“An Elder told me that every star you can see with the naked eye had a story, had a constellation, had a name and a teaching attached to it. Due to the historical trauma that happened to our people, anywhere from 75 to 85 percent of that knowledge base was wiped out.” ~ Wilfred Buck, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, northern Manitoba.
“Hilding Neilson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of astronomy and astrophysics, first met Buck in 2016, at a meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society. Neilson is Mi’kmaq, a rare First Nations faculty member in the discipline.
“For the past several years, Neilson has been following in Buck’s “awfully big” footsteps, compiling material on Indigenous star stories to create resources for students and teachers. It’s how he begins his Great Moments in Astronomy course every semester. “I think we are still learning how to listen to Indigenous people, we are still learning how to not be dismissive of Indigenous knowledge,” he says. “For a lot of people, there is the scientific method, and nothing else. If you don’t fit in the scientific method, you are the other, you are religion, you are culture.” Including Indigenous stories in education is important, he says; he doesn’t want students to think that “astronomy started with Aristotle and ended with Neil deGrasse Tyson—heaven forbid.”
“Indigenous knowledge is very holistic, experiential. It’s told through stories, so it doesn’t look like science to us with our Western lens,’ he says. Stories, however, can be exceptionally informative—especially in the field of astronomy, which is primarily about observation over long periods of time. “A lot of the knowledge is there, just in different ways.””
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