Relearning The Star Stories Of Indigenous Peoples
January 13, 2020 10:00 AM   Subscribe

How the lost constellations of indigenous North Americans can connect culture, science, and inspire the next generation of scientists. “As much as there’s this idea that science is all rational, science is immune from culture, that’s simply not true. Science itself is not actually separate from culture,” she says. “It came from a specific culture, and that’s Western European.” - indigenous astronomer Professor Anette Lee. "But science is something anyone can do, and, Lee says, everyone has done. The process on paper is simple: closely observe the world, test what you learn, and transmit it to future generations. That indigenous cultures have done so without test tubes doesn’t make them unscientific, she says—just different."

Lee says this sense of connectedness is a unique part of indigenous science. In Western science, knowledge is often considered separate from the people who discover it, while indigenous cultures see knowledge as intricately connected to people.

“So it’s not like we’re just outside observers watching this,” she says. “The key thing is we’re a part of it.”
posted by stoneweaver (15 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
stoneweaver, I'm loving all the stuff you've been posting lately about the intersection of science and culture. I'm enjoying learning specifics about indigenous culture from your FPPs, but I also really dig the overarching theme of not divorcing science from nature, or science from culture, or science from personal experience or art or whatever influences an individual may bring to it. I'm not a scientist but I think a lot is lost when we insist on a Western narrative of "objectivity" (as if that's even possible) and these are all such cool stories about the richness that comes from embracing those other influences.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:48 AM on January 13 [21 favorites]


This is super cool! The article led me to some of Wilfred Buck's star stories on YouTube, he's awesome!
posted by storytam at 10:50 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Thank you, sunset in snow country. That is my hope - to nudge brains into considering what we gain by listening to and absorbing the work of indigenous people. What do we learn about leadership, science, art, community and food by challenging the white western narratives?
posted by stoneweaver at 11:01 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


Interesting! I remember people telling me back when I was a kid that "That's Orion! See his belt?" —and there's me... looking up thinking "Who's Orion? Why is his belt important? Why can I see his belt, but not really any other shape that looks like a person?"

"Oh, and there's the Big Dipper, Ursa Major!" and I'm thinking, OK it looks kind of like a kitchen ladle, which I guess you might call a "dipper." And then I ask "What does Ursa Major mean?" "Big Bear!" —is the matter-of-fact reply, and I'm thinking I don't see a bear up there no matter how long I stare at it.

But that's how I was introduced to stars and astronomy. We relate the arbitrary linking of stars to stories from the Ancient Greeks... just because we were told that. So cool to learn how other cultures imposed meaning on a field of stars. And the movement of Mars being like a moose running away! Very neat. I can picture that even though I've never seen a moose outside of my television.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:38 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


I learned of the Maya association of what we know as Venus with "the descending or diving god" and it's theorized that its cycle was part of the Maya 8-year calendar set. These are still all hypotheses based around lunar cycles and the sun and I will not pretend to understand it fully, but it's expounded on here.

And is portrayed in stone on a familiar (to many Mexico vacation-goers) ruin at Tulúm, as outlined here.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:53 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


This was fantastic
posted by PinkMoose at 12:26 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


“People are surprised, but then it makes sense,” he says. “Of course cultures would have different stories based on this massive canopy from horizon to horizon that unfolds before our eyes every night.” Just like the telescope that sits in the museum, the story about Mars circling around in the sky like a startled moose is also an instrument of astronomical observation.

Truly great post. Thank you, stoneweaver!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:53 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


This is really wonderful. I wish more science museums were doing this - I've been going to the Museum of Science in Boston's astronomy nights occasionally, and it's very much a cut and dry telescope science thing. Maybe I'll send this article/Science Friday episode to the folks who organize that event.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:27 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


interesting, stoneweaver. thanks!
stellarium, a pretty excellent sky-viewing program which i ran/played with for a while as a dilettante, offered views of (some) cultures' constellations beyond the hellenic. offered by way of tangential reference.
posted by 20 year lurk at 2:38 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


This article about how indigenous and Western scientific knowledge are integrating to restore and conserve both ecosystems and indigenous lifestyles in kelp forests where sea otters have been removed might be of interest!
Conventional wisdom holds that sea otter recovery would help to correct the imbalance, allowing the ecosystem to return to its original state—like the stories told about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. And that could set the stage for the return of herring, and abalone, and other foods the Haida have relied on for thousands of years.

