Last night I was in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southern Spain. While taking a long walk I marveled at the star-studded night sky. I love looking up at the night sky and get great comfort out of sitting back and staring up at the stars. Star gazing has always given me a perspective of where I fit in on mother earth. The heavens above are so vast and infinite and I understand very well that I am only one of the billions of beings walking this planet as it moves through space.
I have always had an interest in astronomy. When I am in a different part of the world and far away from where I was born and raised in Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, gazing at the night sky reminds me I still have something in common with everyone back home. From the top of the mountains here in Spain I see the same stars that everyone back home would. I find some comfort in this awareness.
The night sky has always been very important to my people, the Crees of James Bay. I recall feeling safe and secure in our 24-foot freighter canoe guided by my dad, Marius, as he looked to the star-lit sky for navigation. Even in the dark he showed me it was possible to know where you are going by simply locating the very bright northern star. This star is called “Keewaytino-oso,” northern star, by my people.
He pointed out that as long as you know where Keewaytino-oso was then you knew where north was. A star-studded sky on a clear night also provided us sufficient light to see our way on the water and towards the Attawapiskat River and home after an excursion out on the land.
My father also taught me I would never be really lost on the land because I could always look to the sun and the moon for direction. It is good to have the certainty that the sun and the moon always rise in the east and set in the west. Although these are just general indications, this is information that can be very helpful when you are out on a snowmobile riding on frozen James Bay where everything looks the same. It is also helpful when you are out on the great waters of James Bay in a freighter canoe, where once again every looks the same.
The wind and the trees are also very helpful in providing guidance when we are out on the land on the James Bay coast. If you are in a storm or it is cloudy and you can’t see the sun or the moon, you can look to the trees for guidance. My dad taught me that the trees lean a little to the south side. They point this way because of the powerful northern winds that come from the north and blow to the south. These treetops are like a compass needle for us out on the land as they give us an indication of what is north and what is south.
Landmarks are also very important for the Crees of James Bay. My dad and many of the Elders who hunt and trap along James Bay can tell what direction to head in by referring to the coastline map they have memorized in their heads. They can look at a thin line of coast and recognize points on the land. I find that I use landmarks a lot even when I am in big cities. I don’t really have to know a map of the city as long as I have a couple of landmarks to refer to; then I can find my way around. One thing about growing up on the land is you get very comfortable in places where most people would feel lost. I am grateful for these teachings and I will always have them with me wherever I go.