National Parks Are Embracing Indigenous Astronomy
The nonprofit Native Skywatchers has spent more than a decade collecting and preserving Indigenous star knowledge. Now organizations like NASA and the NPS are joining the movement.
Spotting Orion or Ursa Major is a highlight of any camping trip, but Greek constellations aren’t the only stories scattered among the stars. For millennia, Native Americans have used the cosmos for everything from weather prediction to navigation. Only in the past few decades, though, has Indigenous astronomy gained momentum in the world of modern science—and now it’s making its way into the U.S. National Park Service’s stargazing movement.
National parks are slowly integrating Indigenous astronomy into astrotourism experiences, such as tours and star parties. But the non-Indigenous rangers I spoke with recognize that this is not their knowledge to share. Many national parks were built upon land forcefully taken from Native Americans. Indigenous communities, who lived and thrived on these landscapes for more than 10,000 years, should be the ones to share their cultures’ star stories.
That’s why rangers from two of the International Dark Sky Association’s (IDA) newest certified dark-sky parks, Mesa Verde and Voyageurs National Parks, are collaborating with local Indigenous communities to give them a platform on which to share their own star stories. Like many, these rangers have been inspired by the work of Annette S. Lee, an award-winning astrophysicist, artist, Lakota of the Ojibwe and Dakota-Lakota communities, and director of the rapidly growing movement Native Skywatchers.
Where much of the Western world sees a winter constellation like Orion, a handsome Greek hunter, the Ojibwe of North America’s Great Lakes region see the Wintermaker, a figure that shares stars with Orion and signals to the Ojibwe that cold weather is on the horizon.
In 2007, Lee launched Minnesota-based Native Skywatchers, North America’s first collective Indigenous-led effort to gather and revitalize Native astronomy and earth knowledge through star maps, curriculum, and events. “I came into this world with a really strong passion and relationship to the sky,” Lee told me. But the more she studied Indigenous astronomy, particularly in North America and among her Ojibwe and Dakota-Lakota communities, the more she recognized the threats it faced.
“There’s no all-knowing elder with all of our tribe’s star knowledge,” Lee said in a presentation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Post-colonization, this one elder has a fuzzy memory of something, and maybe there’s something written down in historical context.”
But the Native Skywatchers team and a growing number of Indigenous collaborators are working around the clock to change that. Their goal isn’t to erase the Western world’s astronomical knowledge. Instead, Lee promotes “two-eyed seeing,” an Indigenous framework developed by Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall that blends the strengths of Indigenous and Western knowledge to benefit all.
Native Skywatchers’ star maps, such as the Ojibwe map, are a good example of this. Where much of the Western world sees a winter constellation like Orion, a handsome Greek hunter, the Ojibwe of North America’s Great Lakes region see the Wintermaker, a figure that shares stars with Orion and signals to the Ojibwe that cold weather is on the horizon.
This is one of many star stories shared within Ojibwe culture, which Native Skywatchers team member and Ojibwe elder and artist Carl Gawboy highlights in his book Talking Sky: Ojibwe Constellations as a Reflection of Life on the Land. Countless star stories like this exist within the thousands of Indigenous communities around the world.
In 2020, Native Skywatchers received a pivotal grant from NASA to help them collect and revitalize these stories “at light speed,” Lee says, noting that Indigenous people beyond the United States, from South Africa to Canada, have recently called on her for guidance as they collect their own culture’s star knowledge. “The grant allows people who had been working for decades in a grassroots way to come together and create their own teams.”
The prestigious NASA grant, along with 2020’s wave of social justice awareness, brought Native Skywatchers into mainstream conversations—particularly among destinations focusing on astrotourism.
“The interest in dark skies seems to be there, but collaborating with these communities and learning about how important dark skies are to them—I feel like that hasn’t happened yet.”
For stargazing oases like southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, the adoption of Indigenous star knowledge means more than check-the-box park signage. The Native American cultural hub, known for its preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, has 26 associated tribes in its surrounding communities. Park rangers want to amplify and share their knowledge and cultural stories with park visitors, starting with Indigenous astronomy—something Mesa Verde park ranger and Laguna Pueblo member TJ Atsye, the voice behind the park’s popular audio tour, says is a powerful part of the park experience.
