Contract faculty fund recipient developing Indigenous astronomy course

Vanessa Brown

For Robert Cockcroft, now is the time to develop a course that blends western and Indigenous astronomy.

And that project - to build a course that combines the science of the stars with the folklore of Canada's first people - got a boost this summer from the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA).

UWOFA has thrown its support behind Cockcroft's plan to teach Indigenous astronomy. Cockcroft is a 2018 recipient of the UWOFA Contract Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund.

The idea for the course originated in 2014 when Cockcroft helped develop an Indigenous skylore presentation while manager of the McMaster University planetarium. He joined Western's Physics & Astronomy Department in 2016, and every year, he felt the momentum has been building to launch such a course at UWO.

"You know when you're trying to do something and you're just getting pushback, pushback, pushback, it doesn't feel like it's supposed to happen. But I haven't felt that with this project. Pieces are falling into place and I feel incredibly lucky," said Cockcroft, an assistant astronomy professor.

The UWOFA award helped him to attend a recent week-long conference which focused on research ethics and Indigenous peoples. Attendees were asked to reflect on two main questions: What is their motivation for doing this work? And, what is their responsibility as a non-Indigenous person?

"At first I thought, 'What can I possibly give? And then I thought, 'Well, my background is in astronomy. That's where I start. That's what I give, and I use what I know there, hopefully to facilitate conversations where more Indigenous stories can come together and be understood and shared with larger audiences than perhaps we would otherwise have the opportunity to reach," Cockcroft said.

Cockcroft is developing an Indigenous astronomy course for fall 2019 during which students will learn principles of astronomy through Indigenous sky stories - hopefully told by a visiting Indigenous knowledge keeper if there is interest from the Indigenous communities for such a collaboration. During a recent interview, Cockcroft shared a particularly majestic story by way of example. In mid-October, the constellation traditionally known as the Big Dipper can be seen along the horizon after dark. In Indigenous astronomy, this group of stars is a magical bear that terrorizes a village and must be stopped. Hunters begin chasing the bear at night, tracking it up a mountain and eventually catching up to it. The hunters shoot the bear and cook it over an open fire. As the hunters look down upon their campfire, they realize the magical bear has transported itself and the hunters into the sky. At this point, their hunting dog alerts them to the fact that the bear has come back to life and runs away again. The cycle repeats.

This story is most appropriately told in mid-October during hunting season. It also corresponds with the movement of the stars in the night sky at that time of year. Just after the sun sets and the stars reveal themselves, the Big Dipper can be seen along the horizon. As the night progresses, the Big Dipper moves up away from the horizon further into the sky, and at the point when the bear is killed in the Indigenous story, the sun rises and you can no longer see it. Then at nightfall the same thing happens - the bear rises again and the hunters begin their chase.

Stories also help undergraduate students grasp abstract concepts such as moon phases, which Cockcroft says some often have trouble with. It is Cockcroft's aim to honour Indigenous culture by learning the Oneida language and embracing the Indigenous approach of two-eyed seeing. Western and Indigenous astronomy do not have to be alien to each other, but intertwined.

"It's not that you're putting western above Indigenous knowledge, or vice-versa," Cockcroft said. "You're trying to see through both lenses with the aim if you can understand your own paradigm that you're used to, and appreciate another paradigm, then it deepens your appreciation and understanding of both."

About the UWOFA Contract Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund

In 2017 UWOFA established the Contract Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund. The purpose of this funding is to support the participation of UWOFA contract faculty members in professional development activities, academic conferences and research. Although many contract faculty members are active researchers, a large number do not have a research component in their employment contract and require additional financial support.

UWOFA provides $5,000 in funding each year, of which $2,500 is available for limited-term members and $2,500 is available for part-time members. A call for applications goes out every spring. Visit the UWOFA Contract Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund page for a list of funding recipients.