Star Stories and Indigenous Resistance Against Light Pollution
by Lera Kotsyuba
“Indigenous people have nurtured critical relationships with the stars, from keen observation and sustainable engineering to place-based ceremony, navigation, and celestial architecture for tens of thousands of years. The Indigenous relationship and knowledge of the sky is exceptional in that it encompasses mind, body, heart, and spirit.”
—Annette S. Lee 
Our planet circles a sun that is at the edge of our galaxy, and on a night with ideal conditions, a radial arm of the Milky Way can be seen, swirling clouds of gas dotted with stars running from one end of the sky to the other. Observing this phenomenon has always been a shared experience across cultures, but light pollution is rendering it invisible in many places across the world. Spilling outward not only on urban areas but even toward remote communities, this whitewashing of the night sky is a “slow violence”2 accelerated by capitalism, colonial powers, and billionaire space-race vanity projects. “Whitening the Sky: Light Pollution as a Form of Cultural Genocide” makes the argument that light pollution is a form of active destruction of Indigenous knowledge based on observations of the sky, such as navigation, food economics, and a mnemonic for committing information to memory in order for it to be passed to successive generations over long periods of time.3 In 2021, Hilding Neilson, an astronomer at the University of Toronto (U of T) and member of the Qalipu Nation, and Elena E. Ćirković, a legal scholar, co-authored a paper calling for the Canadian Space Agency to address the rights of Indigenous peoples and their knowledge structures in creating policy about space exploration and colonization.4 Where does the Crown obligation of shared stewardship begin and end? How high do treaties reach? And what are artists, scientists, cartographers, land defenders, and elders doing to keep this knowledge alive?
In October 2020, Canada signed the NASA Artemis Accords,5 an international agreement that outlines guidelines for space exploration which include a commitment to preserve outer-space heritage, that is to say, “historically significant human or robotic landing sites, artifacts, spacecraft, and other evidence of activity on celestial bodies.” Notably, there is no mention of the human impacts of space debris and pollution in the pursuit of exploration. As Neilson and Ćirković write, “This definition [of outer-space heritage] ignores Indigenous people’s perspectives and elements of space heritage for Indigenous cultures.”6 How can this gross oversight be accounted for? Remarking on the violent treatment and arrests of Indigenous land defenders at the proposed telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i—under threat by the Thirty Meter Telescope proposal7—Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli scholar and professor of Indigenous politics at U of T, said the conflict has been framed as culture versus science.  Under the guise of scientific progress, government decision makers and military might insist that science is inherently at odds with Indigenous knowledge systems. Neilson, who generously set some time aside to speak with me, put it plainly: to dismiss Indigenous knowledges is to dismiss Indigenous sovereignty.9
The parallels in language between the narratives of space exploration and colonization are also themselves deeply troubling. “Constellations reflect the law,” states Neilson, Mi’kmaw language carrying the meaning and stories that inform laws of stewardship, responsibility, stories reflecting relationships of connection between people and the land, whereas Greek constellations—which still dominate astronomical discourse—are divorced from stories unique to North America.10 Neilson asserts that star maps are how Mi’kmaq navigate and interact with the land which includes the sky, and thus that light pollution is a form of dispossession, a tool of colonization.
It’s worth noting that some efforts have been made to mitigate the issue, namely Dark Sky Preserve initiatives by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, whose mandate is to preserve spaces free of light pollution—remotely, as well as in planning and policy around the built environment, from streetlight covers to the control of LED lighting. Yet Neilson is critical of Dark Sky Preserves for the specific reason that they are located in national parks, yet another vestige of colonial dispossession. Karyn Recollet—an urban Cree writer, artist, scholar, and professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the U of T, whom Neilson recommended I speak with—adds to that the issue of access. Who has the means to visit national parks and Dark Sky Preserves? Who do these spaces privilege? In thinking further about partial solutions: while Neilson maintains that Canada has a duty to consult Indigenous peoples when drafting space policy, he also has doubts in consultation processes, acknowledging that they can be carried out in bad faith. For example, in “greenwashing” or “consultation-washing,” environmental and Indigenous terminology surrounding access and ownership gets blatantly co-opted. Consultations do not equal consent,11 as Neilson points out, and if not made in good faith, false consent can be extracted to further capitalist interests.
