Quirks & Quarks·Q&A

Mi'kmaw astronomer says we should acknowledge we live under Indigenous skies

Mi'kmaw astonomer Dr. Hilding Neilson thinks we should go beyond land acknowledgements and think about sky acknowledgments as well, since we live under Indigenous skies. An astrophysicist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Neilson has been working to integrate Indigenous knowledge and methodologies into Astronomy.

'We've barely scratched the surface' when it comes to including Indigenous perspectives in astronomy

Mi'kmaw astronomer Hilding Neilson says considering Indigenous perspectives can create a more inclusive field of study. (Submitted by Hilding Neilson)

As we mark Canada's National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we can consider how science as an institution has the same duty to participate in reconciliation as the rest of society does.

For science, reconciliation can mean, among others things, acknowledging the history of racism and exploitation of Indigenous people and their lands that science perpetuated. But another important part is understanding and incorporating Indigenous perspectives in research. 

Dr. Hilding Neilson is Mi'kmaw, and an astrophysicist at Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador, where has been working to integrate Indigenous knowledge and methodologies into astronomy. Here is part of his conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald about those perspectives, and some of the challenges he's faced in bringing them to the Canadian astronomical community.

When did studying and communicating Indigenous perspectives on astronomy become an important part of your work?

I think it really hit me at a meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society where Elder Wilfred Buck was telling us about Cree astronomies and Cree astronomy stories. I had been teaching and doing research for a number of years by then. It just kind of struck me that I never see this in my classroom or in my lab or anywhere, and there's no good reason for that. And so I just felt that had to change.

Was this something that you had experienced yourself in your background?

I did not really grow up in a Mi'kmaw community. I grew up in western Newfoundland, away from the main part of the culture and the people, and I have no real background in the language or in the stories. So, for me this is also a way for me to sort of discover where I come from a little bit more.

So, you had to familiarize yourself with Indigenous perspectives on astronomy?

Yeah. I feel like I've done my PhD all over again.

Help me understand what Indigenous perspectives on astronomy are. Can you give me some examples?

Oh sure. You know, there are stories in the North of a star that twinkles a lot. The story gets told about these two foxes. A red fox chasing a white fox going around in circles, so [the star] blinks red and white. And depending on how much it's blinking, you can predict the weather patterns that are coming across the land. Now, in the South we know the star is Sirius, but in the North, it's so close to the horizon, where it sets, that you can use it to predict weather.

Indigenous peoples in the North have traditional knowlege based on Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Hilding Neilson says the star's appearance low in the horizon, has been used to predict weather as the atmosphere affects its light. (H. Bond/NASA, ESA and M. Barstow/University of Leicester)

For other people, Indigenous peoples in Australia and in North America, we know of red supergiants like Betelgeuse in Orion, that had its great dimming just a couple years ago. But Indigenous people have known these stars change brightness for centuries, long before Europeans discovered it. I think there's a whole lot of information out there about how stars pulsate and change with time that we don't really take advantage of in astrophysics and astronomy.

This image shows the location of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse in the constellation western astronomy calls Orion. The star underwent a 'great dimming' in 2019, baffling scientists, but Neilson says Indigenous peoples have known for centuries that stars change brightness over time. In Cree cosmology Orion's belt is associated with the mythological figure Wesakaychak. (ESO/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org))

Of course, some of this perspective is having different names for stars and constellations. 

Well, you know, for most of us, the bright stars are all named from Arabic words, which is part of our own Western history. But, you know, Indigenous peoples have all kinds of names for different stars too. You know, the North Star in Mi'kma'ki is Tatapn. This is part of where we come from. And it's important that we have these names because it's also part of the language, part of the culture and part of belonging on this land. So, not having these names and stories in our textbooks is a great loss and in my opinion, sort of sanitizes and removes our connection from the land. 

Polaris, or the North Star, is called 'Tatapn' in the Mi'kma'ki language. (Tyler Hulett/Shutterstock)

Just generally looking across Canada, how how much is Indigenous astronomy incorporated into the curriculum?

At the university level, very little. A number of schools will have modules or little sections on Indigenous astronomies, and that typically is like a small bit about storytelling or a little bit from an Indigenous knowledge keeper at the beginning of the course before you go on to your regular programming. So, we've barely scratched the surface of what we can learn about Indigenous methodologies and astronomies in our curriculum.

There's another aspect of space exploration that's I guess a loaded word for an Indigenous perspective, and that's colonization of space.

Yeah, and you know, in all honesty, when we talk about colonization of space in the industry and academia, we are still really talking about colonization in the same way as was done in North America. You know, I've heard CEOs and academics actually brag that we're gonna do space exploration and colonization the same way we settled and, you know, tamed the wild North America. Except now, instead of displacing Indigenous people on land, we're displacing whatever on Mars. And maybe there's life, maybe there isn't, maybe there's life that we don't recognize or do recognize, but you know, we don't know what's there. And as we're continuing out there, we're just using the same colonizing behaviours and efforts as we have for the last few centuries in North America and around the world.

In the spirit of reconciliation, how can we do a better job of understanding Indigenous perspectives on science?

I think in that spirit, it's about listening, learning the stories of the people of the land you're on. I think learning the constellations of the peoples of the land you're on is an important part as a land acknowledgement. You know, in the same way we acknowledge we're on various Indigenous lands, if we know the constellations, that's acknowledging we live under their skies. I think that would be a step forward. But you know, I think we need to spend a lot of time, a), listening and b), supporting Indigenous rights to land and access to education.

Produced by Jim Lebans