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Remembering traditional astronomy in Arctic

Earl Finkler
Stephen Nowers photo

Early in December, I was taking Alaska Husky "Avu" for an evening walk, trying to avoid icy patches on the road. The temperature was dropping, but I asked Avu to walk slowly while I surveyed the evening sky — the new moon, Jupiter and much more.

Made me think of the way the Native peoples of the Arctic, including Greenland, Canada and Alaska, have described the winter sky in traditional terms. While we often think of being tied to the earth's surface or atmosphere by gravity, some folks in Barrow would tell me of ancestors who have been to the moon.

On my morning radio show for KBRW in Barrow, Dr. Edna Maclean of Ilisagvik College, would discuss stars in the sky. She said the Inupiaq word for a star would include the pathway of the light to connect us observing here on earth.

In the book, "The Arctic Sky - Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore and Legend," by Canadian astronomer and oral historian John MacDonald, there is much perspective of the Arctic Native people and their knowledge of the sky.

In 2001 Macdonald traveled to Barrow from his home in Igloolik, Nunavut, in northern Canada, and spoke about his work to the elders and local people.

He talked about people finding animal tracks on fresh snow which seem to start from nowhere -- sometimes many tracks spiraling out from a singe point.

"The inference is that the animal, or animals, have fallen from the sky," he says in his book.

The sun and the moon are brother and sister in some legends. "The moon's dark patches -- its mountains — are the soot smudged markings on the brother's face."

And these legends explain a number of celestial events, such as lunar and solar eclipses.

Having lived through many annual disappearances of the sun in Barrow, it is fascinating to read the traditional lore and fears that the sun might never return.

MacDonald speaks of "various Inuit festivities, leg- ends, rituals and taboos" -- "a reminder, perhaps, that nothing should be taken for granted."

Native testimony in the book indicates that the whole village would start anew when the sun returned, extinguishing and cleaning the seal oil lamps. Flint and stones and dried plant material were kept to start a new fire.

As the sun started to return, playing string games by the youth was discouraged: "otherwise the sun might get tangled up in the strings and keep falling down."

One story that MacDonald reported occurred "when the sun was at its lowest point it touches a land from which it is shoved up again by a man."

I felt honored to be able to live in Barrow and meet visiting astronomers and scientists from around the U.S. and the world, and also to learn about the sky lore and traditional astronomy from local elders and visitors like John MacDonald of Canada.

Even science fiction can have links with the Native culture. Barrow author Debby Edwardsen, during a BASC Saturday talk, said local Natives survived ice ages by digging down into the surface and use of other traditional means. Speaking of Neptune's large moon Triton, which has an atmosphere and temperatures down to 390-below, she said, "Maybe the people on Triton will use the same kind of techniques." And she encouraged the young people to learn about astronomy from both the scientists and the elders.

If anyone could survive temperatures of 390 degrees below zero, it might be the Inupiat of Alaska's North Slope. Stay tuned!