Milky Way over Lake Superior

Indigenous Astronomy & the Bell

A Story of Collaboration

Published03/30/2021 , by Gretchen Zampogna

Clean Water Land & Legacy AmendmentWhen our planetarium team presents live shows in the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, the constellations that appear on the dome are typically the shapes and forms imagined by ancient Greeks and 16th century European astronomers. Why? Simply put, because that’s the knowledge typically taught in western education.

The Bell planetarium team has long been interested in seeing the sky through other cultural lenses, though. Last summer, they began a collaboration with Annette Lee, who holds a doctorate in physics and astronomy, aiming to help change the narrative surrounding astronomical knowledge by introducing Indigenous star knowledge. Lee is an astrophysicist, artist, and director of the Native Skywatchers research and programming initiative, and has more than three decades of experience in education. Lee is mixed-race Dakota-Sioux and her communities are Ojibwe and D(L)akota.

In working with Lee, the team wanted to develop a framework of best practices to share Indigenous knowledge in respectful and authentic ways. A series of meetings spanning the summer of 2020 provided a format for Lee to share Indigenous star knowledge—and for the group to develop a live online program presented by Lee. They also worked together to create two editions of our bimonthly Star Map featuring Dakota star knowledge, as well as supporting blogs in August and September.

While the initial desire seemed straightforward—to share Indigenous constellation knowledge in addition to the western constellations in our astronomy programming—some interesting cultural nuances came up in the process.

Best approach

How can non-Indigenous astronomy educators most appropriately promote and educate about Indigenous star knowledge? This was a central question for the planetarium team.

Lee helped them lay out a roadmap to guide future efforts, and this can be shared with other planetariums. One key takeaway was that cultures have varying perspectives on the concept of knowledge. Western science considers knowledge to be a commodity, something to be obtained and then shared. But through an Indigenous lens, it’s seen that not everyone fully understands an idea or concept. As knowledge is earned, it is kept protected, not simply passed along to any audience. Actively protecting knowledge honors the work done in gaining that knowledge.

Rather than learn and disseminate the information they gained from the Indigenous collaborators, the planetarium team came to understand that the best approach is to involve Indigenous creators in a project and have them be the ones sharing it, Sarah Komperud explains.

Thaddeus LaCoursiere reflects, “Visitors are interested, and we want to share it in an appropriate way—providing a space for Indigenous people to share their own knowledge.”

The team also learned from their collaboration that loss and fragmentation of knowledge is a deep issue in Indigenous communities, so aiding in revitalization became one key piece of this partnership. The planetarium team aimed to provide our Indigneous partners a place to share their knowledge, knowing that the general Bell audience isn’t their primary audience: instead, our partners are looking to speak directly to Indigenous guests.

Fragmented Knowledge

Lost knowledge is due to a history of systematic and intentional erasure of Indigenous cultures. An example of this fragmentation: Lee knows a lot about Moon phases, but brought in Dakota and Ojibwe Indigenous language experts to add the names of the Moon for a certain month. This splintering of knowledge and cultural connections is a trauma, Lee told the planetarium team. Younger Indigenous visitors coming in and hearing Indigenous knowledge from a non-Indigenous person can also be a trauma on a personal level, as it highlights the loss of knowledge from one generation to the next. This means it’s important to partner with Indigenous people who can present the knowledge, as we did with our live virtual event last summer when Lee presented A Loon, A Crane, A Fisher, & A Salamander in the Night Sky.

Throughout the Bell Museum, our staff talks with student staff about cultural sensitivity and how to answer visitors’ questions. While we can’t necessarily tell the Indigenous stories and histories, we can make people aware that there are different cultural stories out there—and point them to resources they can use to learn directly from the keepers of this knowledge. Indigenous culture is a living culture, and going to the primary source is the best way to learn.

Lee has multiple projects supporting access for Indigenous people, primarily youth. One that received NASA funding is the project, Two Eyed Seeing—NASA & Indigenous Astronomy—For the Benefit of All. Check out the other links below for additional information.


Indigenous Education Institute was created for the preservation and contemporary application of traditional Indigenous knowledge.

Native Skywatchers, which aims “to communicate the knowledge that Indigenous people traditionally practiced a sustainable way of living and sustainable engineering through a living and participatory relationship with the above and below, sky and earth,” offers links to upcoming events and webinars for more information.