Physics Department Seminar University of Alaska Fairbanks

J O U R N A L    C L U B


The Astronomy of the Northern Dene (Athabascans)

Chris Cannon
Indigenous Studies, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, UAF



Although the sky and its contents are regularly overlooked in Northern Dene studies more than 12 years of learning with and from Dene Elders, speakers, and tradition bearers across Alaska and Canada has shown that astronomical knowledge is deeply rooted in both practical and spiritual ways of knowing.

At the center of these knowledge systems is a principal constellation identified as the incarnated spirit of a Traveler-Transformer figure who journeyed around the world in ancient time. Although this Traveler is widely known in Dene stories as the one who instilled balance and order in the world, his enigmatic transformation to the sky is known by few remaining Elders and tradition bearers. The Traveler constellation is not only a world custodian but also a teacher, ally, gamekeeper, and the embodiment of the world. These large constellations (sometimes covering the entire sky) composed of numerous smaller groups of stars named after body parts have deep antiquity in the Dene family and account for a large inventory of previously undocumented star names.

The Dene Traveler constellation has remarkable continuity across the Northern Dene region as a fundamental epistemology for knowing, being, and relating to the universe. While Northern Dene are guided by the Travelerís teaching, stories, and metaphorical path through life, the Milky Way is the Travelerís trail that leads to the afterworld. Taken together, the Traveler on Earth and in the sky unite as a massive relational model that integrates into a more holistic cosmology, worldview, and spirituality than previously described in Northern Dene studies while also having an important role in time-reckoning, wayfinding, and weather forecasting.


Friday, 23 September 2022

GI Auditorium, Elvey Building and on Zoom :