Why Understanding Native American Astronomy Can Help You Go Outside (Carl Gawboy)

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Carl Gawboy Humans Outside

Editor note: Human error got the best of me, and despite actually discussing with Carl during our interview (before recording) the difference between astrology and astronomy, I proceeded to use the wrong term in the title of this podcast episode and throughout the post and podcast notes. Carl Gawboy is an astrologist. The below has been corrected. Thank you for understanding!

Modern American culture uses Greek mythology to refer to stars and constellations in the night sky. But a rich tradition of Natvie American astronomy and indigenous star stories is out there, too, waiting for us to learn it. Better yet? Native American astronomy and learning star stories can help us chart the seasons and help us enjoy heading outside.

In this episode of Humans Outside Carl Gawboy, a Native American astronomy, Native Skywatchers elder and Ojibwe artist based in Minnesota, guides us through his groundbreaking work in Ojibwe star stories and what they can mean to us today. At almost 80, Carl shares a lifetime of work, study and cultural understanding with us.

Some of the good stuff:

[3:32] Carl Gawboy’s favorite outdoor space

[5:55] How Carl became someone who likes to go outside

[7:31] How indigenous star stories because a part of his journey

[16:32] How he discovered the connection of Ojibwe pictographs to star stories

[26:19] What the Hegman Lake pictographs mean

[32:05] The Ojibwe words for what’s in those pictographs

[34:00] What do you indigenous star stories teach us about our world today?

[38:19] How Carl’s artwork and star stories connect to simplicity

[42:29] The role of myth in understanding our world

[45:44] Using star stories to chart the year

[48:57] How to learn more about star stories wherever you are

Connect with this episode:

Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside is always worth it. Welcome to Humans Outside where we’re using the Humans Outside 365 challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while learning from fascinating outdoor minded guests. I’m Amy Bushatz. I’ve let curiosity be my guide as a journalist for 18 years. But life, including my husband’s war injuries had burnt us out.

So we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if a change of scenery and new focus on the outdoors was just the shift we needed. Since September, 2017, I’ve spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single day no matter what, to explore how nature can change my life. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor levers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

If you’ve been listening through season five of Humans Outside, you heard me talk about my newfound interest in stargazing. It wasn’t that I thought stars weren’t great before. It was just that I typically spend my time outside in the daytime, not at night, it’s a bias for daylight, but then I started heading outside after dark and noticing the stars and an entire new world of interest opened to me.

I especially enjoyed stargazing with my son who liked to come up with his own constellation stories. For example, renaming one of the brightest stars in the sky, Vega, the star Jeff. I have no idea why. That newfound interest, pushed me to speak with Vicky Dirksen earlier this season to hear about the nuts and bolts of stargazing and being what she calls a night sky tourist, her podcast of that same name focuses on the subject.

While we talked she brushed on the subject of indigenous star stories, but since neither of us are from indigenous communities, I pledged to bring someone who is an expert in indigenous star stories on Humans Outside to talk about their own star stories. While those indigenous star stories vary wildly by native community, I’m really excited to bring you today’s guest, and one of the top indigenous astronomy experts in north America. If you’re from Minnesota or that region, you might recognize today’s guest Carl Gawboy as a well-known painter and muralist and a member of the Ojibwe tribe whose art appears in public spaces in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But Carl’s work and research into Ojibwe star stories is why he’s here with us today, including a theory he developed through that research of the astronomical messages conveyed by Ojibwe pictographs, which scholars considered a major breakthrough. Today, Carl is joining us to walk through his journey on the tapestry of Ojibwe star stories and how they can enrich our experiences under the night sky and beyond.

Carl, welcome to Humans Outside. So thank you so much for joining me for this episode of this podcast and overcoming all sorts of life complications to get to this point. I really appreciate it. So we always start our episodes imagining ourselves with a guest in his or her favorite outdoor space as if we’re hanging out with you somewhere that you love and appreciate and having this conversation.

So were that true, where we with you?

