An initiative by  Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation in Ottawa to broaden the understanding of how humans have interpreted the night sky, while helping Indigenous people reconnect with traditional astronomical knowledge, spear-headed consultations throughout NWT communities last week.

A photo recently submitted of the aurora borealis over Yellowknife aurora skies by Vincent Ret. Indigenous governments of the North are looking to work with the Canada Science and Technology Museum and reconnecting with traditional cultural use of northern sky knowledge. photo submitted by Vincent Ret

Several Indigenous governments greeted representatives from the national museum to begin the process of working together to share Indigenous star knowledge.

David Pantalony, a curator for physical science and medicine with Ingenium and a small team from the institution visited representatives from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Dettah, the Tlicho government in Behchoko, and both the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and the Gwich’in Tribal Council in Inuvik to try to begin a process of exploring traditional knowledge about how the night sky and constellations have been used traditionally by northern Indigenous peoples.

The team received financial support from the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Northern Affairs.

“The (Canada Science and Technology) museum has been around for about 50 years and it has always had a strong astronomy component, but it was always very western,” Pantalony explained. “We have often always focused on telescopes, astrophysics and big, space-related equipment and that is very western.”

Pantalony said when the museum did a major upgrade of its facility in 2017, questions arose within the institution of how well science was understood in Canada and what astronomy and star knowledge actually means to different cultures within.
This led to the museum reaching out to Indigenous communities across the country who have access to traditional knowledge keepers who have used night sky knowledge in their own ways.

Tapping traditional knowledge

“We have an incredibly rich country with cultures that have thousands of years of key observations and knowledge transmissions and ways of interpreting the night sky,” he said.
“Our overall goal is to work with our partners toward the revitalization of (star) knowledge and to show how important it is to communities trying to reconnect with their cultures.”

Pantalony said understanding the history of star knowledge can give insight into how Indigenous communities have understood land and their respect for nature and how they have culturally reflected on spiritual matters.

Pantalony said he came away from the NWT excited about the possibilities of developing relationships with Indigenous communities to both explore a wider understanding of what night sky study is and has been in Canada.

Star knowledge symposium

Pantalony said that Ingenium is facilitating an international symposium focused on Indigenous star knowledge in Ottawa next September. The event, which he hopes will involve Northern Indigenous representatives, will bring international traditional knowledge keepers from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, South America and Canada and U.S.

The idea is to involve Indigenous people so they can exchange ideas and shape the event in a culturally appropriate way – away from the practices of typical academic conferences.
“We are planning on holding it at a farm near Ottawa where a sacred fire and ceremonial elements can be included and where it can be properly hosted on Algonquin territory,” he said.

Tammy Steinwand-Deschambeault, director of the department of Culture and Lands with the Tlicho government said she welcomed the opportunity to work with the southern representatives in the unique project.

“For them to come and say we are doing this research it is really exciting,” she said, adding it is a constant work in progress to retain traditional knowledge to revitalize the culture.
“Especially at a time when we are losing our elders quickly and there is such a rich knowledge among our older populations.”

New museum needs perspective

Steinwand-Deschambeault said the community recently received approval from the chief and council for a museum to be built in the near future and work has been ongoing on accumulating historical and cultural knowledge.

The challenge in the community is to transcribe for younger generations Indigenous perspectives from elders who lived directly on the land and who used star knowledge in traditional cultural practices, such as for navigation.

“Typically the people we are trying to reach are around 70 years old and up who really lived out on the land and we find that elders even in their 60s didn’t grow up in that (kind of environment),” she said.

Steinwand-Deschambeault said the international symposium, as well as learning about star knowledge from neighbouring Indigenous communities in the NWT are both interesting ideas so to draw commonalities and differences among perspectives.

She said the Tlicho, for example, have oral histories and legends that they have transcribed such as the legend of the Two Sisters and Boy in the Moon. She said over the next year, the community is continuing to work with elders and families to transcribe their knowledge and added she is glad the visitors were interested in work they were already doing.

“I think it is timely that we are working with them and I am glad they came and are interested in being a part of it,” she said.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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