Results from the First Indigenous Astronomy Workshop at the University of Toronto

By/par Hilding Neilson, CLTA Assistant Professor (U of Toronto)
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2017)

On November 2 and 3 2017, we held a workshop on the topic of Indigenous astronomy at the University of Toronto. The workshop was sponsored by the Centre for Indigenous Studies, the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The purpose of the two-day workshop was to bring together astronomers, educators and Indigenous scholars from around the Greater Toronto region to discuss methods for improving engagement with Indigenous communities and how to be more inclusive in delivering Indigenous knowledge in the classroom. This workshop is part of a larger initiative to develop new curriculum and learning materials around Indigenous astronomy.

More specifically, the goal of the workshop was to address the following three questions:

  • How do we enhance Indigenous knowledge in the astronomy classroom?
  • How do we build connections between astronomer and Indigenous communities?
  • How do we motivate more Indigenous people to participate in STEM and education?

As part of the workshop, we invited speakers from across eastern Canada to lead this discussion. The workshop was opened by Elder Andrew Wesley who related his own personal connections with the sky and nature along with the importance of understanding nature as part of Indigenous culture. This was followed by Professor Melanie Jeffery, who shared about developing the Indigenous Ecology course that is a science breadth course at the University of Toronto. That discussion highlighted the need to understand Indigenous worldview as part of the education process in science along with the tensions between literacy and oral traditions in learning. One of the more interesting topics in the discussion was the role of storytelling in the teaching methodologies that can be incorporated into astronomy teaching as a way to diversify teaching and learning.

Professor Cheryl Bartlett from Cape Breton University and Ms. Carola Knockwood from Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey presented talks around the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing in science. This concept was highlighted in the Naylor report on science as a way to connect research in the academic sphere with First Nations knowledge systems and perspectives. Both speakers discussed the value of Two-Eyed Seeing for health and biological sciences and how astronomers might consider applying this philosophy. Ms. Knockwood also discussed how Eurocentric knowledge methods used in academia are not necessarily serving Indigenous learners because of how Universities tend to be disconnected from traditional Indigenous knowledge.

We also heard from Mr. Frank Dempsey from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who has spent years sharing Indigenous astronomy stories with the public and Dr. David Pantalony from the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology. Mr. Dempsey discussed various stories from the Mi’kmaw tradition of Muin and the Seven Hunters along with stories about constellations that are similar to Orion and the Pleiades. Dr. Pantalony presented a discussion on a new exhibit at the museum centred on Indigenous sky knowledge that was co-curated with Prof. Annette Lee from St. Cloud State University and Mr. Wilfred Buck from the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center as an initial step to including Indigenous knowledge in science outreach.

Along with the talks, a significant fraction of time of the workshop was dedicated to discussion of the three key questions and to develop strategies for engagement with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities. In particular, three important lessons are:

  1. We, as astronomers, should work to interact with and learn from Elders and knowledge keepers on their terms. Many Elders want to share their knowledge and see it used respectfully and earnestly.
  2. When we discuss Indigenous knowledge in the classroom it should be done in context. That discussion should acknowledge the place of that knowledge in Indigenous life. This context includes discussion of culture, prejudice and the impact of colonization. While this discussion is challenging we cannot simply discuss Indigenous astronomy without discussing Indigenous culture and history.
  3. In various talks, stories were related about how university/college education requires Indigenous students to think in terms of western knowledge system that treats their own knowledge as less valuable. This settler mentality creates added stress for Indigenous student wishing to pursue advanced education. One way to encourage more Indigenous students is to build community connections that encourage working in both western and Indigenous knowledge systems.

This workshop and public discussion was the first step in developing curriculum for astronomy courses around Indigenous content and developing strategies for collaborating and serving Indigenous communities in Canada. This initiative is important as our astronomy courses do not reflect the diversity of the nation and ignores the contributions of Indigenous knowledge. It is the hope of those involved with this workshop that it be the first workshop of many and helps move forward the national conversation the astronomy community needs to have about delivering and including Indigenous astronomy knowledge in the classroom.

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