Carl Gawboy: I was raised in Ely Minnesota, and we like to think ourselves as the end of the road, because north of us is the Superior National Forest, the Quetico National Park, all of Canada, all the way up to the North Pole. So I grew up in an area with a hundred lakes at our disposal, and I spent a lot of my childhood and early adulthood on those lakes.

When I was in college, I spent my summers working for the forest service and I spent a lot of those summers well, I was a grunt laborer. We were cleaning campgrounds and clearing partridges and things like that. So I spent a lot of time seeing a lot more of the lakes then I would have, had I not worked for the forest service. So then as time went on, I kept on going out. All of us did, all my friends were fishing enthusiasts and canoeing and portaging and exploring new grounds. We had all of these woods at our disposal. And we sure took advantage of it. So I spent just about all of my free time exploring and fishing and carrying a canoe across a portage, just north of where I was raised.

Amy Bushatz: That sounds like a beautiful space. The people I’ve spoken with who work for forest service or do those sorts of trail maintenance jobs for a summer when they’re very young, think about those things as being a really important part of creating who they became, and a really important part of their story. And it sounds like that’s the case for you.

Carl Gawboy: Yes, it certainly was.

Amy Bushatz: Obviously that sort of set the groundwork for spending time there, but how from a larger perspective, did you become someone who likes to spend outside time outside and to whom this is important.

Carl Gawboy: Well, I I was raised out in the country, uh, and because I know this doesn’t impress Alaskans, but in the winter we had very long nights and a lot of our work took place in the darkness. So bringing in firewood, for example, was usually something that happened after dark. And I had a chance to look up at the night sky, brilliant stars. Other times uh, at the place where we lived, the little farm we spent working out of doors cutting firewood, making hay, working in the garden.

Living a real outdoor life. And the reason I didn’t think much of it at the time, I never thought about it much that I was living a kind of a unique existence. But now looking back on it, I’m thinking there’s not many people in my state that lived the kind of life that I did.

Amy Bushatz: So your work has really focused on indigenous star stories but you’re also a painter and a muralist as we discussed earlier.

But I would love to know your background on that, how you became somebody who spent so much time learning and teaching indigenous stories, star stories, and how this became a part of your journey.

Carl Gawboy: When I was very young, I remember working for a seventh grade science project. I did a great big star map. So I was, kind of interested in astronomy and I spent a lot of time out of doors looking at as many sky events that I could – eclipses, meteorites, things like that. And I never, it never occurred to me that the Ojibwe had and the astronomical uh, outlook as well. My father was Ojibwe, all right. And one time we’re walking back in the night with loads of firewood and he stopped and he showed me something and it was early spring. And the constellation that was at its highest at that time was Leo and there’s a great crescent that makes up Leo, the lion and in the Greek constellation of course, that’s Leo’s mane.

And my father told me that the Ojibwe looked at that as the tail of the panther, the curved tail. And the, one of the Ojibwe words for panther is curly tail. And referring to that pose of the tail that you’ll always see. And as time went on, I always looked at photographs and film of panthers that every time I could see one on TV, for example that tail was always curved.

So the Ojibwe named it after that attitude that the panther always had. He started talking about this constellation and I was looking up. Yeah, it must have been in about seventh grade, and it just occurred to me that there’s a whole bit of knowledge out there that’s a part of my schooling or my education or my reading world, but this was something my father knew about a whole people. It just, it took me a long time to think about that. And I have to tell you that I spent a lot more of my youth wondering about the career of Elvis Presley than I did learning about Ojibwe culture.

My father was a fluent language speaker and he knew a lot of stories and he would tell these stories when asked. But I guess you have to kind of understand that in the 1950s, the Ojibwe didn’t talk about these things very much. There’s a number of reasons why. Anthropologists tried to eek information from informants and putting together Ojibwe culture and legends and so on, but it was not something that was talked about publicly. So it would seem that my father had all this information there and that he was willing to share it if you asked him. But that was the 1950s – radio ,television, the future beckoned. I wasn’t so much interested in the past at that time, but I was wondering what I was going to do with my life at that time moving forward.

