Help with Pacific Northwest First Nations Astronomy

You can find your way around the indigenous constellations with a new planisphere available from the RASC e-store. It includes constellation wheels that show Ojibwe, D(L)akota, and Cree star maps. A separate constellation guidebook, with the Ojibwe constellations is also available. These are great but the Ojibwe, D(L)akota, and Cree territories are located in the prairies and eastern Canada rather than out here on the west coast of BC.

RASC Vancouver would like to learn more about the sky lore, constellations, and astronomical knowledge of the First Nation peoples of the Pacific Northwest to show off at the RASC 2020 General Assembly on June 5th-7th 2020. What were their sky stories? Did they see and name patterns of stars similar to Western constellations?

Little information on the astronomical knowledge of Pacific Northwest First Nation peoples is available. If you know anything, have contact with anyone knowledgeable about this or would just like to help with some research then please send us an email to [email protected]

The Coastal Salish are a cultural group that inhabit the land around Metro Vancouver, extending down to into Washington, and north of Comox on Vancouver Island.

Coast Salish Territories
Image Credit: University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries

Other linguistic and cultural groups including the Haida, Tsimshian, Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Northern Wakashan, Kwakwakw’wakw (Kwakuitl), and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) reside further north along the Pacific Northwest coast.

Living around the Salish Sea and next to the Pacific Ocean, one would think these peoples would be sea-faring folk that navigated using the stars. The mild climate and abundant natural resources made possible the rise of a complex culture – they had time and energy to devote to the development of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies – but what about astronomy?

Several First Nations peoples have sky lore related to “the Big Dipper”. The Mi’kmaq, who lived in southeast Canada, saw the Big Dipper handle stars as hunters chasing a Celestial Bear. The Iroquois had a similar legend. The Ntlakyapamuk, or Thompson peoples in the southern British Columbia Interior also saw three hunters but they were chasing a grizzly bear. It is interesting that the Ancient Greeks also saw a Great Bear, Ursa Major, in this pattern of stars.

Three brothers Chase the Celestial Bear
Image Credit: McMaster University

Other First Nations peoples in BC had different sky lore for the Big Dipper.

diving loons as seen by the Klamath peoples (in the British Columbia plateau region). To the Tahltan peoples in northwestern British Columbia, the stars of the Big Dipper were the Grandfather Stars. Grandfather Stars told the Thaltan people that as long as he continued to go around the northern sky, everything would be well.

Frank Dempsey, Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper,
JRASC April / avril 2008 Volume/volume 102 Number/numéro 2

Are you a Stellarium user? If so then you can change the sky culture to something other than the default Western culture.

Screenshot Chnage Sky Culture in Stellarium
Changing the Sky Culture in Stellarium

such as the colourful Ojibwe sky culture.

Ojibwe Sky Culture in Stellarium
Stellarium with Ojibwe Sky Culture