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Native Americans Reach for the Stars

  • Brian Bull

To many star-gazers, the ladle-shaped cluster circling the North Star is The Big Dipper. For others, it's a great bear. But the Ojibwa Indians of America's Upper Midwest see a fisher, a weasel-like animal featured in many of their legends, tumbling through the sky.

The Native American perspective of the night sky isn't widely known in the astronomy community, largely because so few Indians choose science as a career. But some Wisconsin professors are out to change that, by associating modern science with tribal traditions.

Inside Madison's old Washburn Observatory, a fat little engine rumbles away, pulling a series of gears that creak open the facility's shutter. Cool air billows into the dome as the shutter slides back, revealing the sky. University of Wisconsin astronomer Sanjay Limaye readies a large brass and steel telescope that towers over the old hardwood floors and furniture.

He says star-gazing is especially popular with visiting high school students. "They love to see the rings of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter. Students who have had no other explicit interest in science, they go there and [say] 'Cool!'" he says with a chuckle. "Now that's something exciting to hear from a 15- or 16-year old!"

Among the Observatory's recent visitors were some kids from the La Courte Oreille Indian reservation of northern Wisconsin. Limaye says he'd like to see some of them come back, as astronomy students. "The challenge still is that very few Native Americans go into the careers that the nation needs." He ticks them off on his fingers, "NASA, the engineers, the technicians, information processing, writing, communications...all sorts of areas."

According to a survey by the National Science Foundation, between 1990 and 2002, barely 1/2 of one percent of undergraduate engineering students were Native American. Limaye and his colleague, Patty Loew, want to raise those numbers. Loew, a Life Sciences professor at UW- Madison, and a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwa, says there are many ancient, yet sophisticated examples of native astronomy across the Americas.

"Just as you might find Stonehenge in England, there are 'woodhenges' here which were giant calendars," she explains. "We have medicine wheels that not only have cultural meaning, but also have astronomical meaning, ways that indigenous people told time and knew when to plant. If you look at some of the mounds around Chichén Itzá [in Mexico] and Tikal [in Guatemala], you find 366 steps and 52 platforms." That design echoes the number of days and weeks in a year. This ancient astronomical knowledge is also demonstrated in a stone circle recently discovered in the Brazilian jungle, which scientists think served as an observatory.

Patty Loew adds that early native people were also experienced geneticists, plant biologists, and wildlife ecologists. She says today's Indian youth can study science and math, without compromising their culture.

Other native educators agree. Nancy MaryBoy is of Cherokee-Navajo descent and president of the Indigenous Education Institute, based in Bluff, Utah. She says highlighting the connection between native culture and science is vital if more Indians are to become astronauts, scientists, and technicians. "As kids begin to learn their own astronomy and feel a sense of self-identity, pride, self-esteem, this often encourages them to go on into space science."

Professors Sanjay Limaye and Patty Loew are on the case. Recently, they visited the Milwaukee Indian School. Inside the activity center, several dozen teens, sporting parkas, sweatshirts and ponytails, listened as Loew retold the native legend of how Fisher brought the Sun to the World.

In the story, Fisher and some friends take the Sun away from the Sky Village, so that the Earth can enjoy light and warmth. But the Sky People give chase. Fisher climbs a tree to distract the pursuers.

"And Fisher had really strong medicine," Lowe tells the kids, "and he had only one vulnerable spot at the tip of his tail. And eventually the arrows found their mark. And as he tumbled off the pine tree, Creator took pity on him and turned him into the constellation that we know today as The Big Dipper…"

Loew and Limaye take turns, telling stories and then explaining their scientific context. And while a few kids fidget and yawn, most seem pretty excited by the presentation. Afterwards, one boy says he likes the sky stories. "When I was growing up, my Dad told me a lot about sky stories. And this got me more thinking about being a scientist." A young girl offered her favorite story, "'When Otter and Wolverine Went Up and Took the Sun.' Tried to take it," she corrects herself. Another youngster says the stories changed the way he sees things. "The Big Dipper, like I don't think I'm going to look at it the same way, either." And he admits that a career in science could be in his future. "Maybe not like an astronaut, maybe a scientist that studies astronomy or something…"

Loew and Limaye plan to continue their traveling program, to schools on and off Wisconsin's Reservations and produce an astronomy textbook for middle schools. Rosalyn Pertzborn, Director of Space-Science Education at UW-Madison, says it's a great educational venture. "This is certainly a rich cultural background that every American should be familiar with. This is part of our heritage as a broad community."

More insight will come from a special conference between tribal elders and space scientists, scheduled for January of next year. Organizers hope their efforts will inspire residents of "Indian Country" to literally reach for the stars.