Skip to main content

Ojibwe Cosmos: Mercury in Retrograde, Earthly Stardust and Intricate Stellar Maps

Scientists are bringing ancient Native starlore to light and finding a modern cosmological vision.

Even though a sprinkling of snow fell just this Thursday in northern Minnesota, any arrows shot earlier at Wintermaker apparently have hastened his final departure from the sky. But the rise in the night of Curly Tail, the Great Panther of spring, could bring the threat of floods and dangerous, uncertain travel.

Long before Europeans brought over their Greek monikers for the constellations, Native cultures already had named their sky people. And those faraway relatives helped them to understand their world and how to survive in it.

For the Ojibwe, the constellations of Mooz (Moose), Biboonikeonini (Wintermaker), Mishi Bizhiw (the Great Panther) and Nanaboujou (the original man of Anishinaabe narratives), heralded the arrival of fall, winter, spring and summer.

Courtesy Carl Gawboy

Artist Carl Gawboy’s “Shooting the Wintermaker” shows how parents would make bows and arrows for their young children to come out into the late winter night to shoot at Wintermaker, whose sash is the belt of today’s constellation called Orion. The arrows let the children believe that they were hastening Wintermaker on his way and helping to bring spring.

The Dakota/Lakota people might see Keya (Turtle) and Nape (Hand) above them at different times of year, while the Diné people had noted and identified “Halley’s” Comet as So' Bitsee' Nineezí (Star with a Long Tail) centuries before there was an Edmond Halley.

The Polynesian people knew the stars so well that navigation via their star compass, which divides a 360-degree view into 32 star houses, has been revived by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to promote the art and science of the culture. Christopher Columbus certainly could have benefited from their knowledge, developed thousands of years before he took his journey of supposed discovery.

Boarding schools curtailed pursuit of traditional science, and fatal epidemics such as smallpox nearly wiped out some orally kept wisdom before it could be properly passed forward. But energetic Native scientists and artists are unearthing and reviving this almost-lost sky knowledge.

“Absolutely, I do see a new interest in indigenous knowledge,” said Michael Wassegijig Price, a longtime Ojibwe educator. “Natives and non-Natives alike are pursuing those avenues in many fields—not just astronomy, but also climate change and science, and in the arts and culture as well.”

When he taught the extremely popular Indigenous Astronomy course at Leech Lake Tribal College, Price added, “I was teaching the biggest class at the college.” Price also spoke at a well-attended Smithsonian Institution’s 2012 series on Cultural Astronomy.

Price, former director of college programs for the American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES), has been one of those trying to recreate ancient knowledge.

“It was like putting together a broken vase, putting our knowledge back together again after residential schools,” he said. “In some places, there are going to be pieces missing permanently.”

Ojibwe elder, educator and artist Carl Gawboy has been a wellspring resource for recovering Anishinaabe sky knowledge, thanks to the teachings of his father and to written and oral source materials.

“I used many of these sources and then compared them with what my father said,” explained Gawboy. “Sometimes it was a perfect match, and sometimes it was a different planet.”

Gawboy, along with Ron Morton, a professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota Duluth, has written a three-book series mingling modern science and traditional Ojibwe knowledge of geology and, most recently, astronomy.

In Talking Sky (Rockflower Press, 2014), Gawboy recalls his father’s pointing out the local pictographs at Hegman Lake as depictions of the seasonal change of constellations. Those constellations, in turn, reflected traditional teaching narratives. Take the tales of Wintermaker. This winter-rising Ojibwe constellation incorporates the star grouping popularly known as Orion, but extends beyond it. Winter brought hard times on traditional communities, but also welcome times of gathering together for storytelling and of making or repairing tools on which survival depended.

By late March and early April, though, people were glad to see Wintermaker departing from the night sky. Traditional stories tell of tricking Wintermaker into leaving; Nanaboujou feasted him until he started sweating, melting all his winter works. Sometimes parents encouraged children to shoot arrows at the constellation, hastening the end to winter. Gawboy depicted that tradition in one of his paintings.

Gawboy has become involved in another project spreading Native knowledge about the sky and earth and broadening respect for the science practiced by traditional peoples. Native Skywatchers—Earth Sky Connections, a series of courses that teach how to make art in relation to Earth and the stars, was created in 2007 by astrophysicist and St. Cloud State University Professor Annette S. Lee, mixed-race Dakota-Sioux. Lee has traveled as far as Africa for conferences exploring and reviving indigenous knowledge of astronomy and earth sciences.

Photo: Courtesy Annette S. Lee

Artist and astrophysicist Annette S. Lee has founded Native Skywatchers, which has a website and mounts workshops on Earth Sky connections.

