familiar: it also represents the handle of the Big Dipper, the tail of Ursa Major, and has been used as a navigation tool for hundreds of years.
Wilfred Buck grew up in the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, in northern Manitoba, and Ochek’s story is the first star story he learned, when he was a teenager. “An Elder told me that every star you can see with the naked eye had a story, had a constellation, had a name and a teaching attached to it,” he says. “Due to the historical trauma that happened to our people, anywhere from 75 to 85 percent of that knowledge base was wiped out.”
Today, Buck is one of the foremost Indigenous star-story experts in the world. As a science facilitator at the Manitoba First Nations Education Centre (MFNEC), he is tasked with developing science and astronomy curricula for local schools; to create his lessons, he uses the knowledge shared with him by Opaskwayak Elders and others, imparted during ceremonies and sweat lodges, as well as the star stories he has compiled. Over the past sixteen years at MFNEC, he has created an educational program with more than twenty Indigenous constellations. Buck travels to schools across the country, mainly on First Nations reserves in Manitoba, with two inflatable planetariums that look like navy-blue nylon huts. The presentations within are based largely on Ininewuk (Cree) teachings, but they also include material from Anishinaabe, Inuit, Dene, and Lakota cultures.
As Buck and his students huddle under the dome, Buck sometimes presents the story of Sisikwun, the rattle, which mimics the sound of ice crystallizing in spring and is a sign of the approaching season—the start of a “new cycle.” Other times, he tells students that what they may know as the constellation Cepheus is also Makinak, the turtle, whose shell plates mirror the lunar cycle.
“People are hungry for this stuff, hungry for another perspective,” he says, “and they’re beginning to realize that every culture on the face of this Earth knows about the stars.” Buck has helped inspire a new generation of Indigenous astronomy leaders—not just among elementary and high-school educators but also in university departments across North America. More and more resources are popping up online to complement teaching curricula, and the first international Indigenous star conference in Canada was scheduled to take place this year. (Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has now been postponed to 2021.) These developments signal a shift in the scientific field—a renewed acknowledgement that, as Buck writes in his book, Tipiskawi Kisik: Night Sky Star Stories, “We arrive at knowledge from many different paths. And the more aware we are of other possibilities, the more sensitive we will be to understanding and difference.”
Hilding Neilson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of astronomy and astrophysics, first met Buck in 2016, at a meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society. Neilson is Mi’kmaq, a rare First Nations faculty member in the discipline, and as he listened to Buck’s Cree stories about Mista Muskwa, or the Great Bear, and Ahtimah Atchakosuk, or the Dog Stars (also known as Ursa Minor), he looked around the room of astronomy professors, faculty, researchers, and students. “It wasn’t what we would consider diverse by any stretch of the imagination,” Neilson says. The astronomy courses taught in the department are Eurocentric, he says, focusing on Greek and Roman constellation stories without including other perspectives. “That doesn’t reflect the students, and that doesn’t reflect the place we’re at,” he says.
For the past several years, Neilson has been following in Buck’s “awfully big” footsteps, compiling material on Indigenous star stories to create resources for students and teachers. It’s how he begins his Great Moments in Astronomy course every semester. “I think we are still learning how to listen to Indigenous people, we are still learning how to not be dismissive of Indigenous knowledge,” he says. “For a lot of people, there is the scientific method, and nothing else. If you don’t fit in the scientific method, you are the other, you are religion, you are culture.” Including Indigenous stories in education is important, he says; he doesn’t want students to think that “astronomy started with Aristotle and ended with Neil deGrasse Tyson—heaven forbid.”
Recent decades have seen huge technological advancements in astronomy, and there is growing public interest in complex subjects such as dark energy and black holes. But opportunities to deepen understanding through Indigenous teachings have been for the most part dismissed, Neilson says. “Indigenous knowledge is very holistic, experiential. It’s told through stories, so it doesn’t look like science to us with our Western lens,” he says. Stories, however, can be exceptionally informative—especially in the field of astronomy, which is primarily about observation over long periods of time. “A lot of the knowledge is there, just in different ways.”
In South Australia, for example, Aboriginal groups long shared oral tales of the variable brightness of the star Betelgeuse. It is a widely held belief in astronomy circles that the phenomenon was first discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1836 despite the fact that Indigenous people noticed it, along with the variability of other stars, 1,000 years earlier. Many scientists were skeptical at first that people would have detected the star’s changes in brightness with unaided eyes, centuries before Westerners did, but contemporary research now supports the theory.
Many of Neilson’s students seem excited by the Mi’kmaw concept of Two-Eyed Seeing—looking at things with both an Indigenous and Western lens. But Neilson has encountered issues trying to get other academics to teach and engage with the material. “I’m finding that students are fairly open-minded about this, but people with PhDs, who have been trained to do things in one way and are suddenly faced by this other possibility, they don’t know what to do with it.”
