Since time immemorial, humanity has developed a deep and multifaceted relationship with our nearest star. While each culture expresses that bond in its own way, humans share millennia of solar observation. The Sun makes life on Earth possible, and its ever-changing nature affects our daily lives. What does the Sun mean to you?
In Kiuġuyat: the Northern Lights, Iñupiat elders share tellings about their relationship with the Sun at polar latitudes, which experiences midnight sun during the summer and 24-hour night during the winter. Fannie Akpik describes how parts of the Iñupiat lunar calendar are named for the position, size, and brightness of the sun, which are in turn important indicators of the best times of year for specific tasks like bleaching seal skins. In the winter, the Northern Lights appear in the dark polar sky. Elders describe the lights as a source of light, a way to navigate, a weather indicator, and an important spiritual connection with their ancestors. “The spirits of the ancestors,” adds Ronald Brower, “some of them are racing as they play kickball–race across the sky really fast, chasing after the ball. When we dance, it is like we are connecting our spirits and we dance together as one.” Dr. Liz adds, “To me, the contrast between the profound connections of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) peoples to the aurora and the Western science description of auroral physics is striking.” As Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) tells, however, braiding scientific knowledge, traditional knowledge, and the knowledge of plants, “bringing all of those together are a way that we can care for the Earth.”
You can read more tellings by Iñupiat elders about the Northern Lights at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s Cultural Connections website. It is important to recognize that AI/AN peoples’ ancestral traditions and relationships with the Sun have survived colonial endeavors of incredible harm. Dr. Liz was recently invited to attend a prestigious event that her colleague Dr. Juan-Carlos Chavez was invited to in light of his deep knowledge of Indigenous astronomy and service to AI/AN peoples. The event is called Tipis and Telescopes and is led by the preeminent Opaskwayak Cree Nation Elder, astronomer and educator Wilfred Buck. While many of the learnings of this event are not public, Mr. Buck has shared inspiring, deep, and humorous tellings about aurora and the night sky in books and videos. Knowledge Keepers from across many First Nations gathered to share multiple tellings under the night sky. Dr. Chavez and Dr. MacDonald presented along with Alvin Harvey (Navajo Nation), an MIT PhD candidate in Aeronautics/Astronautics, a combination of tellings, both Indigenous and Western. Many thanks to Dr. Kori Czuy, Indigenous Education Specialist at the TELUS Spark Museum for organizing, and to the sponsors First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba, IndigeSTEAM, TELUS Spark Science Centre, and the Biogeoscience Field Station.
A recent article for CTV News shared multiple perspectives on the Northern Lights.
Joely Bigeagle-Kequahtooway is Nakoda Cree Saulteaux and says she was taught at a young age not to look at, whistle at or disturb the sacred lights. “Those are our ancestors in the sky and what that means literally and figuratively is we’re not alone on this planet,” she says. “The stories I was told were those Northern Lights represent this timeless energy, timeless energy period of when our ancestors lived on this land.”
From the perspective of Western science, space is not empty; we live in the extended atmosphere of an active star. In other words, the Earth and the rest of the solar system are surrounded by the solar wind, a constant flow of matter and magnetic fields from the Sun, which communicates its changes. For example, every eleven years the sun wakes up and becomes more active, calling across the miles with increased sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections. These in turn resonate the Earth’s magnetic field like a musical instrument or a voice, and translate to aurora in the upper atmosphere.
The study of this relationship between the Sun, the planets, their moons, and the space they inhabit is called Heliophysics. Aurora science falls into this category, and Aurorasaurus is associated with NASA Heliophysics.
Recently, the field started the latest iteration of a conversation about its future. Every ten years, the National Academies gather the community for a Heliophysics Decadal Survey. Scientists submit aspirational documents about the next ten years of the field, with topics ranging from science goals to social justice. This year’s papers were recently completed. Ten were about citizen science, some of which were co-authored by citizen scientists. Taking part in science activities like the Decadal Survey is one of many ways that knowledge holders, citizen scientists, and scientists can connect and work together— especially when approached with “Relationships First and Always,” as recommended by Gardner-Vandy and Scalise (2021). While visiting the University of Calgary, Dr. Liz learned of ways they are moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization. Ii’ taa’poh’to’p, their Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. In the space sciences, walking parallel paths together, “in a good way,” can lead to respectfully co-creating trusting relationships that value multiple knowledges. We are grateful to all those who are working to build these relationships and braid multiple perspectives.