By Peter McMahon
Ever notice that some stars at night look like they belong together?
Look up at a group of stars for enough time and you might start to see them form a pattern like an animal, a person, or an object from everyday
If you’ve ever tried this, you’re not alone: People around the world have been connecting-the-dots and recording patterns in the sky – called
constellations – for thousands of years.
‘Cloud-watching’ in the dark
Looking at the stars is sort of like looking at clouds in the daytime – You might see a dog in one part of the sky, where your friend or family member
might see a bike.
But unlike clouds, the star patterns appear to stay the same over time. When enough people recognize a shape in the stars, it becomes part of their
culture. Some of those shapes even become part of a culture’s history, economy, and/or science.
In modern times, we usually use the star stories of the ancient Europeans to learn about the night sky (Ursa Major/the Big Dipper, Ursa Minor/the Little
Dipper, Orion, and others from ancient Greece.)
But did you know there are shapes among the stars related to the people, places and creatures of what we now call North America?
from the Inuit of the Arctic
(Greek constellation: Ursa Major, the great bear, also known as the Big Dipper)
The Inuit have some of the most detailed constellation records on Earth, covering almost every bright star in their sky.
Among their stories is the constellation Tukturjuk the caribou, made up of the stars of the Big Dipper.
Many Inuit see the “handle” of the stars of the Dipper as the head and antlers of Tukturjuk. Other Inuit see the seven stars of the Dipper as a whole herd of caribou.
from the Plains Cree of Saskatchewan and Alberta
(Greek constellation: Perseus the soldier)
According to the Plains Cree, during the spring, Maskote Pisike (the bison) comes to Earth to walk along the ground, feeding and helping the First Nations
of the Great Plains.
During the hot nights of summer, part of the bison disappears, hidden where the ground meets the sky.
The Cree explained this as the bison lying down to guard the Shaking Tent ceremony, a healing ritual practiced throughout the history of the people of the
from the Oji-Cree people of Northern Ontario and Southern Manitoba
(Greek constellation: Polaris/the "Nail Star" and the belt of Orion/Nanabush)
This constellation-within-a-constellation has two parts. First, a “Bow Paddler” (the ‘Nail Star’ or North Star, at the end of the handle of the Little
Dipper) called Nemetahamun. A bow paddler is a person paddling at the front of a canoe.
Then there’s Oda-ka-daun, the “Stern Paddler” (sometimes seen as the Pleiades star cluster above Orion, sometimes the belt of Orion) at the back of the
While these stars don’t actually form the shape of a canoe, the Ojibway and Cree pictured these two characters as paddling an imagined canoe through the
river-like star clouds of our galaxy the Milky Way (known in First Nations lore as The Wolf Trail – a path to the spirit world.)
It’s said that a pack of dogs (the stars of the Little Dipper) chase circles around the Bow Paddler, which never moves. (Due to the Bow Paddler/North Star
being lined up with the Earth’s axis of rotation.)
Grizzly and the Seven Bird Hunters
from the Mi'kmaq of the Maritime East Coast
(Greek constellation: Corona Borealis, the crown)
Unlike the Greek bear Ursa Major whose tail is the handle of the “Dig Dipper”, some First Nations versions feature the Dipper handle as the characteristic
‘hump’ on the back of a grizzly bear.
According to the Mi'kmaq, Muin (of the Maritime East Coast) the bear emerges from a den in the spring (when the Dipper shape is lined up with the ground)
and is pursued by a robin, a blue jay, a chickadee and other birds that live in Canada to this day.
After dark in autumn, the birds are in hot pursuit and the bear/Dipper points up 90 degrees from the ground, as the birds chase him/her into the sky and
the lead bird – the robin – mortally wounds the bear.
As the bear shakes (like a dog shaking water off itself) his/her blood falls onto the breast of the robin and onto the leaves of all the broad-leaf plants.
Many First Nations say that this is why the robin has a “red breast” and why the leaves change colour in the fall.
from the Anishinabe (Ojibway) of Ontario
(Greek constellation: Delphinus the dolphin, also sometimes Ursa Minor)
The Anishinabe (Ojibway) of what is now the province of Ontario and the province of Manitoba – as well as the Cree and Plains Cree – see a loon in the
diamond shape made by four dim stars next to a summer constellation of bright stars called the Northern Cross.
Stretching out from the four stars of the body of the loon (Maung Anungonse in Ojibway, or Mokwachak, as the Cree call it), a fifth star about as far from
the diamond as the diamond stars are from each other forms the neck of the loon.
The whole shape looks like a loon dipping its head in the water to fish for food.
from the Cree of Saskatchewan and Manitoba
(Greek constellation: Auriga the charioteer)
To the Cree of the Great Plains and beyond, Mikinaw (Mikinak to the Anishinabe (Ojibway), or Capella to the ancient Greeks), is the Turtle Star.
Mikinaw is the brightest star in a group of stars the make a rough oval shape, like the shell of a turtle. In Greek constellation lore, this star pattern
is called Auriga, a person driving a chariot through the sky.
The Cree see these stars as the turtle, the creature in a First Nations creation story whose back became a place called Turtle Island. We know this place
today as the continent of North America.
from the Anishinabe (Ojibway) of areas of Ontario
(Greek constellation: Orion the hunter)
After the Big Dipper, the three stars that form the “belt” of what the ancient Greeks called Orion is probably the best-known star pattern.
