For eons, cultures across the globe have attached deep meaning to the constellations we see in the sky. It’s no different for northern cultures, who have their own mythologies surrounding the stars. A presentation at Kenai Peninsula College this week will feature a Ph.D student from Fairbanks who’s spent the last decade studying Alaska Native relationships with the cosmos. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran spoke with Chris Cannon and has this preview.
Cannon has been researching the cosmos and how cultures in the north relate to them for a decade.
“I’ve been working with collaborators in Alaska and Canada to learn more about their ways of knowing and understanding the sky and its contents. I’m really interested in what is different in each language...and also what is similar across the entire sub-arctic… What we’ve learned is there’s a large constellation up there that’s usually a tailed-man figure from ancient time who travelled around the world and when he was done, his spirit incarnated in the stars.”
That spirit belongs to Naq’eltani. He serves as a kind of moral compass, reminding Dena’ina people of right from wrong, good from bad. Cannon says because the spirit of Naq’eltani is so sacred, learning what people look to him for and learn from him has been an exercise in listening and trust. Over his years of study, he says some basic concepts are universal across indigenous northern languages and cultures, if the individual stars that make up Naq’eltani are different.
“Star knowledge is pretty consistent. You have differences in what precise stars make up this large man and the size of it changes, but who he is pretty consistent. (In) at least nine of the 11 (languages) we’ve worked with so far, you see something very similar from central-western Alaska to the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake in Canada. The terminology is pretty consistent…”
He says he hopes anyone who comes to his lecture will leave with a better sense of how other, non-western cultures interact with the night sky, that dominates so much of the year in Alaska.
“The way that we treat astronomy in our culture I think has prevented a lot of anthropologists from feeling qualified to learn about it in other cultures. We just have so little understanding of what the sky means to other cultures. We don’t have very much knowledge of how people relate to the sky. So I would hope that I could provide a sense that the sky is a deep part of culture that’s in many ways projection of world view; that you see meaningful relationships between social order and cosmic order that most people probably don’t think about every day.”
Cannon will speak Thursday night at 6:30 in the McLane Commons at KPC.