September 02, 2013

Native Starwatchers Project

SCSU professor Annette Lee helps viewers see the sky as Native Americans did

By Ann WesselWhen Annette Lee dims the dome and brings up the stars in St. Cloud State University’s planetarium, she adds a new layer of understanding to the night sky as she describes astronomical phenomena, traces Greek and Roman constellations with a red light and then overlays images corresponding to Native American constellations.

The Big Dipper that is part of the constellation Ursa Major also forms the fisher, called Ojiig in Ojibwe. The dipper’s ladle forms the curve of the fisher’s tail.

Lee, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, explained to a room full of teachers attending a summer conference at St. Cloud State, that in Ojibwe culture the fisher is a clever, fierce and brave animal and a good fighter. It climbed a pine tree and jumped through a hole in the sky to bring back the birds and, therefore, the spring. Fishers are constantly on the move, sleeping for only a few hours before returning to the hunt. Like the fisher, the Big Dipper is constantly on the move in the sky.

On the Dakota star map, the Big Dipper contains the Blue Spirit Woman, who helps newborns pass from the star world to Earth and back again.

Through the Native Starwatchers Project, Lee has introduced audiences in Minnesota and throughout the U.S. to some Dakota and Ojibwe constellations and the stories they carry. Minnesota teachers are tuning in because state science standards require instructors to show how people from other cultures, including the state’s American Indian tribes, have contributed to science.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that although the mainstream science uses European and Greek (constellations), it’s important to know it comes from a certain culture,” Lee said later. “There are many ways of knowing, and that’s just one way.”
Comment:  For more on Native astronomy, see NMAI Launches Maya Website and Sacred Native Meteorites.

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