“I’ve gone all over the nation, and all over the world, and people are impressed,” she said. “There’s no one person who has it all, but it’s not so far gone that it’s lost. It forces collaboration.”

Part of Lee’s genius, perhaps because she herself is an artist, has been bringing together artists and scientists. The outgrowth has been two star map guides—one Ojibwe and one Dakota-Lakota. Her group is now developing a Cree star map at the request of a community in Canada.

Lee also organized art workshops inspired by sky knowledge. In 2014, with the launch of the books and star maps, she curated a Native Skywatchers exhibit at the Duluth Art Institute.

“We told her, ‘You can’t do that; so she went ahead and did it,” said Carl, one of the participating artists and a former art instructor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. “She’s kind of a whirlwind of ideas, and she springs these ideas out. I just admire her greatly.”

Separation of art, science and culture, however, is not a Native concept. Stories were ways to teach about the natural world.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“Indigenous science, the lifeways, have an interconnectedness that western science does not provide,” Price said. “We have an affinity for a story more than an affinity for facts.”

It was a story, in fact, that first piqued this educator’s passion for star knowledge.

An Ojibwe spiritual leader from Winnipeg told him the name for “wolverine”—Gwiingwa’ aage (one who came from a shooting star)—and went on to describe how a crashing meteor brought Wolverine, an ill-tempered animal that seems out of place in this world. Interestingly, it’s documented that the Slate Islands on Lake Superior actually are the ridged edge of a huge meteor crater—close proof of the impact that shooting stars had on the home territory of the Ojibwe.

“The story he told had a life-changing affect on me,” Price said. It ignited his interest “with astronomy and with the Anishinaabe language, because the story was within the language; it was hidden in the language.”

Gawboy noted while researching Ojibwe sky knowledge how flexible the stories around astronomy can be.

“The fact is that each locality, each community and each family told the stories and put the knowledge down in a different way,” he said.

Similar variances occur within the Christian Bible, he pointed out, as with the two narratives of Adam’s creation, but unlike the approved version of the Bible, which left out texts, the Ojibwe variations stood alone.

“The Ojibwe did not have the pope or a Council of Ghent,” he noted. “Each one is free to develop their stories. The Ojibwe were a true democracy.”

While boarding schools contributed to the near disappearance of Native science and cultural knowledge, schools now have become a way to preserve and spread it.

In Minnesota, Lee said, new state standards require that classes “incorporate how people from different cultures have participated and are participating in science.”

Courtesy Annette S. Lee

Annette S. Lee, assistant professor of astronomy and physics at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, created the oil and mixed media “Fall Stars” to represent two major autumn constellations—Moose for the Ojibwe and Turtle for the Dakota/Lakota.

A rise in interest in Native sky knowledge also helps Native youths understand two important things, these educators say. One is their own place and purpose in the world.

“Learning about the star knowledge is sort of like a beacon of hope for people and a beacon of light,” Lee said. “It was like finding a long-lost relative. It’s a feeling of being part of something. All of a sudden the stars become much more connected to us.”

RELATED: Blackfoot LIGO Operator Fills Einstein’s Shoes, Finds Gravitational Waves (and Makes a Few of His Own)

The second benefit comes when these young people, who have perhaps been told they cannot cut it in the sciences, discover that their ancestors, in fact, already knew much of what is being “discovered” today (take that, Columbus). For instance, the Ojibwe stories explaining how we are made of stars turns out to be true.

“Even the scientists understand that part,” Lee said. “Literally our atoms were made in stellar processes, made in the stars. We’re made of the stardust.”

Or take one of Gawboy’s favorites, the Native observation of retrograde motion by planets like Mercury. Ancient Ojibwe observed that the “star” that we know today as the planet Mercury seemed to travel backward a few times each year. That is actually because the Earth’s wider orbit is lapping it, passing it and making it appear to be backing toward us. Based on such observations, the Ojibwe developed the “wolf track” concept of how the stars traveled.

“It doesn’t obey all of the rules of the other stars,” Gawboy said. “It’s a wolf not following the same path as the other stars. They are kind of hard concepts to get. How many modern Americans can explain that?”

Rediscovering such Native knowledge debunks many myths about Native people as simple folk kind of coasting through life.

“What this does,” Gawboy said, “is it goes against about 100 years of writing about Indians.”

And, said Lee, it makes science relevant to young Native students today, letting them know that they could pursue those higher-paying STEM careers.

RELATED: From Space to Indigenous Ancestral Engineering: Commander John Herrington Charts New Territory

“They could choose that if they wanted to,” she said, adding that Native people were practicing science and keeping track of stellar movements centuries ago.

“We can’t deny that physical connection to the stars,” said Lee. “That deep connection in the marrow of our bones, that memory. It’s really powerful.”