By / par Samantha Lawler (Campion College, University of Regina)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn / l’automne 2020)
A First Step Toward Incorporating Traditional Knowledge in your Astro 101 Class – Connect with Local Elders/Knowledge Keepers
This is an example of how one new professor (the author) has begun the very first steps to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into an Astronomy 101 class that did not previously include any. The course is offered through Campion College, an affiliated college of the University of Regina (U of R). The U of R has a large undergraduate Indigenous population, with 14% of students self-identifying as Indigenous. The U of R also has an Office of Indigenization, and one of their stated goals is to connect faculty and staff with Indigenous Elders/Knowledge Keepers and to help with Indigenization of their courses. As a first step toward Indigenizing an existing course (Astronomy 101), I was able to make use of their Elder-in-residence program to bring a Life Speaker to the very first class I ever taught at the U of R. The staff of the Office of Indigenization helped me practice pronunciations to properly acknowledge the territory (where I had just begun living 2 weeks prior). They also taught me the proper etiquette for introducing the Life Speaker, as well as providing me with a properly prepared traditional offering of tobacco to present do the Life Speaker prior to him speaking to the class. I asked the Life Speaker to share his traditional knowledge of astronomy, and he spoke at length about the traditional view of the Earth as our mother and the Universe as our father, as well as his personal connection with the Northern Lights. My favourite highlight was learning that the Cree name for the Northern Lights translates to “the relatives are dancing,” a much more joyful and active name than we use in English.
With extensive help from the U of R Office of Indigenization, I, a brand-new professor, was able to properly acknowledge a land that was new to me, and share the traditional knowledge of an Indigenous elder, on my very first day of teaching. Administrative procedures were already in effect to make compensating the elder for his time with a proper honorarium from Campion College (the Office of Indigenization recommended $200), which is also an important part of acknowledging the importance of traditional knowledge. Having the Office of Indigenization as a resource for advice and for connection with Indigenous groups is completely invaluable for Indigenizing astronomy (as well as other courses). I am extremely thankful that these structures exist and I acknowledge that without the help of the Office of Indigenization, it would have taken years for me to build up the contacts to do what I was able to present on my very first day of teaching. In the near-future, I look forward to expanding collaboration with their office and with First Nations University, another affiliated college of the University of Regina.
A pandemic addendum: This semester, while all of our university’s teaching is online, the Office of Indigenization were again able to connect me with the Elder and arrange for him to join my class via Zoom. It worked amazingly well!
Starting the course with an acknowledgement of the land and an Indigenous Elder’s very personal, interconnected view of astronomy completely changed the starting point of the class, and created a much more respectful beginning to this course. The standard astronomy textbook narrative is often to start with “primitive,” “ancient” views that are later shown to be “false” by triumphant Western science. This started the course on a much more respectful note, allowing for traditional knowledge to coexist with current scientific practices as another way of knowing what we all observe in the sky.
As a settler and a new Canadian, I am very much still learning about Indigenous knowledge in my new home, and I am definitely not an expert. I am sharing my experience in hopes that other astronomers across Canada will be inspired to take a similar step toward Indigenizing their astronomy courses. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will you be pushed way outside your comfort zone? Almost certainly! (In a good way!) Will you and your students benefit from this connection? Absolutely, yes.
A few useful resources to get started: