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Modern Observations of Big Dipper

New Planetarium show explores ancient legends, modern observations of Big Dipper

Now two sets of veteran observers from two very different viewpoints have compared notes after looking at the same stars, and are sharing their common knowledge

Dec 10, 2015

A new collaborative show at McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium brings together knowledge from Six Nations storytellers and the Indigenous Studies Program with knowledge from the Department of Physics and Astronomy to examine powerful connections between ancient legends of the sky and modern scientific observation.

Specifically, the new show, celebrated with a Dec. 10 premier and scheduled to repeat regularly in the months ahead, looks at the constellation Ursa Major, popularly known as the “Big Dipper”, which is at the heart of an Indigenous legend that explains the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn, and launches the hunting season.

The new planetarium show, The Celestial Bear: The Six Nations' Night Sky, features recordings of Cayuga and Mohawk legends with words from those respective languages, intermingled with live narration in English and imagery projected on the planetarium’s domed screen.

Using Cayuga in the presentation is significant because the endangered language is only spoken in the Six Nations community, where there are fewer than 40 fluent speakers.

In native legend, three brothers and their dog chase a magical bear across the land and into the sky, where they become stars. The hunters and dog are represented by the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, and the bear by the stars of the cup.

At the time of year when the chase enters the sky, the stars of the hunters and bear line up low along the horizon, signalling the beginning of Six Nations hunting season.

As summer turns to fall, the constellation tumbles through its circumpolar cycle, changing positions through the parts of the story. Ultimately one of the hunters kills the bear and its blood stains the Earth, as represented by autumn leaves turning red.

The show explains the context of the legend and helps audience members to visualize connections between the oral tradition and the observable cycles of the constellation.

The collaboration, funded by a Forward With Integrity grant, is expected to give rise to similar productions looking at other celestial phenomena and their role in Indigenous culture.

The show will become part of regular public programming at the planetarium and will also be available for private group showings. Among the groups who will attend will be Six Nations students who are learning Native languages.