So it’s hard to believe that I had an informant living right after my house that any anthropologist would’ve given their eye-teeth for. That night looking at that constellation, it just got me going in my mind that that here was something that not many people were writing about or talking about. A nd this was something that I wanted to learn. I was already interested in astronomy, as a general science, a bit of knowledge, but it never occurred to me to start thinking that this was a field that I could explore.

Amy Bushatz: So how do you go from not ever thinking that it’s a field that you can explore to having it be a point of passion?

Carl Gawboy: As time went on, well I went into art first and I thought in my painting I would try to show our culture in its past, uh, both in its mythical and legendary past and its past during the fur trade. And it’s past during the early reservation period when Ojibwe men dressed like lumber jacks, because many of them were lumberjacks. And I finally went into Indian studies as a field.

I ended up teaching it on the college level and I kept on exploring all the data and the books that were available at that time. And there was nothing on, astronomy. And at that time, if you said indian studies and science in the same statement, people would wonder what you’re talking about.

Science and Indian culture just weren’t ever talked about at that time. So then what happened in 1978 or 79 was an interesting documentary that appeared on PBS. The Sun Dagger documentary, in which the ancient Anasazi people, of the American Southwest put rock paintings on this great big Mesa that was high up at a place called Bahati Butte.

And it turned out that those uh, rock paintings were right in line with the effect of the sun that would shine through stones on exactly June 21st, summer solstice and the scientific world, of course, tried to deny it. They said these people are too simple to have put together such a phenomenon, the rock painting, the sun effect on only one day a year.

And the the person who first saw it was an artist named Anna Sofaer. And she formed an organization called the Solstice Project and started researching Anasazi and Pueblo culture and legends and myth and other rock paintings to see if there was a n astronomical connection there. And one of the first scientists to accept this as a real scientific achievement was Carl Sagan.

And in his famous documentary in the 1970s, he gave the ancient Anasazi credit for being great astronomers, being able to create a phenomenon that records the date. That’s very important date on June 21st, where after that point, the days start getting shorter the night’s getting slightly longer and a very important astronomical date for agriculture people.

Well, so I, I saw that and I always got very excited about it. And I said –gee, I wonder if there’s anything around here, that would be the same thing. And then I curse, I hit myself on the side of the head and I said, you idiot the rock paintings, our rock paintings and this part of the world. What if they were astronomical in nature?

So I was pretty familiar with the laurentian shield pictographs because there was a about 10 sites in northern Minnesota and about 200 sites all told, reaching all the way up to Hudson Bay. And they’re usually on an overhanging cliff on a vertical cliff, overlooking a lake. And they were done between a thousand years ago and 200 years ago.

So they’ve been able to date them and they’re associated with Ojibwe culture, and Cree and a lot of the woodland groups, but there, they always remained a mystery and all the literature at that time, nobody knew what they were. They were a mystery. And if the Ojibwe knew what they were, they were, they were keeping silent about it.

So it was a mystery waiting to be solved. So I woke up in the middle of the night and I said — my gosh, they’re constellations. And the closest one to where I grew up about 20 miles away, were the Hegman Lake pictographs. And these are pretty famous set of pictographs because they photograph really well.

They’re always included in every book about pictographs, the interpretation of them by various people went from wolves chasing a moose, to a hunter chasing a moose with his hunting dogs. I mean, a very literal uh, translation or interpretation. Something quite mundane as far as the Ojibwe were concerned.

If they were as mundane as simply showing a moose hunt, there’d be pictographs everywhere. Everywhere moose are mentioned, there’d be a pictograph of a moose hunt. I said so they have to be something more important than that. And of course, I thought that they were mythical interpretations. So I kept trying to find the myths that would match the picture.

Now, most of the material on the Ojibwe you find in the library are written by specialists in the field. There are specialists who investigated pictographs. There are people who collected the legends and stories, and there are people who collected contemporary art, and there are people who collected culture, material culture for example.. But nobody actually put all that stuff together, the way it was really lived in Ojibwe culture. So I thought — what if I could connect the art with the myth and the science? And if I could connect all those three things together then I’d really have something.

I realized that finding Ojibwe astronomy was going to be a problem because there was almost nobody that was writing about it. There was an anthropologist who did work among the Ojibwe and Cree of Canada, and one of his informants gave him the name of the star, of a star in the night sky. And so suddenly he said — that star has a name. Are there other stars that have names? He said — oh yes, this informant said, just about every one of them do, but I don’t remember them. And and all the constellations are really important too, all the big ones. And the man got really excited and said well, — tell me more about them. And then informant well, said –I can’t really remember them, but, but at one time they were all known by everybody. And so the anthropologist asked them well, how did you forget, you know, as a culture, how, how come you’re not knowing this stuff anymore? And he said well, — since clocks and calendars came, uh, we don’t really need them anymore. And I remember reading that and I thought — my goodness, what those rock paintings are, is an almanac.

And so, but I thought, I thought which one, which one? So the rock paintings show this great human figure with outstretched arms and right away, these things started coming to me. In Ojibwe culture, a big figure like that is the Winter Maker. The Winter Maker is also a constellation and it’s the constellation of Orion. Now, the constellation of Orion rises in November and it dominates the night sky in January. And by February and March, Orion slowly starts to tip towards the west, as the starts to setting. That means the Winter Maker, of course, is losing his power. But at times that he most powerful in January, he dominates a night sky. He’s got a pinched waist, just like the figure on on the pictograph and his arms are outstretched.

And if you look at Orion, it’s a nice time of year, to look at him. There are two bright stars on either side and one is the star Procyon on and the other is Aldebaran and they’re about the same distance from the constellation number, of Orion. And if you think of the con pictograph, you’ve got these long outstretched arms with a star in each hand, the star in each hand.

That’s gotta be it. That’s it. And of course, nobody believed me. I was, I started making up some overhead transparencies. Do you remember those things and the teaching biz? And I would go around and give a talk to who anybody who would listen, but but nobody believed me because all the information on pictographs never said anything about stars or that, that was something completely new.

So then I thought, okay, we got the Winter Maker solved, what about the others?

Now the moose figure is something very interesting because I kept trying to find the moose constellation near the constellation of Orion. But then I realized maybe it’s a completely different constellation. And then of course, when fall comes, the constellation of Pegasus dominates the night sky and it’s this great square that is almost overhead.

And that’s the fall constellation. Okay. Should I got the winter constellation, they have the fall constellation and on these pictographs.. And then I saw something that confirmed to me that I was right. And that is in the pictograph, there are a little heart stars and there, and in the photograph that we’ve, I sent you here, you can actually see these hearts stars.

And that’s where the artist who painted them rubbed the silhouette clear at that point, leaving a little white blob in the pictograph, just about where the star is. And you can see it on a Winter Maker, but you can see it in the big square that makes up Pegasus. You can see two of them. The two of them go to the night sky in the fall when Pegasus is dominating the night sky., And you can see those two stars. And they’re called the astronomers call them omnicron pegasi and another Latin word .Astronomers give them these names because they’re they name each star and every constellation, according to its brightness. So alpha pegasi would be the brightest star in the constellation Pegasus. So these two little stars are way down the line a little bit. And so they’re on any star maps. You can see them there. And they’re just about where they are on the pictograph.

Amy Bushatz: And this, this pictograph for our listeners is available on the show notes for this podcast that you can look at and see exactly what Carl’s talking about.

Um, And he’s been so awesome as to share this with us and you can see the Winter Maker, or what we today call Orion with the outstretched hands in this pictograph. And it is really quite remarkable.

Carl Gawboy: So then as I kept looking at a lot of this meant I had to go out and and look at the night sky, cause I had to look at it with kind of fresh eyes.

And there is a real great head of a moose just to the right of the great square of Pegasus with a bell, which is fat and hair that hangs down from the moose’s throat. It keeps, when wolves attack a moose, they’ll go for the throat and they loosely chomped down on that bell that hangs down and miss his throat.

