Why We Must Relearn Our Stories - And Look Up, Not Down
"The night sky is a fantastic sight, stars moving across the sky, twinkling and shining. It feels as if we are related to the stars, they are like watchful grandparents. The stars have been there for millennia, watched by our ancestors and the stars watching back."
- Hilding Neilson, scientist/astronomer.
"We're not a religion. We're a system of belief and we seek to know the medicine of the earth and the wisdom of the stars. Ginanda-gikendaamin maskiki miinawaa anang nibwaakaawin, nahaaw."
- Zhaawano Giizhik, visual storyteller
With minimal mention of contemporary issues in mainstream media and ongoing conflicts over land and water rights and tribal sovereignty, we, the original Peoples of Turtle Island, have become invisible. The situation, which has not become any less harrowing over the past decades, has made it easy for dominant, non-native society to take the lead on creating their own narratives about us. Our "invisibility" leads to stereotypical public perceptions - in the form of, for example, a myriad of racist symbols and mascots that surround us in movies, media, and everyday life, which, in turn, maintains a distorted self-image among ourselves, leading to self-hate and more social deprivation.
To save our unique outlook on life and the richness of our cultural traditions and the future of our offspring, the ongoing cycle of the false narratives, the invisibility, and the erasure of Native peoples must be broken. It's time we embrace our rich storytelling traditions again and create -- or rather re-create -- our own narratives!
But to do this, where should we look first?
It is a well-known, scientifical fact that most of the elements of our bodies were formed in stars over the course of billions of years and multiple star lifetimes. Even modern science states that we are made of stardust! "We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff," astronomer Carl Sagan said in the early 1980's. To us, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, this has never been a secret. We have known since time immemorial that we, as humans, come from the star world. This is why our ancestors, when they wanted to know where they came from and where they were heading, gazed skyward.
I think that, if we want to break the vicious cycle of false narratives and negative perceptions, we should start in the star world. It is time to reorient ourselves toward the night sky and toward our old star stories and learn to see ourselves and our origins and our future through our own eyes - and not through the lens of the ones who colonized our world. It is time we see ourselves in a different light, the light of our ancestors that shine on us from the sky above. It is time to look up instead of down.
Opening up Western-oriented astronomy beyond the accepted norm of Greek and Roman historical knowledge might bring a new generation of potential astronomers into the field. Astronomers such as Hilding Neilson and others, who have more awareness of Indigenous issues and integrate Indigenous methodologies and ways of knowing into their research as opposed to looking at things from a strictly Western perspective. We have already lost too many of our people to science because they had some phobia of math. Hilding Nelson, who himself is of Anishinaabe descent, said, "If we could talk about science through stories, perhaps we’re helping students come in different ways to engage and interact with science and astronomy."
The above image, which I created a few moons ago, is titled "Grandmother Telling Stories of Our Origins." Grandmother, as she shares stories with her grandchildren, points at Gaagige Giizhig, "The Everlasting Sky" -- or the Waawiyekamig, the "Round Lodge" as the Anishinaabeg traditionally conceive the cosmos. Grandmother's storytelling highlights the connections between the humans and their doodemag (clans) in the below-world and the anangoog and aadawaa'amoog ogimaag (stars and planets) in the upper-world.
In the illustration we see the motion in the night sky where, viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, the anangoog and aadawaa'amoog ogimaag rotate counterclockwise around the motionless Giiwedin Anang/Returning Home Star (Polaris). The Returning Home Star is located in the tail of the Maang (Loon), depicted as the red bird in the center of the image. The trail, or river, these stars and star formations follow is called many things. Some call it Jiibay-miikana or Jiibay-ziibi (Trail of Souls or River of Souls); others call it Binesi Miikana (Thunderbird Trail); again others refer to it as Mashkiki Miikana or Giizhik Miikana, the Medicine, or Cedar Trail.
The story behind the Giizhik Miikana is that Oshki Kwe, a female spirit who at one time went to earth and transformed into a Giizhik (cedar tree), walked the night sky, etching this river path while leaving a shimmering trail of stars behind her. This celestial pathway is a testament to the eternal bond between the Cedar Tree and the Anishinaabeg people and still serves as a guiding light for the departed souls, leading them safely back to their eternal home...
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Illustration: "Grandmother Telling Stories of Our Origins." Visit the webshop to order a photo print or canvas print.