Reflecting on Astronomy & Colonization in Canada: a new mini-course

By / par Taylor Kutra, Martine Lokken, and Hilding Neilson (University of Toronto)
(Cassiopeia – Summer / été 2020)

The work and learning discussed in this article was conducted at the University of Toronto in the city of Toronto whose name is derived from the Haudenosaunee name for the area Tkaronto meaning trees standing in water. We are honoured and privileged to live and work in this place that has been home to the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

During the winter term of 2020, I offered a new mini-course on Astronomy & Colonization in the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. This was an eight hour course, conducted over eight weeks, which explored the intersection of astronomy and colonization in Canada and how the field needs to be more inclusive of Indigenous peoples, voices, and knowledges. This might be the first time such a course has been offered in the history of Canadian astronomy and is long past overdue.

The course is timely because Canada, as a nation, is beginning to face the impacts of colonization thanks to the reports from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Addressing the findings of these reports requires structural changes in Canada in every way. This includes academic astronomy and physics. More specific to astronomy, we are also facing the impacts of colonization on Indigenous peoples thanks to our world-class facilities situated on and proposed for Indigenous territories in Hawai’i, southern United States, Chile, Australia, Canada and others. In particular, the backlash against the Thirty-Metre Telescope and protest by land protectors there took many astronomers in Canada by surprise.

Because of these issues, astronomy in Canada is at a crossroads where we need to reflect on our place on the land and understand how we engage with Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples. The new Dimensions program being led by NSERC seeks for institutions to become more inclusive ecosystems, including being more inclusive of Indigenous peoples. Being truly inclusive of Indigeneity in academia and astronomy requires integrating and embracing Indigenous knowledges; respecting the lands that we are on and use; and creating space for Indigenous peoples. We can only be truly inclusive if we consider all three aspects. If we only create space for Indigenous people, but ignore the land or Indigenous knowledges then that inclusion is assimilation. If we only integrate Indigenous knowledges in our classroom, but ignore people then we are committing appropriation. If we use the land, but do not respect Indigenous cultures, peoples, and treaties then we commit erasure and continue centuries of colonization. Inclusion needs to consider these three elements.

In that perspective, I designed the minicourse to focus on these three pillars and asking how we, the astronomy community, can be more inclusive. The first pillar asks us to understand our place on the land we live and the land we work. This discussion includes considering the value and purpose of Land Acknowledgements including acknowledging how our research benefits from the Land. The pillar includes a discussion about the Thirty-Metre Telescope seeking to learn about the impacts of the project from writings and voices of Native Hawaiians offering different perspectives.

The second pillar focuses on learning from Indigenous knowledges and considering Indigenous-based axioms for learning. It must be noted that there is no one Indigenous knowledge and every nation and community can offer different understandings of nature and the Universe. However, many scholars have noted that there are commonalities between Indigenous knowledges [1,2]. One example is the concept of relationality, such that knowledge is dependent on the observer and the time and location of the observer. This is different from the traditional western scientific axiom of objectivity where knowledge must be independent of the observer and experimental results must not depend on the experimenter. At the same time, Indigenous knowledge is shared through story and participants explore how these stories can inform world views and knowledge of nature. In particular, learning astronomy from Indigenous stories offers a more (w)holistic sense of the nature and the Universe since many stories reflect sky knowledge, knowledge of nature and animals, and lessons about ethics and societies. This makes Indigneous knowledges inherently multidisciplinary.

The third pillar focuses on being inclusive of Indigenous peoples in how we do astronomy. This is done by considering modern challenges for both astronomy and for Indigenous peoples and seeks to consider how we can include Indigenous peoples as equal and equitable partners. This is followed by a discussion about anti-racism and anti-colonialism for astronomers and motivates participants to consider a future where Indigenous peoples are included in our field.

This course was offered in the winter semester of 2020, first in person and later, because of the University closure, via Zoom. Two graduate students took the mini course for credit and about six students participated along with two faculty members when their schedules allowed. Each meeting was preceded by a set of readings and attendees were asked to keep a reflection journal and track their understanding of those readings.

In each meeting we would discuss these readings, but the discussion was conducted in a way that is not traditional to astronomy courses. For each session, one or two participants would be designated as “panelists” while everyone else was a “respondent”. The panelist would start the discussion by presenting their thoughts and learnings from the readings. This would be followed by responses from each respondent; however, respondents were asked to begin with the phrase “What struck me…” or “I was struck by…”. The purpose of responding in this way is for people to build up the discussion and add to the discourse as opposed to the traditional discourses centred on debate or lecturer-student discourses found in most astronomy courses. Every attendee would be asked to offer a response and once everyone responded, the next panelist would offer their statement and the cycle would repeat. If time allowed I would conclude with a brief statement that seeks to act as a consensus from all of the discussion. This method of interaction and discourse was learned from a University of Toronto Elder and is based on Coastal Salish meeting protocols. It is also similar to the talking stick protocols of some Mi’kmaw peoples [3].

