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The night sky over Mi'kmaki: A Q&A with astronomer Hilding Neilson

The professor and member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation chats about local star lore, Indigenizing astronomy and why we need to change the way we talk about the space race.

Local star lore, Indigenizing astronomy and why the space race needs to decolonize its language

Person in a blue t-shirt poses for the camera with posters of galaxies and stars in the background.
Hilding Neilson is an astronomer, and professor at Memorial University in St. John's. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

When Hilding Neilson isn't studying distant objects like exoplanets, he's considering the night sky from a much closer, cultural perspective.

"The Mi'kmaq and other Indigenous peoples from around the world have great astronomy stories, stories of the night sky. And those stories contain so much knowledge in science and stretching over millennia," said Neilson, an astronomer and a member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band.

Neilson, who grew up in Pasadena in western Newfoundland, recently moved back to his home province from Toronto to work at Memorial University. Neilson has always devoted a chunk of his career toward Indigenizing astronomy, and he sees returning to traditional Mi'kmaw territory as an opportunity to continue that work.

"We want to look out, and deeper and further, at dimmer objects. But we never really think about looking back, and looking towards the stories of the people that have lived on these lands for millennia," he told CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice in an interview.

In Mi'kmaki, one of the most famous of those stories is Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. The four stars that compose Muin — the Mi'kmaw word for bear — double as part of the Big Dipper. Muin and the stars composing the bird hunters tell a tale that shifts across the night sky during the seasons that Neilson says incorporates "all kinds of information about astronomy and life and everything around this land. And that's kind of one way to learn astronomy other than saying: this is a star, this is how star generates energy, this is how star dies."

Some of the stars in the Big Dipper are also part of the Mi'kmaw star story, Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. (Submitted by Sophie Chagnon)

Neilson sat down with Atlantic Voice producer Lindsay Bird to talk more about his work.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You work to Indigenize astronomy — but can you walk me through what exactly that means?

A: When we think about astronomy in the university sense, it's a very Western academic tradition. You know, it's built on the scientific method through Isaac Newton and Galileo, and all these great old — usually dead — men. And when we think about Indigenizing astronomy, it's about, how do we learn and embrace indigenous knowledges and methodologies … learning how we have a relationship with the night sky, how we have a relationship with the stars or the planets or whatever, and what we can learn from it that way.

And as well, reaching in and embracing the stories and the knowledge from our elders and knowledge-keepers in different ways, and giving them at least an equal foot with the Western tradition, so we can bring them both together as partners.

Is a starting point for that more people learning about Muin?

I think that's a great starting point.

When we live on this land, it's very easy to forget whose land it always was. And one way to think about it is, if you're on Mi'kmaki, understanding the constellations, so when you do look up, you don't necessarily reflexively think of Ursa Major or the Big Dipper. Maybe you think of Muin, and that's a reminder of where we are,  and whose land we're on. And I think having access to these stories gives us a sort of way of bridging that removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples from different lands.

When Hilding Neilson isn't studying exoplanets or teaching students at Memorial University, he's considering the night sky from a cultural perspective. As an astronomer and a member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaw First Nation, Hilding works to Indigenize astronomy - from pushing for more diversity behind the microscope, to changing the colonizing words often used to describe our interactions with outer space.

And a connection, I suppose, even to the natural world that seems to get blocked out. When we're talking about light pollution, or  not even looking up to notice that Muin or the Big Dipper changes over the course of a year, in direction.

Yeah, that's a very good point. Light pollution is incredibly damaging to this. You know, it disconnects us from the land. Because where I am, I view different stars than if I were in southern U.S. or South America or Australia. And so where this night sky I see is a reflection of where I am, and light pollution is about removing that connection.

And in many respects, we can think of light pollution as a form of colonization, particularly if you're on Indigenous lands and the indigenous stories can't be told because of light pollution. So having that connection is incredibly crucial for building connection to the land, as well as the natural world, where many animals rely on the night sky as well.

And you know, we keep kind of bringing the night sky here in our conversation into all of the other aspects of our, of our world, right? The land and in the sea and the people and animals that inhabit here. Which I find that often when you think about astronomy or space, you're thinking about something cold and and lifeless, I guess are the words that kind of come to mind.

And when we as a society use words like "exploration" and "discovery," words that kind of bring to mind colonial aspects about space — I think of the private space missions of SpaceX and that sort of thing. What runs through your mind when you hear those sorts of words and space, the night sky, discussed in that way?

I find it very cringeworthy.

I was at a space conference not that long ago where the CEO of a major aerospace company sat there and actually discussed about how our view of space, and how our upcoming actions in space, will mirror people settling in Quebec. First as, you know, visitors and then bringing their economy and then bringing their colonization. Without any sign of understanding the impacts of colonization on what was already there, not just the the people, for sure, but also the land, the water, the animals.

And we really need a new story. Because this idea of going into space and discovering and exploring and extracting minerals, this is just a new version of colonization. It is almost literally the Wild West all over again. And that means that people are going to be hurt, people are going to be left behind. And there's going to be a lot of damage. So what happens if we start mining the moon? You know, if you built giant strip mines on the moon, changing the face of it that we can see, what does that do to cultures? What does that do to people, whether it's Indigenous people or settler people or people from around the world? And what does that mean?

And.I think we were so caught up in this idea of sending rockets and sending people and sending rovers that I don't think we spent time to really think about what it is we really want to accomplish. You know, are we a part of space or are we conquering space? And that conquering is what we've been doing here on Earth for centuries. And where it's gotten us is war, climate change, mass disasters. That's probably not a great way to go. You can't exactly keep digging a hole and expect better results.

Is this where perhaps more inclusion in astronomy and more diverse voices around the table, or behind the telescope, could benefit?

I think in astronomy and space exploration there's a deep need to include more voices. Traditionally, you know, there's a very small fraction of women, very small fraction of people of colour, very small fraction of Indigenous peoples, and that means we tend to only have the one main voice, which is true in a lot of things in the world.

And that means we're missing a lot of ideas and a lot of wisdom. And so we  really need to change who's behind the telescope, who is behind the rocket, you know, who's building the rover. And having a field of astronomy and space exploration that looks like the people on Earth. And looks like our cultures and looks like our communities, you know?

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