Thanks to modern protections and conservation efforts, otter populations along the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island have begun to recover. While there are no plans to reintroduce otters to the archipelago, with ongoing protection, it seems only a matter of time until they find their way back on their own. Locals say they’ve already seen a few lone individuals floating around the islands.

The prospect of otters returning to Haida Gwaii has some on edge, though. After all, the voracious mammals and fishermen here rely on many of the same food resources, including abalone and the overpopulated urchins.

Rather than wait to see what happens when sea otters return, scientists and officials from the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, together with researchers from academic institutions and nonprofit organizations as well as representatives from the commercial fishing sector, are now working within the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. As equal co-managers of Gwaii Haanas (Islands of Beauty), which are part of the larger archipelago, it’s a remarkable example of cooperation, especially considering that the Haida Nation and the Canadian government have never completed a formal treaty.

Together, the researchers are studying the role played by each member of this coastal community—urchins, abalone, kelp, and so on—to create a mathematical model for the entire ecosystem. By doing so, they will be better able to anticipate and make policy decisions around what the eventual recovery of otters might mean—for plants, animals, and people alike.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:04 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


Oh! Thank you, ChuraChura. I wonder if there are any otter constellations. I would expect so, given their importance
posted by stoneweaver at 7:57 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Sharing this with my friends. Thank you, stoneweaver.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 10:27 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Well, this is just so very cool.

So many thoughts:

It's heartbreaking to hear that so many star stories have been lost. Buck is doing such important work, collecting them and repropagating them.

I love the idea of retrograde Mercury as a moose. (Also, today I learned the word "moose" comes from Abnaki.)

This bit floored me:
At the museum, none of the students—all 17 and 18, and thinking about the future—thought they wanted to be scientists. These are students who said they loved learning about botany, medicine, engineering. One even designed entire science curriculums for kids at summer camps.

“Astronomy was really cool, because I’m obsessed with the stars,” says Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh and her classmates are exactly the kinds of students you’d want pursuing STEM degrees. And yet Jessie says she feels like she won’t fit into the way science is done.
(Gah - resisting the temptation to quote the whole article here - ) ... it's good to hear the curator emphasizing the need to broaden the image of science—and who does it— and give credit to more non-Western scientists, both past and present.

20 year lurk, thanks for mentioning the varied constellation offering in stellarium - I haven't launched it for many months, but now I have a new reason to.

And like rather be jorting, I thought the star charts were gorgeous. I was hoping to see more detailed versions. The ones in the article aren't clickable, but it looks like larger versions are out there. I did a quick web search on "ojibway star map" and found an Ojibwe Star Map page with a higher-res version displayed, and a link to download an even bigger one, and links to buy printed posters and a guidebook by the creators of the map. That search also turned up a ton of other interesting results, including a lesson plan from the Native Skywatchers website, which highlights the connection with Minnesota state science standards, including:
Understand that everybody can use evidence to learn about the natural world, identify patterns in nature, and develop tools. For example: Ojibwe and Dakota knowledge and use of patterns in the stars to predict and plan.
Recognize that the practice of science and/or engineering involves many different kinds of work and engages men and women of all ages and backgrounds.
Use observations to develop an accurate description of a natural phenomenon and compare one’s observations and descriptions with those of others.
This is all so cool and so fascinating, and I feel like I could spend days and days learning more about these stories. (I'm especially curious about how the Cree used their knowledge of the stars in their everyday lives.)

Thanks so much for posting this, stoneweaver! I'm going to have the images from those star maps dancing in my head for a long time.
posted by kristi at 12:01 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this post! I need to work on decolonizing my Intro Astronomy course, and these sources are helpful.
posted by BrashTech at 4:46 PM on January 14


You may all find interesting Nadieh Bremer's interactive visualization of these constellations.

Her description of the year long work that resulted in the above page is also worth reading..
posted by kmt at 9:56 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


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