Night sky stories – Teaching tradition through the stars

Richard Keeper learned how to use the stars as guides when he went out on the land to hunt and fish. Now, he teaches his star knowledge within First Nations schools using an inflatable planetarium. Keeper hopes the teachings will help First Nations students find their way back to their culture.

As a member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Keeper grew up on the land looking up to the sky for direction and knowledge. Now, working within the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (the Resource Centre), he facilitates a workshop called Cree Night Sky Stories. Keeper is honored to be learning more about different First Nations perspectives on constellations, and he is working with Resource Centre staff from other First Nations cultures to expand the star teachings available.

“It is wonderful speaking to the Elders. I was speaking to an Elder and he was telling me his stories that went with Pleiades, the constellation, and then he spoke about how he got lost once and used the stars to find his way home, and that led into a Creation Story,” Keeper says. “He’s a fisherman, and we spoke about moons and how they relate to the food he needs to catch—the white fish, the jack fish. And he wants to invite me back to the community because he has remembered more.”

Keeper thinks it is important to hand down such knowledge to today’s young First Nations people— to teach them that their people looked up to the sky and created a worldview that explained what they saw above.

“When we looked up at the stars at a young age, we may have often wondered how they got up there, and those questions always led to more questions. And it left us wondering about the creation of the world and how we all fit in it. Most youth have learned about space and all it entails through Western teachings in school, and it’s even carried on over to university and so on. But, there are some who may wonder, and even seek out, how Indigenous Peoples see the night skies,” Keeper says.

Keeper has travelled to three of the Resource Centre’s member First Nations since he started and has facilitated this workshop many times for First Nations youth. Keeper’s vision is to see more youth and students brought out to the land to listen to these stories and traditions while observing the night sky. Keeper’s workshops have received a huge amount of positive feedback from both students and schools.

“The kids can certainly be star-struck by the presentation. There are always a lot of oohs and aahs. We change the presentation based on the age of the students. We’ll use puppets for the younger ones, but when they get older, teenagers, we can use, say, the lessons of the moon to teach the deeper values of our Peoples. These teachings have been passed down through the generations for years and years,” Keeper says.

In the workshop, the stories of each constellation appear as visuals in the planetarium creating a better understanding of the star teachings. Through storytelling and songs, the students learn about First Nations stories and names for stars and constellations. Keeper says it is important that these views are valued the same as Western views on the night skies.

Indigenous stories of the stars, and even creation and human existence, are told by Indigenous Peoples all over the world, and Keeper believes that all nations under the stars have their own interpretation of the night skies. Western knowledge has been embedded into today’s educational curricula, but the goal of Keeper’s workshop is to pass on local Elders’ knowledge and teachings to local youth so they can learn and pass along their own culture’s perspective of the night sky.

For more information or educational resources check out Atchaksuk, First Nations Astronomy course.

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