Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Among the Stars
There is a controversial hypothesis about the roman alphabet. It is not controversial that is a descendant of ancient greek adaptations of the phoenician script, and that script an adaptation of egyptian hieroglyphs. Where people argue in quiet corners of academia is how people came to standardize on the 29 to 31 elements of the eventual phoenician script. In a series of articles published in the sino-platonic papers, Brian R. Pellar argues that the symbols were defined by the constellations developed and used to map the sky. This doesn't seem quite so far-fetched, especially considering that a common decoration for small children's rooms to this day in western cultures is the letters of the alphabet. Pellar provides much stronger arguments than this, including citations of evidence that also demonstrates longterm naked eye astronomical observations. These different peoples all carried out sophisticated, patient, literally thousands of years worth of celestial observations, identifying precession, remembering that the star often referred to as the "seventh Pleiad" was once visible, and so on. They made these observations, and passed down vast amounts of data without writing, though eventually in these cases they took up writing as an additional tool in their recording and transmitting repertoire. This record of ancient naked eye observation, recording, and transmission is widely accepted, yet it is still a struggle to win acknowledgement of Indigenous longterm astronomical observations outside of the Mayan and Aztec contexts because they had what europeans deemed recognizable writing systems.
Wilfred Buck, of Opaskwayak First Nation, a Cree science educator, has been hard at work learning and recovering Indigenous star knowledge for over sixteen years. Based out of the Manitoba First Nations Education Centre (MFERC), and affectionately nicknamed "the Star Guy," his equipment includes a pop up planetarium and fluency in Cree. In 2015 Rosanna Deerchild interviewed Buck for her cbc podcast unreserved, giving listeners a tantalizing introduction to his work and the stories he has earned the right to share with eager students all over the lands currently known as canada. There is overlap between the Indigenous constellations he knows best and presents to his classes, those from Cree, Anishinabeg, and D/Lakota traditions and the graeco-roman ones most of us were taught in school. This makes good sense, because those First Nations now and the ancient greeks and romans then live in the northern hemisphere, and therefore they observed the same sky in more ways than one. The stars used to define the respective systems of constellations may be the same, but the specifics are of course different. Kelly Boutsalis, in her article for the walrus makes due mention of the difficulties Indigenous educators, including those who have also been trained in european astronomical traditions have in getting Indigenous astronomy taken seriously. Somehow systematic ongoing naked eye observation doesn't count unless non-Indigenous people within the "western" tradition do it, even though otherwise it is recognized as a time honoured expression of the scientific method. Meanwhile, regardless of racist preconceptions, Indigenous astronomy is making a comeback despite the odds as other Indigenous scholars follow in Wilfred Buck's footsteps, including Mi'kmaq professor of astronomy and physics Hilding Neilsen, who works out of the university of toronto.
At this point, it is worth taking a moment to think through why First Nations or anyone else would take such meticulous care in studying and memorizing the constellation. Today with so many of us living in cities with significant light pollution on top of ever fewer opportunities to spend safely outside at night, this can seem quite mysterious. We also depend upon clocks and calendars more than observations of the outdoors to keep track of the season and the time of day or night. First Nations, like all other peoples before such clever mechanical devices came along, made use of the biggest and foundational timepieces of human experience, the Moon, Sun, stars, and planets. Indeed, those remain the underpinnings of our modern hypertechnological timekeeping devices today. In order to read a celestial time piece though, people need to define its face and hands, and this they did by defining constellations, which make a relatively constant background against which faster moving bodies like the planets and Moon can be monitored. At night, as specific constellations and individual stars rise and set, these help mark the hours of the night. The steadily shifting constellations as well as the Sun's inclination mark the seasons, with the stars playing an important role when the sky is overcast during the day. On top of all that, First Nations peoples navigated by the stars before acquiring the chinese compass, combined with more earthly landmarks.
Equipped with writing as most of us are now, we forget to easily how much we can do without it, including recording elaborate star charts, the "face of the celestial clock," if you like. Now, of course First Nations ancestors could and did make drawings on various materials intended to survive for shorter or longer periods of time. The longer lasting recording device was systematic story composition and telling by trained sky observers alongside the rest of the community helping teach the stories to children and newcomers. By learning the stories in order, children learned their local star charts, just as learning the stories that go with specific places taught them the geography of the land. If a person learned these stories well, they could use what they knew to read off the time, season and so on from the night sky, and navigate too. This is a profound gift that today many of us have a hard time appreciating. To be able to travel confidently over the land, and gauge the time and season by a few moments of patient observation in at night is quite amazing. Even more amazing to think of during the depths of long and bitter prairie winters, when at night the clear sky heralds awful windchill, while the stars reassure us that the end of winter is on its way.
Wilfred Buck posing with his pop up planetarium, photograph courtesy of Manitoba First Nations Education Centre and quoted from Nicole Martillaro's article
published 20 march 2019 on cbc.ca
From an Indigenous perspective though, perhaps some of the most beautiful and exciting aspects of First Nations star stories is the restoration of our own traditions and connections with our ancestors. Here is a wonderful passage quoted from Nicole Martillaro's article on Indigenous astronomy from march 2019. It suggests a whole new perspective on commonly told stories like that of She Who Fell From the Sky, even though that story in particular derives from Haudenosaunee, not Cree, tradition. Or for that matter, the Mushkegowak story of the first humans let down to Earth in a basket from the Sky World by a Sky Person in the form of a spider by Louis Bird.
Buck says most people don't realize First Nations people had a deep understanding of the sky and even pondered such topics such as cosmology and quantum physics.
One example is the star cluster called the Pleiades or, in Western culture the Seven Sisters. The Cree referred[sic] to it as the "hole in the sky."
"When they're referring to a hole in the sky, they're referring to a spatial anomaly. They're referring to a wormhole, an alternate reality," Buck says. "They meditated on these things, they dreamed about these things, they debated on these things and they philosophized on these things."
Speaking for myself at least, there is something quite breathtaking to be reminded that humans in general and First Nations in particular have been working on the puzzles of quantum physics and cosmology for so long in this way.
There is far more to learn about Indigenous astronomy than this of course, as a quick search for Wilfred Buck and MFERC alone will show. Check out MFERC's vimeo channel, and don't miss Wilfred Buck's book, Tipiskawi Kisik: Night Sky Stories (june 2018).