Thankfully, there are projects like Native Skywatchers, who transform oral histories into story- telling aids. In 2007, astrophysicist and artist Annette S. Lee, whose communities are Ojibwe and D(L)akota, designed the initiative, which “seeks to remember and revitalize [I]ndigenous star and earth knowledge” and communicate “that [I]ndigenous people traditionally practiced a sustainable way of living […] through a […] participatory relationship with the above and below, sky and earth.”12 Together with a number of others, she has created many star maps and constellation books— which are artworks as much as reference materials— including ones oriented around Ojibwe, D/Lakota, and Cree perspectives. For the latter, Ininew Achakos Masinikan, she collaborated with Wilfred Buck (Opaskwayak Cree Nation), an elder and science facilitator at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre; Carl Gawboy (Boise-Fort/Ojibway), a distinguished artist and retired professor; and William Wilson (Lake Nipigon/Ojibway), a cultural expert and artist. The guide logs land and star stories of Turtle Island/North America, such as that of Makinak (turtle) who, Buck explains, is important because turttles are a living lunar calendar used by many nations on Turtle Island.13 The surfaces of their shells have 13 shapes, which tell of the 13 moons within a year, and the outer ridges of their shells have 28 ridges, marking the 28 days between each full moon. “It’s important that no one underestimates the importance stars play in the daily lives of Indigenous people from around the world,”14 states Buck, whose efforts to bring Indigenous star stories to Indigenous youth actively disrupts Eurocentric mainstream education.15
Recollet echoes that “oral histories are everything,” and names Buck as a generous knowledge holder whose work telling stories positions listeners to be receptive and open, rather than extractive— a distinction that’s incredibly important to her. To this end, she shared her ideas with me about what she calls atmospheric knowledge: the multisensory experience of a story, a layered collage of knowledge16 that continues the cycle of knowledge production, making spaces for joy and new ideas. Acknowledging physical mapping as “affective archives of struggle,” Recollet sees the spaces in-between definitive markers as places of possibility17—something that’s also reflected in the Native Skywatchers’ projects. The importance of reorienting oneself to witness, listen, and become attuned to non-linear time structures is an aspect of what she calls “kinstellatory” relationships that begin among humans and extend to celestial beings, as a way to build relationality in tenuous spaces, like urban spaces marred by light pollution.
These ideas are at home in the work of Margaret Nazon, whose beadwork transports viewers into the vastness of the night sky, the deep dark and pin- points of light that people living in cities can only see through photography. Working from images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, Nazon shares her perspective with the viewer through carefully selected and sewn beads, wood, bone, and seashells. I’m reminded of something Neilson said: that technology is not the issue, but its application, and that incorporating Indigenous methodology into tech could change the way we view the world. Echoing how gravity moves on a macrocosmic scale, Nazon’s work gives the impression of slow movement around a central point. Milky Way Starry Night (2015–2016) directly references celestial phenomena one can see with the naked eye in ideal dark-sky conditions. Large and small clusters of beads undulate across the cotton twill fabric background, giving the impression of movement evocative of twinkling stars. Waves and wisps of interstellar gas and dust that give the distinct milky impression to the band across the sky are threaded in-between them. Nazon’s virtuosity translates the sublime wonder of looking up at the night sky and being immersed in a play of light. I’m compelled to reach out and touch—a haptic response that I don’t have with space photography. In an email exchange, Nazon tells me of her amazement with the night sky since she was a young girl, and explains that while technology has fuelled and transformed her passion, she remains grounded in her awareness of astronomical objects, and her artistic eye.18
The act of beading brings to mind the great care of small stitches, endless patience, and the passage of time, stretching and contracting. From stitch to stitch, Nazon’s beads build in intensity over dark fabric; starlight travels over great distances to emerge before us in a rhapsody. Although celestial bodies follow their paths determined by gravitational forces we cannot see, the vast scale of their movement and time is, to us on Earth, a steadfast stillness. As we gaze at the night sky, we look into the past; this light has been a faithful companion to human history, stars and constellations a comfort in their immutability. I’m reminded of a sentiment from Lee: “The process of doing beadwork is meticulous and disciplined; it requires stillness. This stillness is echoed in the night sky.”19 It is through the imaginative work of Nazon, along with Recollet, Lee, Buck, and all the Native Skywatchers, that we can experience what light pollution takes—and will increasingly take—from us. Beyond mapping, they are storytellers who use traditional and modern technologies to gently draw us in.