Slowly, however, the trend in astronomy has been spreading to other universities. Last fall, the inaugural Two-Eyed Seeing and Astronomy course launched at Western University, featuring a number of guest speakers sharing their cultures’ Indigenous approaches to astronomy. The undergraduate course is managed by Robert Cockcroft, who is not Indigenous, and it is co-developed and taught with Indigenous students and two Indigenous consultants, Annette Lee and Andrew Judge. Lee, who is Ojibwe and D/Lakota, is an astrophysicist and the director of the Native Skywatchers research and programming initiative.
“Astronomy has been called the gateway to STEM,” says Lee. Now that postsecondary institutions feel more pressured to incorporate Indigenous teachings in their curricula, in part because of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this can serve as a promising first step. Astronomy, which can be a more enticing and welcoming discipline than others in STEM, Lee says, can serve as a promising case study. Mathematics, for example, has a narrow focus on solving problems and developing new, highly technical theories, and it might seem less amenable to Two-Eyed Seeing approaches. But the indigenization of curricula is also an opportunity to broaden students’ and researchers’ perspectives, helping scientists address “some of the most critical crises of our time and find sustainable solutions,” Lee says.
One of the ways scientific communities can benefit from Indigenous knowledge is by learning to reflect on the ethical implications of their work, Cockcroft says. The Thirty Meter Telescope, which is slated to be built on a sacred mountain in Hawaii, serves as a perfect example. Native Hawaiian protectors have blocked the telescope’s construction several times, most recently in July 2019. It’s an issue with two distinct camps: those who give priority to scientific discoveries argue that the telescope’s construction is necessary because Hawaii is one of the world’s most accessible locations for stargazing, while others say the world has already seen enough of the devastating effects of colonization on people and land and any construction should be carried out with the informed consent of all parties. “Western science would like to hold itself above having to deal with ethical and moral implications, but here is a case where it cannot avoid doing so,” Cockcroft says. Many of the astronomers involved in making decisions regarding the telescope have likely never taken a course in Indigenous history.
Opening up astronomy beyond the accepted norm of Greek and Roman historical knowledge might bring a new generation of potential astronomers into the field, including those with more awareness of Indigenous issues. “How many people did we lose in science because they have some phobia of math?” Neilson asks. “If we could talk about science through stories, perhaps we’re helping students come in different ways to engage and interact with science and astronomy.”
Very few textbooks exist for Indigenous star stories, though some educational videos, made in collaboration with Cree and Haudenosaunee Elders, now exist on YouTube. Most educators who want to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in the classroom are navigating the labour-intensive process of finding written historical accounts and reaching out to Elders and knowledge keepers for information.
Brianne Derrah, a student in First Nations studies and linguistic anthropology at Western University, has been helping Cockcroft find material for his Two-Eyed Seeing course. But historical records can be quite harmful if they come from colonial sources. “There were a lot of problems with people just walking into sacred places and taking pictures and stuff—and, my dude, you can’t do that!” she says. Derrah, who is Bear Clan from the Flying Post First Nation, looked specifically for research that was done within Indigenous communities with their consent and participation—an unfortunately rare phenomenon in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Even with the right material, it can be challenging to find someone qualified to teach a course on Indigenous astronomy, Neilson says. Imagine the backlash, from within the institution’s walls and across social media, if a professor, particularly a non-Indigenous one, presented culturally insensitive or appropriative material. “As much as I love Dr. Cockcroft, are we going to have a white man teaching Indigenous star stories?” Derrah asks. She says they addressed the problem by developing a community-led teaching approach featuring many Indigenous guest lecturers. “The way I see it is like a Venn diagram,” Cockcroft says. “There are two circles: one of them is Eurocentric astronomy and one is Indigenous. What we’re trying to do in this course is acknowledge that there are parts in both circles that don’t overlap, while focusing on the overlapping sections.”
The future for Indigenous astronomy looks as bright as Sirius—which, as one Inuit story goes, represents a white fox chasing a red fox into a single foxhole, which is what the star’s light flicker reminded Inuit stargazers of. (We now know that flicker is caused by atmospheric disturbances lower in the horizon of the northern hemisphere.) Next year, Ottawa will host the first Indigenous Star Knowledge Symposium. It was organized by Buck along with the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and Mi’kmaq and Algonquin people. The four-day conference will feature Indigenous knowledge keepers from all over the world, including the Maori people of New Zealand, Aboriginal people of Australia, Kayapó people of Brazil, Zapotec people of Mexico, and a number of Indigenous groups from North America and Africa.
“We’ll open with a pipe ceremony, with a sacred fire [that] will burn for four days, and there’ll be sweat lodges available,” Buck says. Academics and Western astronomers will be invited to ask questions, and all of the resulting material will be compiled and turned into lesson plans for schools all over the world, from primary to postsecondary levels. Most of all, Buck says, “the conference is for the Indigenous people to share.”