Look to the Stars: Indigenous Astronomy

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Hunter here - your friendly Director of Story - and I have a thought for you. It’s kind of long but bear with me:

A couple of years ago, around this time of the season  I stumbled upon Wilfred Buck. Mr Buck is a Cree science specialist with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre in Winnipeg. He published his findings and research online about Cree constellations and the teachings of what is known as “the Sky World.”

Now the inner sci-fi nerd in me freaked out. Cree astronomy? What? Seriously? I devoured his research within moments. I learned alternative perspectives on constellations that up until now I felt no immediate connection too. Suddenly, the big dipper transformed into “Mista Muskwa” - the big bear - and held a teaching about the abuse of power. I could look up at the sky and not only see what my ancestors saw, but also the stories and teachings they found necessary to weave into the constellations.

What floored me the most was Mr. Buck’s mention of an indigenous concept of infinity. He wrote:

"Our Elders believe that what is above is mirrored below and this is our connection with misewa – all that is. There are stories and teachings that are known and stories and teachings yet to be found. What is presented here is but a glimpse of the traditional knowledge that is known and held by indigenous people throughout the world. Here are some stories of Keesik Aski – the sky world. As one Elder stated, ‘we are blessed to live under a blanket of stars."

Curiosity drove me to email Mr. Buck to learn more about misewa. Sure enough, he responded and explained that  “The term ‘misewa’ presents the concept of infinity.” He explained that all of us are a part of an ongoing and vast process of creation. Also, Mr. Buck noted that these constellations have important teachings that go along with them. These teachings speak of history, living in a good way, and more. But more importantly these constellations exist among many we have yet to discover.

What I took away from Mr. Buck was a profound connection to the past. Not just by looking up at the night sky, but through my direct connection to creation.

Below is the story of the constellation Mista Muskwa, as written by Mr. Buck:

This story concerns the attention earned by bullies and abusers of power. Kayas  - long ago - there was a huge bear that roamed over the lands. Similar to the story of Ochekatchakosuk, it may be interesting to note that the story of Mista Muskwa can be based on historic fact in that huge bears did roam North America; such as the Prairie Grizzly and the Short-Faced Bear during the last Ice Age. All beings were afraid of these bears because they were big, mean and powerful. They did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. They wrecked homes, destroyed winter food caches, scared game, ripped up edible plants and killed all who stood in their way. This went on for many years. One day, some fed-up animals decided to hold a meeting and discuss what could be done about this situation. A meeting was called and almost all of the animals showed up, because they all felt that the situation with the bear was unacceptable. After great outcries and stories of horror and tragedy, it was decided that the bear had to be removed from their traditional lands. At various times, the beings of the land tried to reason and calm the bear, but to no avail. The bear always did what it wanted to do and continued to damage property and hurt or kill others. Thus, it was decided that seven of the best trackers and hunters were chosen to remove the bear. It just so happened that the seven best trackers and hunters were birds and off they flew. The hunt was on as Tehpakoop Pinesisuk  the Seven Birds, chased Mista Muskwa. Not all beings were put off by the activities of the bear. The ravens found that they could have a comfortable, well-fed life if they just followed the bear around and feed on its left-overs. When they heard about what was to happen to the bear, the ravens went straight to Mista Muskwa and told him. He was outraged and set immediately out to find these “great hunters”. So it was that around the 11th  and 12th full moons of the year, a confrontation between Mista Muskwa and the hunters occurred. This confrontation was brief and did not lead to violence because when Mista Muskwa failed to scare his pursuers, he turned and fled, as all bullies do when confronted with determination and resolve. It is said that Mista Muskwa and his pursuers were so fast that they flew into the northern night sky. Just as this happened, the bear was mortally wounded and he turned and faced his attackers. Mista Muskwa was bleeding badly and he shook, as a wet dog would shake, and as he did, blood from his wound fell to the earth and landed and stayed on all the broad leafed plants. That is why the leaves of all broad-leafed plants change color in the fall. As Mista Muskwa, shook he also splattered a drop of blood on the bird that mortally wounded him. To this day, pipichew  – the robin – has a red chest. To remind all of the rewards of bullies, Mista Muskwa was placed in the sky along with the seven birds (Corona Borealis). Pipichew (the brightest of the 7 birds) was given a further honour by being granted a special egg. It was the color of the sky and had speckles that represented the stars.”

Great story hey? This story is old, like old old - maybe even 10,000 years old. I really struggle to think of any other stories that old.

What gives me pause to think - in addition to the profoundly old teaching - is the idea that there are other teachings to learn and discover.

So, to finish my thought for you, when our ancestors were learning how to live in a good way with their loved ones and friends, record their history, and reaffirm their values, they looked to the stars. With the growing challenges of our time - that we all are facing - I wonder what new teachings we will learn and how they will transition to our future generations? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below! 

-Hunter Cardinal, Director of Story