And there it is in the night sky. Two little stars that hang down from the moose’s throat, the bell of the moose. Okay. And then finally, we got one other character on the Hegman Lake pictographs and that’s that creature that’s to the left of the moose

Amy Bushatz: And it looks like a cat or a kangaroo on all fours.

Carl Gawboy: Yes, yes. And people have called it a wolf and or a dog. And there, you can find a lot of people writing about pictographs and identify it as a wolf. And there’s a reason why it’s not a wolf is because a wolf always carries his tail straight. And it’s never curved. Some, a dog might have a curved tail, but it just too slinky to be a dog it’s long and slinky and boy that’s a cat.

It can’t be anything else, but a cat.. And when my father pointed out the tail of the great panther, It’s got that arc that’s facing in the same direction as Leo. So I thought, okay, if that’s a tale of the Leo, then where’s his head? And so going out into the night sky, I realized that the head of that great panther is a part of another constellation that we know of another as another constellation.

And that’s the head of Hydra with the Greeks called a water snake. But it makes a real nice, bright constellations. She connect that constellation with the, with that arc of Leo and you’ll have a wonderful constellation of the uh, uh, of the panther. So I thought, these are not where they, these constellations and the pictographs are not where they are in the night sky, but they marked something, they marked something. There’s something that’s important to know. And one, and that is, they marked the seasons. They marked three seasons, the wint, the winter, the fall, the moose constellation. And what happens in the spring? The Winter Maker sets in the west. What rises in the east is the constellation of the great panther and in Ojibwe culture, the panther is always associated with water. That is the great water panther is a mythological creature that lives in lake superior. And every spring he brings the flood. Because he brought the worldwide flood, that’s part of the great flood myths of the Ojibwe. And so every spring he repeats himself by bringing the flood and into the spring, floods for the Ojibwe are very dangerous.

They’re a dangerous thing, if you don’t have roads and bridges and if it’s too too early to use a canoe and too dangerous to use snowshoes when there’s water everywhere, melting water, and the creeks are impossible to cross that’s real danger. And so the panther is a dangerous, methological being. And bringing the spring floods. He comes a little earlier than the spring floods will happen. You can start seeing them in the end of March and early April, but you know then that the terrible floods are coming. So it means then that Ojibwe, we’re looking at the night sky can recite both the myth and the science, as well as pointing out the constellation and then they’re on the pictograph is the art of it, the mythological being.

Amy Bushatz: Yes. And so what we’re saying is that understanding, these like these pictographs, aren’t just nice pictures or have some moose, run of the mill moose hunt, like what we were talking about earlier, but that they are connection between the Ojibwe culture and information that they needed about what was happening in the seasons around them.

Carl Gawboy: Yes, that’s right. They’re very much aware of the seasons and the and these are very important to astronomical events and mark the seasons to solstice and the equinoxes.

Amy Bushatz: Yes. Yeah. And can you tell us what the Ojibwe words are for these particular constellations? You’ve been using the Greek or Latin names, but I’m wondering, are there Ojibwe words or names for these particular constellations?

Carl Gawboy: Yes, there are. What comes to mind is Mishi Bizhiw which is, the word literally means curl tail. And that’s the name of the panther now there’s a joke that one of our local humorists I was used to tell about the word moose and says, how do you say moose in a Ojibwe? It’s “mooz.” That’s where the word comes from.

Amy Bushatz: Fair enough.

Carl Gawboy: The, and the Winter Maker is let’s see if I can, if it comes to me here forgive me, but I’m almost 80 years old and I have a hard time, a hard time remembering. Um, uh, Gaabiboonike which is the name of the Winter Maker. The “boon” means winter and “nike” means maker. So it’s the great Winter Maker. Gaabiboonike. Okay.

Amy Bushatz: I love hearing about this because it’s, I think we look at these constellations with the stories that have been given us by our current popular culture, which all come from Greek mythology and we don’t stop to consider the tie-ins that these things might have in telling us about the seasons around us, which is precisely what you’re saying, that those things not only exist. But they are literally written out for us in these pictographs, from the Ojibwe culture. And we just need to create that connection, which you have personally helped us do.

