Indigenous astronomy course turns eyes skyward

Paul Mayne//Western NewsSocial Sciences student Sasha Doxtator and Physics and Astronomy professor Robert Cockcroft, along with fellow undergraduate student Brianne Derrah, have created an Indigenous astronomy course for this fall. It would be the first such course offered at a Canadian university.

When Robert Cockcroft looks up, he knows he is not alone in doing so.

“Everyone has access to the sky.”

Inspired by that, the Physics and Astronomy professor created an Indigenous astronomy course that will share the principles of astronomy through traditional Indigenous sky stories. Debuting this fall, it would be the first such course offered at a Canadian university.

“There are a lot of steps. But we shouldn’t be scared of making these first steps, as long as we have an end goal. We’re not going to get there overnight. But this a step in the right direction,” Cockcroft said of the course’s intent to “move forward and decolonize academia.”

Cockcroft’s inspiration in developing the course began in 2014 when he helped develop an Indigenous sky lore presentation as manager of McMaster University’s planetarium. When he came to Western in 2016, the U.K.-born Cockcroft kept that passion for wanting to bring an Indigenous focus to his department.

“The longer I’ve been in Canada, the more I’ve become aware of Indigenous astronomy,” he said. “In thinking about reconciliation, and what that means, what is my responsibility as a non-Indigenous person to help with this? I struggled with that. It’s not appropriate for me to talk about Indigenous content, but I can support and use the privilege I have to support Indigenous voices.”

Cockcroft plans to co-facilitate the new course, Two-Eyed Seeing and Astronomy, where he will share principles of astronomy through traditional Indigenous sky stories. The course will include many Indigenous voices – be it Indigenous members of the campus community or elders in local communities.

“We could look at constellations, look at the moon, how the sky appears to change over the course of the night, over months, years, or generation, and how the moon moves against the background of the constellations. We are going to be respectful of the stories we share,” he said. “I’m interested in the overlap between Western astronomy and Indigenous astronomy. While the focus is on astronomy, we can also broaden that conversation to include reconciliation and what it means.”

Social Sciences students Brianne Derrah and Sasha Doxtator are also helping develop the course.

“It’s extremely exciting and ground breaking. We’re just scratching the surface,” said Doxtator, a member of Oneida Nation of the Thames. “Our ceremonies are dictated by the moon. We live our lives by the moon, even when we do our planting. If it’s a tomato and grows above the ground, you’d plant that on a new moon. But if it grows underground, like a carrot, you plant that on not a new moon.”

Beyond the moon, there are also star lore stories in danger of being lost due to the wide-ranging excesses of the Indian Act that took away control of education, language and much more, Doxtator continued

“We couldn’t speak our language and that came part and parcel with hiding those things,” she said. “There are a lot of stories I never heard as a child, even learning my own language, because my grandparents weren’t allowed to share that. Those stories are there; we just need to unbury them.”

For example, Doxtator only recently learned of a story related to the Milky Way as ‘the path.’

“There are so many stars that create a path to what we call ‘the sky world.’ It’s kind of like Heaven,” she said. “When babies are born, they come down this path of the Milky Way to Earth. When our people pass away, they travel back that same path to the sky world.”

As Cockcroft continues to work towards the first class this fall, he is channeling the nervousness around such an endeavour into building the excitement of where this could go.

“I would like to see the Indigenous astronomy course as like a framework from which other science disciplines can apply within their areas,” he said.