Today’s post comes from Will Morin, Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury and Bruce Waters, former educator at McLaughlin Planetarium and founder of the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory.
It is time for us to learn the astronomical traditions of the various indigenous cultures of the Americas.
For those of us visiting our more remote Ontario parks, the view of the night sky is spectacular. Far from the city lights, in the heart of the forests, the stars call to you, beckoning you with their diamond splendor, challenging you to admire and understand them.
For thousands of years, our ancestors looked at the night sky and successfully found a way to relate our souls and spirits to those ever-present glimpses in the darkness. At the end of the day, once all tasks had been completed, communities could gather at a local location to recount the day’s adventures and pass on the lessons from one generation to the next.
Often, under a canopy of tens of thousands of stars, the ancients reflected deeply on our eternal stories of gods, good and bad times, personal development, hope and desire. The elders of these communities retold stories of origin or related cultural teachings, and it should be no surprise that these stories took their place among the star patterns above them, to be contemplated for all eternity.
So do we have more than one way to appreciate those star stories? The answer is, unequivocally, yes!
Cultures around the world created their own constellations that reflected the stories that were important to them.
For example, the pattern known as the Big Dipper (three stars on a handle and four in a bowl, see below) is not an official Greek constellation, but rather a popular asterism that is part of a larger constellation known as the Big Dipper or the female bear. Major and is of ancient Greek origin.
1690 painting by Johannes Hevelius of the Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. The seven stars of the “Big Dipper” have been marked separately from the original painting.
The stars of the Big Dipper formed the African “drinking gourd,” the star pattern used by enslaved African Americans as they followed the Underground Railroad north.
There are 88 constellations that have been officially recognized around the world as a common reference. Most of them were created in ancient Babylon and incorporated into the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.
However, many cultures saw different patterns in the stars and gave them names after constellations that were important to them. For example, the British saw the stars (Ursa Major) in the Ursa Major region as the “Plow”. The Germans saw it as a “chariot”, while the Hindus saw it as the “Septarshi”, and each star was one of the Seven Sages.
Middle Eastern people viewed it as a funeral procession in which the four stars on the bowl of the Big Dipper were the coffin and the three stars on the handle were the pallbearers. The Chinese viewed it as the seat of government power.
But what about the stories of those who lived in Ontario long before colonization: the indigenous people?
To understand the stellar stories of indigenous peoples, we need to understand the geography we are talking about.
The indigenous peoples of the forests of North America were and are the Anishinaabek, “peoples who were lowered [to Earth].” South of them were and are the Haudenosaunee, the “longhouse people” (often known as the Iroquois).
Both cultural groups shared many cultural elements, but linguistically they were as different and diverse as the various European cultural groups. Each group had many different tribal and dialect groupings within the diverse geography around the Great Lakes and beyond in all directions.
- The Anishinaabek: Ojibway, Odawa, Potawatami around the Great Lakes, Algonquian in the eastern forests, and Cree north and west of the forests.
- the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora in many communities southeast of the Great Lakes
To understand these various tribes and their cultural diversity, we would have to experience the context in which they lived, including their geography and their relationship to the earth, sky, and stars in each season.
Only from this point of view can we understand indigenous culture or teachings, which is necessary before we can truly understand their stories. You can view this map to see your own region.
Star Stories / Anangoonh Aadizokaanan
Like the European colonization of the land, there was also an imposition of European star stories on top of the already existing rich stories of the Americas.
The stories of existing indigenous stars were not just stories of “higher beings” and their often amorous encounters, but were seen as part of a holistic perspective on life and spirituality. All; The plants, animals, water, sky and air were intertwined in a complex web of life, understanding and respect. The stars were a key part of that comprehensive narrative.
Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe, is a language of action and doing. That same language talks about the science in space, how something works and its state of being. All of these ideas are necessary to provide the context for indigenous astronomy.
For the Anishinaabe, stars are animated because they move and have spirit. Spirituality plays an important role in the universe due to both movement and energy. The creator of Anishinaabek had the idea of creating clans from the stars so that everything starts with the stars. Learning to understand the stars is extremely important to help predict both the weather, seasonal migration and other important activities in life.