Carl Gawboy: Yes. I never considered myself a real expert on Ojibwe culture and my language skills are very poor, but I’m pretty good at putting things together and that’s what I did here, put things together.

Amy Bushatz: Hey humans did you know, you can officially join the Humans Outside 365 challenge and score some really cool and exclusive challenge swag, including a finisher metal and decal on HumansOutside.com/challenge? You’ll also get an outdoor challenge guide written by me for you. An exclusive challenge tracker and insider info all year long.

You don’t want to be left out of this. There is never a wrong time to join the Humans Outside 365 challenge. So get going, join it today. Go to Humans Outside.com forward slash challenge to learn more now. Now back to the show.

So what do indigenous star stories, such as the ones you’ve been sharing with us today, teach us about our world right now that we live in right now.

Carl Gawboy: What’s interesting to me and I’ll mention this first is that once my information came out and I put it in a little small book that I coauthored with Ron Mortin and it’s called Talking Sky. And I published a couple of articles one in Lake Superior magazine. And it was quite a while ago now. But people are picking it up. This, these stories became meaningful to everybody who lives here and there, what I’m trying to say, is that white people have latched on to it as a real meaningful bit of knowledge for living in this part of the world.

And. I w I went around to a craft fair one time, not far from where I live. And there was a lady who was making little medallions of the, of the uh a Winter Maker figure. And so I wanted to buy one and put it on my winter jacket. And she looked at me funny. And she said, who are you? And I said I’m Carol Gawboy. She said, take this. It’s free for you. I’ve seen this down in the Southwest where many of the imagery from Navajo and the Pueblo have made its way into the art of the region. Think of the uh, the humpback flute player. And you can see it both Indian and white jewelers and painters do that image.

I mean, when, when an Indian image or Indian culture makes us way to the greater culture at large and everybody latches onto it. And everybody thinks of it as something that that they can relate to because they live there. Then I think that’s really great. And so when this lady gave me this medallion free, because she knew perfectly well and I came up with it. Yeah. I thought, th this is something very memorable.

Amy Bushatz: So I mentioned earlier, you’re also a very well-known painter and muralist particularly in, in that part of the country, but beyond that and your paintings have been described as matter of fact, and respectful without false romanticism in one article that I read about them.

So I’m wondering how that style of art translates to, or is important in storytelling and how we interact with our world and with the traditions of other cultures, because you just mentioned how this Winter Maker has been, or is starting to be absorbed into more popular art beyond the native community. And I’m wondering. What connection that creates with this idea of simplicity.

Carl Gawboy: Oh, my goodness. I, it when I started my art career, one of the things I wanted to do in my painting was to show Indian culture in its everyday simplicity. I, there were many Ojibwe artists who were painting religious themes and visionary themes and all over North America, you’ll find painter, Indian painters, who would be put in that category. And among the Ojibwe there are many artists who are really famous for that. And I guess, because I’m, I tend to be, I tend to not follow trends. I wanted to make sure that my painting was going to be different. And so I painted one one of my titles of one of my works is Indian Lady Skinning Muskrats, for example.

Amy Bushatz: Very straightforward.

Carl Gawboy: Yes. Very straightforward, very mundane. Something that’s done every fall during muskrat trapping season. Not a vision of anything like that. And so I, so that’s what I became well-known for is that kind of subject matter. And then all of a sudden, right out of the blue comes Carl Gawboy, the astronomer. And I was always afraid when I came up with it because I didn’t want this information to be latched onto by the new agers and made into something oh, mystical that I had some kind of a kind of knowledge on some mystic information and I want it to not be that there are some Indian people who have latched onto that and made themselves a pretty good living by being that kind of person, going around giving workshops about secrets of the Ojibwe.