“If you look up, you have this whole immense universe, but people forget about stargazing here since they’re so focused on the tours and looking at the dwellings,” Atsye says, noting that stargazing was a fundamental and favorite part of her childhood—just like it was for her Pueblo ancestors. “The sky is alive, and the cosmos are another aspect of the park. They hold meaning for contemporary Indigenous people just like they did for our ancestors.”
Before Mesa Verde pursued IDA dark-sky certification, it sought support from the park’s local Indigenous communities. All were on board. “The interest in dark skies seems to be there, but collaborating with these communities and learning about how important dark skies are to them—I feel like that hasn’t happened yet,” says Spencer Burke, a Mesa Verde park employee. He hopes his ranger team can fix that.
Through a National Park Foundation grant, Burke and park ranger Andrew Reagan are spearheading a massive new Mesa Verde project: the Mobile Story Lab, a trailer the team will use to collaborate and engage with the park’s nearby communities, particularly Indigenous educators and students. Reagan says the Mobile Story Lab will kick off this September with a weeklong community celebration of the park’s dark-sky certification. After that, the real work begins.
While still in the early planning stages, the long-term Mobile Story Lab goal is to work with teachers at one or several local Native American high schools on “a series of distance-learning programs, taking the trailer down into the community for projects like creating a Pueblo star map with a high-school class,” says Burke, noting Native Skywatchers’ work inspired this star-map idea. The plan is to bring this intel back into the park, educating guests through the words and stories of Pueblo people—just like Atsye’s Mesa Verde audio guide, which launched in the summer of 2020.
“The fact that they’re hearing the perspective of a Native person, I think that says a lot about the initiative the park is trying to take,” Atsye says. “That’s been a real positive and gradual change. The Pueblo people, we’re more than happy to share what we know, and to know that this [effort to prioritize Native voices] is happening now, that says a lot.”
One stargazing locale closer to Native Skywatchers’ Minnesota headquarters, Voyageurs National Park in upper Minnesota, another new IDA-certified dark-sky park, is also jumping on board. The park is located on Ojibwe land and currently recommends Native Skywatchers’ Ojibwe star maps for visitors. But, like Mesa Verde, they have plans to do much more.
“This is the first summer we’re starting dark-skies programming at Voyageurs, and one of the things we decided from the beginning was that we want to include the Ojibwe community’s star knowledge,” says Erik Ditzler, a Voyageurs National Park ranger spearheading the park’s stargazing experiences. While programming is still in its infancy, Ditzler says they’re in talks with several local Ojibwe tribe members for potential Indigenous astro events as soon as this fall.
“If you see the three stars of Orion rising in a vertical line, what does that mean? It’s knowledge, and [the ancestors] put it to practical use.”
Indigenous astronomy is gaining momentum in public lands beyond Mesa Verde and Voyageurs. Parks such as Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico, Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, and Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan have their own cultural stargazing experiences. And Indigenous astronomy isn’t new to the world’s park systems—especially on current U.S. National Park Service land.
During summer solstice 1977, Anna Sofaer, a researcher who studied astronomy of the ancient Pueblo people in America’s Southwest, located the sun dagger site near Fajada Butte, in present-day Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Months of investigation showed that prehistoric Pueblo people used this millennia-old sun dagger to mark seasonal solstices and equinoxes with a cast shadow on a strategically placed petroglyph spiral. Some researchers, including archaeologists, were initially skeptical.
“They said the three rocks that the sun shined through fell there accidentally, and that the Puebloans were so ignorant that they couldn’t possibly have conceived a calendar,” says Gawboy, an expert in Ojibwe astronomy who was an avid follower of Sofaer’s work. “They put her down, but she kept working.”
Over time, Sofaer’s research gained steam. Renowned American astronomer and NASA adviser Carl Sagan featured Sofaer’s sun dagger findings in his 1980s series Cosmos. From there, and more recently through Native Skywatchers, institutions far and wide now embrace this work—to which Gawboy says, “My God, let them jump on our bandwagon.”
But as the movement spreads further, Gawboy says he hopes stargazers and the larger astronomy world see more than his team’s intricate star maps and interesting stories. He wants the movement to clear up harmful misconceptions about his ancestors.
“These aren’t just superstitions about the natural world,” Gawboy says. “The ancients were deep thinkers. They looked at things and analyzed them and put them together in a logical, analytical fashion. It wasn’t just random individual beliefs. If you see the three stars of Orion rising in a vertical line, what does that mean? It’s knowledge, and [the ancestors] put it to practical use.”