Astronomy education in Canada is “very, very centred in the European model,” said Hilding Neilson, who is Mi’kmaw and a professor in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The way introductory astronomy is generally taught, he explained, “it’s just this one linear path from the Romans to, essentially, Neil deGrasse Tyson.”
Neilson is trying to change the dominant way of approaching astronomy by incorporating Indigenous astronomies in the classroom. Indigenous astronomies, explained Hilding, are “the astronomies and the knowledges of the peoples of the land.”
“Every Nation has their own perspective of the night sky, their own interpretation and knowledge of it,” he said.
“Indigenous astronomies speak to a connection to the land and to the people. And that knowledge has been here as long as people have been here.”
Neilson teaches his students the Mi’kmaw concept of Two Eyed Seeing which, he explained, involves looking at the world through the lenses of both Western science and Indigenous knowledges.
“With one eye we’re only looking through one lens,” said Neilson. “When we bring both lenses together, we can build a greater picture.”
The origins of astro-colonialism, explained Hilding, stretch back in time. As an example, Hilding cites James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, in 1769, to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Cook, Hilding said, had British orders to “discover” the region, and the voyage triggered colonisation in the area.
Today, said Hilding, astro-colonialism can be seen in the location of telescopes. “Modern astrophysics relies on the biggest telescopes in the world to look for the first stars, to look for evidence of dark matter,” explained Hilding.
These telescopes, he said, are on Indigenous territories — “whether that’s in Hawaii on Maunakea, the southern United States, Chile, Australia.”
The planned construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain, has sparked opposition from many Indigenous people in Hawaii.
In 2015, Canadian astronomers successfully lobbied the federal government to commit $254.5 million in funding toward the project.
Hilding has been outspoken about the issue and about the need for Indigenous consent of telescopes and astronomy facilities on Indigenous lands.
In the end, it’s just a matter: of we have to respect Indigenous rights first and worry about thirty meter telescopes later.-Hilding Neilson
Hilding said it’s complicated because, as an academic, his research relies on having access to telescopes like TMT. “If I want to have a permanent job in academia, I need to write papers, I need to publish journal articles. And that depends on using these facilities.”
“If the Thirty Meter Telescope existed, I would have the ability to apply for observations of planets going around other stars, looking for the first stars ever born in our universe, to do science that I cannot think about yet. But at the same time, if we don’t have permission or consent, how is that ethical? Do I have to choose between being a good astronomer or respecting Indigenous rights? Is that a fair choice at all?”
“In the end, it’s just a matter of: we have to respect Indigenous rights first and worry about thirty meter telescopes later.”
Produced and written by Zoe Tennant.