How we can improve Indigenous representation in astronomy

Bringing an Indigenous approach to the fields of astronomy and astrophysics is more important than ever, and it can be done with respect.
By | Published: November 14, 2023 | Last updated on November 15, 2023

If there’s one star pattern everyone can name, it’s the Big Dipper. Famous and easy to identify, it can be spotted even by people with no interest in astronomy. But according to Hilding Neilson, an astronomer and assistant professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who incorporates Indigenous knowledge and methodologies into his research, it’s erroneous to assume this is a universal interpretation of the night sky.

The culture of the Mi’kmaq, a First Nations people of eastern Canada, includes the story of Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. The four stars of the Dipper’s bowl form Muin the bear, while the handle and the stars that trail behind it are the birds. The stars’ positions at a given time of day, of course, change with the seasons: Early on a spring morning the Dipper points down, in the summer it’s flat, and by the fall it’s on its side again.

The story goes that Muin wakes from his hibernation in springtime and searches for food, but Robin sees him and knows his fat and meat could feed the community. Robin grabs his bow and arrow, and other birds follow behind him.

As spring turns to summer, Muin’s downhill journey flattens out, and the tired birds trail behind. As fall arrives, the birds in the back lose track of the hunt, and they fall below the horizon. But Muin is tired too, and he rears up on his hind legs to try scaring Robin off. Robin shoots his arrow, striking Muin and splattering Robin with blood. He flies through the trees to shake the blood off, turning the autumn leaves red but leaving a splotch on his chest. By winter, the birds have gathered to feast while Muin lies on his back, waiting for his spirit to return in the spring and begin the hunt anew.

The story of Muin, Neilson says, “is important because it’s about community, sharing, the cycles of nature. And it relates to the land where the Miꞌkmaq are from.” Neilson, who is a Mi’kmaw person, tells this and other stories as part of his outreach efforts.

One of the few Indigenous astronomers in North America, Neilson’s path to the field, he says, wasn’t “romantic.” Turned down for an engineering program, he picked up an astronomy course and was fascinated by the field’s many unsolved questions. Every new answer, it seemed, only led to further inquiry. “We really know so little,” Neilson says, “and that got me into it.” Neilson’s work as a researcher has involved modeling stellar atmospheres and studying the evolution of Cepheid variable stars.

Preserving stories

Different Indigenous cultures tell different star stories. For the Dene, who live in the Arctic, the stars of the Big Dipper form the body of Yamoòzha, a wanderer who rids the world of hostile creatures. A jealous rival shot Yamoòzha in the back with an arrow, but the wanderer is still in the stars, ready to return if the Dene drift from their traditions.  

Passed down orally, many of these stories came close to extinction. Wilfred Buck, a long-time expert in Indigenous star lore, spent 14 years interviewing Opaskwayak Cree elders across Manitoba, and was only able to record two dozen stories. Today, these stories are preserved by star charts, books, and advocacy groups like Native Skywalkers. Collectively, they’re an insight into Indigenous views of how the universe works and what our place in it is, and an important reminder that no one owns the cosmos.

Cultural astronomy

But, as Neilson explains, there’s more to Indigenous astronomy than just constellations.

“We tend to say that there’s ‘astronomy,’ and then ‘cultural astronomy’ that isn’t the real deal,” he says. “But what we do in an observatory or on a computer is no less a reflection of our culture than what Indigenous peoples do.”

In the Western world, for example, Betelgeuse’s cycle of dimming and brightening was recorded by John Herschel in 1836. Indigenous Australians had noted this for millennia, but many astronomers found it difficult to believe that people without a background in Western science could have observed this until the scientific plausibility of the knowledge’s inclusion in Australian oral history was demonstrated in a 2018 paper in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.

“In the last 500 years or so we built a consensus on the scientific method,” Neilson says, “the idea that it’s hypotheses, experiments, and reproducibility. We’ve structured it so much that we’ve removed a lot of local knowledge. Today, knowledge is only generated in a certain context. If it’s in an Indigenous community, that knowledge might not be scientific and scientists won’t recognize it until someone in the scientific community does the test to prove it’s right.”

Neilson points out that the twinkling of Sirius (or Singuuriq, meaning “flickering lamp”) has long been used by the Inuit to predict weather patterns and pressure systems. That the Inuit have not published papers or datasets does not make this knowledge any less useful.

“We’ve built a system that’s raised a lot of defenses around what constitutes science,” Neilson says. “We want that, because that protects us from things like homeopathy and astrology. But there are ways that some of these other knowledges can benefit us. Indigenous peoples don’t need science to verify their knowledge. It exists for them. It relates to the land they’re from.”

Limiting the search for life

All of this has practical implications in how we interpret the universe. Take the Drake equation, which attempts to guesstimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy. But, as Neilson points out, its definition of civilization is a Western one.

“The Drake equation is a reflection of the time it was created,” Neilson says. “That was the advent of radio astronomy, when people were wondering what defines technology and intelligent life. Those definitions were built on a reflection of Western society. If Western society is the technological apex, what are Indigenous societies? Why don’t we think of them as civilizations? That Western perspective limits our ability to understand what intelligent life in our galaxy could be.”

In other words, if we assume that any intelligent life out there must look like modern Western society, we’re artificially limiting our search. “We want to look for civilizations that can emit radio or build Dyson spheres, societies built in such a way that their technology overwhelms natural signals,” Neilson says. “What if there are technologically advanced species who live in balance with nature? The Drake equation has a whole spectrum of possibilities that’s not considered in Western science.”

Representation and respect

In a broader sense, academic institutions are often eager to have Indigenous representation, but can be less enthusiastic about actually incorporating Indigenous perspectives.

“We fixate on the scientific method,” Neilson says. “Academia has never really allowed Indigenous knowledges to play a role, especially in astronomy and physics. People feel challenged. It’s easy to say you want to include diverse people in astronomy and physics, but if you’re not bringing in their worldviews, you’re just assimilating people. In astronomy, a lot of my colleagues want to have Indigenous representation, but they don’t want to have to think about what it means to include Indigenous knowledges. It’s led to some very inappropriate moments in my career.”

This doesn’t mean throwing out the scientific method, but acknowledging that it can create blinders. Without recognizing that, supposedly apolitical science can create problems. Take the years of protests and debates about the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Maunakea, on land sacred to Indigenous Hawaiians. Some astronomers encouraged reflection on the role science should have in a community, but others essentially dismissed the protestors as superstitious and holding back scientific progress.

“We want the representation, but we also want the land,” Neilson says. “The best places to build telescopes in the Americas are in Hawaii, Chile, California, the southwestern United States, all Indigenous lands. And how are we supporting Indigenous peoples on those lands? In a lot of cases, the behavior of astronomers putting telescopes on those lands is not very different from the people building pipelines across Indigenous lands. I think it’s important for astronomers to develop the humility to understand that.”

What, then, is the path forward for Indigenous astronomy? Neilson calls for an approach that encompasses land, knowledge, and people. “We have to respect land rights. When we don’t have consent for a telescope, we walk away instead of fighting costly legal battles. When it comes to knowledges, we have to listen, absorb, integrate. In how we teach, in how we think. And then we also have to create space for people to come to astronomy, for elders and academics to share space. Because if you’re Indigenous, you want to see yourself represented.”

Thanks to growing outreach efforts, that representation is improving. Perspectives once dismissed by Western scientists as irrelevant are being considered again, but there’s still a long way to go.

“Astronomers, whether we’re enthusiasts or professionals, need to go to communities and talk to people and listen,” says Neilson. “Ask what they want. Maybe they want to have telescopes. Maybe they want to use them. Working with communities will help build representation.”