And I didn’t want to be that at all, or be associated with anything like that. And when I first published some of my papers, some anthropologists w -well, one anthropologist in particular accused me of being a new ager and just making all this up. I should mention too, that the forest service at first when they had to acknowledge this in their information, on the Superior National Forest, the Hegman Lake pictographs are real site in the Superior National Forest, just said, some people call them constellations. So it didn’t mention my name or why there are constellations. Time has passed and everybody has latched, well, a good number of people have latched onto this as something real and something you can really interpret these by. I’ve been able to avoid being adopted by the new agers. And but instead I’m adopted by the scientific community, which I’m pleased. I’m pleased about

Amy Bushatz: It’s interesting to consider this idea of new agers and mysticism, next to the role of myth, which are they’re two different things. And how, because of this idea of the Winter Maker, that’s, it’s a constellation, he’s a myth. He’s not a literal being, but he’s also not mystic in that way. So I’m wondering what the role of that as a myth plays in how we interact in our natural world on a practical level, because Western culture doesn’t do a lot of that. We don’t have really a role of myth in how we interact on in a practical day to day experience of nature. And so I’m wondering what you see as the role of myth in how we experience nature and why?

Carl Gawboy: When I think of the people in my part of the world that spend a great deal of time out of doors, and a great deal of time in the weather and observing whether, uh, you know, you can start a conversation with anyone here talking about the weather.

Amy Bushatz: Same here.

Carl Gawboy: I would imagine so and I think what this does and, we can have some insight into a Ojibwe culture because I have no doubt the Ojibwe, 200 years ago, spent a lot of time talking about the weather and talking about the different outfits that they’re wearing to keep themselves warm. I really think that you can’t live here without being absolutely conscious of it.

You spend a lot of time out of doors. You start seeing the Winter Maker constellation slowly slip to the west you know, that warm weather is on its way. And you look around here even though it might be below zero and you can smile a little bit, knowing that time is on your side and the Winter Maker, isn’t going to take over the world, he’s going to slip. So it’s a consciousness of just living in this part of the country. And I think that’s why, when my book came out, it became so popular ,that it fits into the way people think about this part of the world.

Amy Bushatz: Before we moved north, we lived in the south and I knew that there was such a thing as winter and summer solstice. And that was the end of how much I thought of it. But if you live in the north, you know that those are not just days on the calendar. Those are celebrations because they mark things that we look forward to and things that we enjoy. Winter solstice is a time that at least here where I am in Alaska, we go out and we say, hallelujah, this light coming back.

And in the summer, It’s summer solstice the longest day of the year. For those who don’t know is the day we go out and say, hallelujah, this sun is here right now. It’s all about that sunshine.

Carl Gawboy: Yes, that’s right.

Amy Bushatz: Don’t focus on the it’s going away part, which is the other half of the summer. We’re just really focused on the positive, but yes, those things are so important and they are in a lot of ways how we chart our year, even though we live in a modern age where we don’t need to chart our year by the longest and shortest day.

Carl Gawboy: Right or a star map or an Almanac. We know those days are coming when we come back from work and we see that it’s getting dark. When about a month ago, you could still see the landscape around you, you know that the season’s turning and that it’s going, it’s going to offer it, give you some challenges as a, as time goes on and the same as the days get longer. I mean it, everyone here is aware of that. One of the things about when my information came out was that I w I was like I should tell you this in uh, in sotto voche. But Indians can sometimes be very judgemental and be a little leery of something that they hadn’t heard before.

And so I was afraid. I was afraid I might get some pushback on this that has not happened. Has not happened. One Indian person told me that knowing about indian astronomy is like being reunited with an old friend.

Amy Bushatz: That’s beautiful.

Carl Gawboy: That was just beautiful. I should mention that as I was doing this research, I asked a lot of Indians about astronomy. W -what had they learned? They learned anything when they were growing up about certain stars or constellations or things like that? A lot of them had, but it was just like one thing. It wasn’t complete. And it was because we spend a lot of time in the 20th century, at least living in houses where we’re away from the night sky.

And we spend kind of shut off from these things and just like these Cree and Ojibwe that this anthropologist was talking about clocks and calendars it’s that, that, that information gets forgotten. But once in a while, some of the people that I talked to would remember something from their childhood, walking with an elder perhaps at night, and the elder would say something about a star and they would remember that, but it wasn’t the whole thing. It wasn’t a whole year. It might be one incident that he would remember. And that was, that would impress upon him so that when it came time for me to come around and ask them, they remembered that thing and it added to my accumulated annual star stories. Yeah.