For example, in this part of the world we experience the four seasons which, for many indigenous people, were marked by key events:
- Autumn: hunting for elk, obtaining food and materials necessary for the winter.
- Winter: Storytelling and family time, reconnecting with each other
- Spring: ice breakup, seasonal flooding and danger
- Summer: cheats and more free time
Significantly, the Ojibwe sky constellations are filled with stories that speak of and around the key themes that gain dominance during the night sky of a particular season. For example, in the autumn sky is the large constellation of the Elk, which becomes the center of the night sky at that time of year. Similarly, fall was also the time of elk hunting, when many people participated in hunting or harvesting elk.
During spring there is a danger of falling through breaking ice and being swept away. Often at this time of year, creaking and groaning can be heard under the ice. Not surprisingly, the constellation that represents this time of year AND is well placed in the night sky is the panther/water lynx whose tail would pierce through the ice endangering the lives of many.
Indigenous constellations provide the rich perspective of an integrated understanding of life and death that serves as a constant reminder of how one should live their life. Other constellations provided additional stories that would serve to both enhance understanding of the world and provide a moral or an important way to live life.
So what star patterns do indigenous people see near the Big Dipper?
The Haudenosaunee saw a bear in the Big Dipper region, but the bear itself was the bowl of the dipper and the “tail” was actually three hunting birds chasing the bear.
This story seems to fit the star pattern better than the better-known “Ursa Major,” since the bear’s enormous tail (bears actually have very small tails) is completely removed. It also helps remind us of the changing color of leaves when the bear is low in the sky, or by reminding us of the color of a robin.
To the Anishinaabek people, this star pattern was not a bear at all, but Ojiig the Fisherman (pronounced Oh-JEEG with emphasis on the second syllable).
Ojiig, the Fisherman and Maang, the Loon, superimposed on the traditional “Western/Greek” constellations. Credit: Closeup, “Ojibwe Giizhig Anung Masinaaigan – Ojibwe Sky Star Map”, created by A. Lee, W. Wilson, C. Gawboy, ©2012
Being strong and brave, Ojiig rescued the summer birds, but at the cost of his own life (see the arrow on his tail in the image above).
To commemorate his bravery, his image was placed among the stars for all to see. The stars within the Little Bear region were known to the Anishinaabek as Good the loon (pronounced MAHng). Both Ojiig and Maang are beautiful constellations that fit the asterisms they occupy, and are just some of the constellations known to indigenous people.
According to elders in various communities, there was a time when each star had a name or a connection to a constellation, each with its own stories to tell and lessons to learn. That information, and much more, we have virtually lost today as a direct result of colonization and the interruption or outright prohibition of the exchange of traditional knowledge and practices.
Fortunately for us, there have been Knowledge Bearers and Elders who have passed down oral knowledge from generation to generation. Their star stories, as well as those found on birch bark scrolls, served as a memory tool to allow community leaders to continue traditions and pass on the knowledge they knew.
In the last decade, amazing people and organizations like Native Skywatchers, Wilfred Buck, Star Guy and Annete S. Lee, William P. Wilson, and Carl Gawboy’s “Ojibwe Sky Star Map” have brought this knowledge together with extensive research, completing part of lost information and creating beautiful images that match the beauty of the stories themselves.
Connecting with the stories of those people who lived in Ontario long before colonization, the Indigenous people, is an act of shifting perspective and respect. We owe it to ourselves and to those who were here before us to know these stories.
Will Morin is a professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury and former interim leader of the National First Peoples Party of Canada. He is an active artist and cultural advocate for First Nations rights and has worked tirelessly for over two decades to represent the interests and perspectives of Indigenous peoples to non-Indigenous Canadians.
Bruce Waters has been teaching astronomy to the public since 1980. He was an educator at McLaughlin Planetarium, founder of the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory, and a science writer. He is the author of the book A camper’s guide to the universe and is a frequent contributor to Ontario Parks’ monthly “Eyes on the Skies” blog.
The authors would like to thank the elders and knowledge bearers of the Wiikwemkoong Heritage Organization for their review and comments on this article, in particular Brian Peltier and Madeline W.emigrants.