The course was evaluated in two parts – by participation and by the reflection journal. Because of the methodology, participation was critical for a successful discourse. The reflection journals were valuable tools for evaluation because they demonstrated the evolution of student learning and growth as the course progressed.

My (Neilson) impressions of the course as an Instructor was to be very impressed and proud of just how enthusiastic students were to adopt this discursive methodology and how deeply students engaged with the content. Even though I assigned the material and was an author on some of it, I left the course having learned a lot of new ideas and perspectives on being more inclusive. In the months since the course was offered, there are clearly many issues around Race and Indigeneity in academic astronomy for which many people in positions of power are not prepared to engage with, but my experience in this course left me hopeful that the next generations of leaders in our field will build the inclusive work space that my generation is currently failing to do. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the students who participated in this course.

We (Lokken and Kutra) learned a great deal from this course, and found that the discussion format and reflection journals were paramount to its success. By structuring the class differently from our other classes and seminars, we were able to focus on building upon ideas rather than critiquing. The structure broke us from the habits we revert to in typical classes, as passive absorbers of information, and challenged us to listen, learn, synthesize, and respond. Because the discussion style discouraged direct debating, the class was able to avoid confrontation and instead gain important active listening skills. Furthermore, the reflection journals encouraged us to critically engage with the assigned readings, collect our thoughts before class discussion, and reflect after class on what we learned from others. After the course was complete, it was useful to read back through our personal journals and note how our ideas had changed over time.

A key idea that I (Lokken) took away from this course is that the field of astronomy can be improved by listening to Indigenous perspectives and learning from Indigenous ways of knowing. For example, the concept of responsibility to the land is central to most Indigenous cultures. This responsibility is not often discussed in astronomy, and to many astronomers it may seem irrelevant to our research. However, we should feel a responsibility to care for the land and pass it on to future generations when we consider, for example, the construction of new telescopes or supercomputers. In addition, astrophysics may be able to advance by incorporating Indigenous approaches to knowledge at the most fundamental level. Re-considering some of the axioms on which Western science is built and learning from Indigenous concepts of time, holism, relationality, etc. could lead to breakthroughs in how we understand lingering mysteries in quantum mechanics and cosmology.

As a settler on Turtle Island (Kutra), various Indigenous cultures had been presented to me in public school settings but this was the first time that I saw how I can learn and teach more effectively from a worldview that centers relationality and the interconnectedness of all things. In my reflections, I often wrote about how my teaching and public outreach would be better if I centered stories. All of the complicated processes of astrophysics are laid plain when they are contextualized and turned into a narrative that connects physics to phenomenon to observables. Challenging a dominant colonial worldview in the classroom by employing tactics like Two-Eyed Seeing, where learners use the strengths of Indigenous and Western knowledge systems while also “[respecting] the differences between the two perspectives and [focusing] on, and [working] from a position of shared strengths”[4], has important consequences for who and what knowledge is valued our field. Being trained in and then using this tactic in astronomy classrooms and in public outreach is one of many ways that our field can be more inclusive.

This is the first time a course on Astronomy & Colonization has ever been offered anywhere in Canada even though this nation is built on Indigenous lands that are either governed by treaties or continue to be unceded. We will soon have a new Long Range Plan that aspires to remove systematic barriers for Indigenous peoples (and other racialized peoples) and to address the impact of ongoing colonization imposed by our community. This course is an important early step for members of our field and of the Canadian Astronomical Society to develop tools to achieve the aspirations that will be presented by the LRP and to help us all better acknowledge the knowledges and rights of Indigenous peoples in this country and globally.

In conclusion, the success of this modest effort suggests that such a course would be beneficial to every astronomy institution in this country. We urge our colleagues to begin their own journeys in this work and to learn from the peoples whose land we live and work on. I (Neilson) welcome input and questions from my colleagues and look forward to opportunities to offer this course again.

Finally, the past month has seen the academic world begin to open their eyes to issues of systemic racism in the world and in Canada. During that time, a number of Black and Indigenous people have had their lives taken by police violence. We as a nation and specifically the astronomy community in this nation need to do better. #BlackLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter

[1] Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, 2000, Clear Light Publishing, Santa Fe, USA

[2] Marie Battiste, Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit, 2017, Purich Publishing, Saskatoon, Canada

[3] Sharon J. Ridgeway and Peter J. Jacques, The Power of the Talking Stick: Indigenous Politics and the World Ecological Crisis, 2014, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder USA

[4] Albert Marshall, Murdena Marshall, and Marilyn Iwama, Approaching Mi’kmaq teachings on the connectiveness of humans and nature, 2010, Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Science and the Management of Protected Areas, 21–26 May 2007, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Pgs 174 – 177

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