Amy Bushatz: How can listeners learn more about Ojibwe star stories specifically, but also broadly in- indigenous stories, star stories from wherever they are.

Carl Gawboy: The Dakota and Nakota people of the plains had a wonderful person who recorded this information in the forties and fifties from that tribe. And lately there have been a revival of a Dakota, Lakota and Nakota astronomy, and there’s been some pretty nice publications coming out on that score.

Uh, Annette Lee um, is a Dakota who established herself at St. Cloud State and started collecting all this information. And a lot of her western colleagues contributed to her curriculum that she’s put together. And so the very, very exciting there, the first time I met them, you have to get this because you know, the Ojibwe and the Dakota, not necessarily always got along historically.

And I w I walked into one of the first workshops that Annette had on Indian astronomy and I represented all the Ojibwes there. So you got to think that I was on edge. So I walked into the room and the room had about 10 Dakota, Nakota, Lakota people. They were great big guys with huge cowboy hats. And I thought I am finished. I am done. And, but they were just the greatest people I ever met. I walked out of there, my eyes as big as saucers. I said to my wife, I have found my people. And it was Annette that got them all together and got me together with them.

And then, the interesting thing about Annette is, is that there’s people from all over North America that are contacting her because they want to particular their astronomy, the Mi’kmaq of Quebec and Nova Scotia.

And of course, what Annette does when she works with these people is creates a star map for them. And I’ve got about five or six of them in my studio now. Just they’re, they’re just amazing things. The Cree there’s a man named Wilfred Buck who is gone to cree villages. And of course, to go to Cree villages, you’ve got to go by bush plane and he’s gone to many of them and just simply walked off the air plane and said, I want people to tell me about your astronomy stories and people are just latching on to it.

And so he’s created a Cree star map, thanks to Annette. So she’s working with other people. The Aborigines in Australia and the the Zulus and South Africa, the Polynesians, in Hawaii have all contacted her to help them with them putting together their curriculum on star stories. So this is something that’s just not going to stop. We’re now part of the worldwide Aboriginal community of astronomers. Very exciting.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, it is exciting. So what I hear you saying is that the resources are out there. People just need to do the research and look, if this is something they’re interested in learning.

Carl, it has been a real honor to have you on here today, talking about your research and your experience and your culture and the Obijwe star stories that you have laid out for us. So thank you so much for joining me on Humans Outside today.

Carl Gawboy: Thank you for having me.

Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, give us a little love and leave a rating and review to make it easier for others to find the podcasts too. What you say matters. It really truly does make a difference. And until next time we’ll see you out there.


4 Responses

  1. This interview was fun to listen to. Carl Gawboy is a friend of mine. I also am an Ely, MN area resident and my grandmother was good friends with Carl’s mother a long time ago. It stands to reason that the Ojibwe paid a lot of attention to the stars in the nighttime sky and used what they observed to help them understand and relate to their world more deeply. It is unfortunate that their knowledge, understanding and wisdom was lost to us as modern people wedded to an originally European-based scientific view that ignored and discounted the “primitive” views of the people who lived so intimately with Nature. It is, on the other hand, very fortunate that Carl Gawboy became inspired to work with what little he was able to acquire in his own life, as well as through the help of other Ojibwe, and apply his insights to help revive some understanding of the Ojibwe astronomical or astrological knowledge that has been preserved in the pictographs in our area. It’s wonderful, too, that this Indigenous astronomy movement has greatly expanded to include many other similar traditions. Thank you for inviting Carl to share some of his story!

  2. Just went through this and it was very interesting. Never knew much about Carl after school in Ely, same classes and a common friendship. Thank you for the memories.

  3. Thanks again Carl for enlightening all of us with your knowledge about your Ojibwa Culture. You are so eloquent yet down to earth so we can all understand. Your interpretation of the pictographs is the only one that makes sense to me.

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