The Anishinabe (Ojibway) call this whole constellation (including the belt) Nanabush Anung, or Wesakaychak in Cree.
The Anishinabe say that Nanabush is the older brother and teacher of their people. He is also called Misabe by some Anishinabe, which translates into
English as The Giant. In the Cree language, he’s called Mistapiw, also translated as the Giant.
Both the Anishinabe and Cree know Nanabush Anung or Wesakaychak as a teacher, but also a mischievous trickster and shape-shifter. At times, he takes the
form of a furry giant, who some elders joke could make him the “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch” constellation.
Lost boys/Dancing braves
from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of Upper New York State
(Greek star formation: the Pleiades, above the horns of Taurus the bull)
Many nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy – of what is now Upstate New York – see this closely-packed clump of stars above Nanabush/Orion as
a group of young braves dancing around a sacred fire. Others see the stars as a group of boys or girls who got lost forever in the wilderness of the
One day, the boys were so excited to go dancing, they didn’t eat anything before. For hours, the seven young braves danced the day away, their heads light
from lack of food.
Suddenly, the boys started to rise off the ground, towards the sky. They called back to their parents, who chased after them, but it was too late. As they
continued to ride into the heavens, one of the boys looked back and fell from the sky (an ancient explanation for meteors, or ‘shooting stars’.)
from the Lakota of the U.S. Great Plains
(Greek constellation: Cygnus the swan)
The Lakota of the American Great Plains say the stars of Northern Cross make a salamander. To them, the short part of the cross makes the front legs of the
salamander, while the shortest part of the long part of the cross makes its head, while the longer part of the long part of the cross makes the
salamander’s body and tail. (Sometimes, these stars also make a swan, or – for some First Nations – a goose.)
For the Lakota, the salamander is linked to speed, agility, healing, and new life. To traditional Lakota midwives, the salamander represents the powers of
a baby boy preserved at birth.
from the Sioux of the U.S. Great Plains
(Greek constellation: the star Rigel in Orion, and part of Eridanus the river)
The Sioux say the ‘Constellation of the Hand’ (the bottom half of the constellation Nanabush/Orion), represents the arm of a great chief.
Long ago, the Sioux say the gods wanted to punish the chief for his selfishness. They made the “Thunder People” rip out his arm as payment. Afterwards, the
chief's daughter made an offer to marry anyone who would recover her father's arm.
A young warrior called Fallen Star, whose father was a star and whose mother was human, recovered and returned the arm, allowing him to marry the chief’s
At night, you can hold out your hand at arm’s-length to cover the stars that make up this hand in the sky.
from the Navajo of Arizona, Utah, and Mexico
(Greek constellation: the Southern star Canopus)
According to the Navajo, it was the coyote who placed the Nail Star (North Star) in the sky and scattered all the dimmer stars among the brighter stars
that form the constellations.
The Navajo say that the coyote took part in the creation and naming of the stars and Navajo constellations.
They see the brightest star in the Southern Hemisphere as a tribute to the coyote (Ma’ii Bizo), which dips down below the horizon and then pops back up,
like a coyote looking for food.
Some say the coyote named this star (which the Greeks call Canopus) after himself. Others say that the star is the eye of the coyote.
from the ancient Mayans of Mexico
(Greek constellation: Cancer the crab)
The Mayans are the only known ancient civilization in North America that created a written history of their constellations – instead of just telling
stories from one person to another through oral tradition.
The Mayans wrote of a cosmic frog visible in the winter sky. To find it, draw an imaginary line between the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, arcing
up and then down through the pot of the Dipper.
Continue the arc until you come to a star about as bright as those in the handle of the Dipper, near a group of stars that make a backwards question-mark
in the sky (the pig constellation in Mayan lore, or Leo the Lion in Greek) directly below the Dipper.
Need a little help finding these stars? As with all the First Nations constellations mentioned above, you can look at the handy all-sky chart at the
beginning of this article.
You can take a hands-on look at more of the constellations of the Inuit, Mayans, and First Nations of North America by downloading the free planetarium
Once you’ve installed the program, open it, hit F4, click on "Starlore" and choose the civilization whose constellations you want to explore.
You can also find out more about the First Nations constellations of North America from Wilfred Buck, one of the world experts on these constellations.
Here's an article
Wilfred wrote about many of these constellations. And here's more from a presentation Wilfred gave, with some
beautiful images of these constellations. Plus, here's an
article in Canadian Geographic
about Wilfred's adventures in bringing these constellations alive for students in his mobile planetarium.
Want to actually see one of those stories being told? Here's a video
telling the tale of the Grizzly (Mista Muskwa) and the Seven Bird Hunters (with help from student actors at Northern Manitoba's Turtle Lodge).
Finally, while First Nations knowledge is typically only shared orally, here's a
huge collection of First Nations star stories
from the Virtual Museum of Canada.
It just goes to show that while the ancient Greeks may have popularized astronomy for most of us, there are star stories many of us have never even dreamed of in our own backyard.
Thanks to Wilfred Buck and the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (MFNERC) for lending information, knowledge, and imagery for parts
of this article.
“Wilderness Astronomer” Peter McMahon (pictured both images at top) has been researching the First Nations constellations of North America for the past
10 years. When he’s not learning about star patterns from other cultures, he’s showing people the stars through telescopes, magazine articles, books,
and from inside his portable space dome, The Ontario Planetarium (http://www.ontarioplanetarium.com).