Under the Northern Sky
by Xavier Kataquapit
ATTAWAPISKAT – My people the Cree of the James Bay coast have always turned to the sky for survival. In the fall of the year, we looked up from our blinds on the land to harvest migrating birds moving south for the winter. Our lives for generations depended on the coming and going of the Niska (Canada Goose), Way-way (Snow Geese), Shee-sheep (ducks) and many other smaller migrating birds. We honoured these creatures and thanked them for helping us to survive and feed ourselves.
My ancestors were not landlocked the way we are today. They had free range as nomads on the land and traveled at certain times of the year to hunt, trap and gather for survival. They did not see the world as we do today. To them, the world was all one and connected. They traveled on the land living with all the other creatures in a balanced way. They were out in the open in the muskeg, on the snow and ice and on the rivers and lakes. They saw the sky, land, and water as a part of the whole.
Today, most of us rarely really take the time to be out on the land or look up into the sky. We are inside most of the time at some form of work, watching television or roaming our world on the internet with various devices. When my parents were alive they frowned much of the time on our captivity by any media we were sucked into watching. They urged us to get outside, to venture out to our traditional lands and travel on the ice, snow, water, and muskeg. They taught us much about surviving with very little on the land and to respect mother earth and nature.
My ancestors spent a lot of time looking skyward when hunting and also at night to navigate their way on the great James Bay. My dad and the elders of yesteryear understood the stars and the heavenly bodies in so many ways. Their survival depended on knowing directions according to the moon, sun and stars. They understood how to read the sky and the land to help them forecast the weather and provide information on what was ahead. I recall my dad Marius noting what moon it was during the year to keep track of what the animals were doing and to know when the coldest periods took place. Out on the bay he could tell by the formation of clouds whether a storm was brewing and when it would be coming to us. All of these things my people learned through many generations and they did so because figuring out these signs contributed to their survival. They had to rely more on the natural world around them and they did so because they had a very holistic view of their reality.
We spend most of our time in boxes and wrapped up with artificial images and media. I can recall introducing city people to the far north on crystal clear lakes and rivers in the middle of the wilderness and I remember the look of awe and shock on their faces. The real world was actually shocking to them. Many city people I have taken out on the land at night to witness the amazing northern lights and star-studded sky were dazzled by the experience and at times fearful of so much magic happening around them.
In my busy, town-based life these days I spend a lot of time in the house and not enough on the land or to look up at the stars. However, I try my best to get out on the land to sit by the campfire and look up at the majestic northern starlit sky. This summer a friend of mine, Donald Elliott alerted me to a smartphone app called ‘ISS Detector’ that would allow me to follow the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbited the earth. The app lets me know when it would be passing over me at night. Thanks to him I found myself outside under the stars with friends ready and waiting for the space station to float over us. On clear nights I have witnessed it lazily flying by as a very bright light in the sky. It is always exciting to see that light coming into view and then passing over me. I imagine the astronauts up there in that craft working away at whatever experiments they are doing and glancing down onto our wonderful little planet.
We are so fortunate to have life on our little world that is just a random speck in the universe. I think of how incredible our mother earth is and how good she is to us. It shames me that we humans have made such a mess of things here on our little globe hurtling through space. We are fighting wars, keeping people in poverty and oppressing them far too much. Many of us have forgotten our way and our place as human beings on our planet and we just don’t see the connection so much anymore. It is time to take a minute and go outside to say hello to the stars.