Astronomy Program Takes Native Kids on a Cosmic Ride

Hannah Broadbent, Courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth / Jim Rock, Sisseton Dakota and program director for the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota Duluth, schools young students in Lakota astronomy. The entrance to the Charles L. Matsch GeoDome, an inflatable, portable, planetarium, is behind him. He recently received a $5,000 grant from the Northland Foundation to bring astronomy to students in remote Native communities.

The elders call the stars “distant campfires,” akin to the hearths of a beloved auntie or uncle.

“We have relatives around those campfires,” said Jim Rock, Sisseton Dakota.

Rock grew up hearing stories about his people’s connections to the stars and the world above our own. He went on to study chemistry, engineering, astronomy and astrophysics, teaching high school and serving as a consultant. Now, thanks in part to a recent $5,000 grant from the Northland Foundation, he is adding a new role: conductor to the stars for Native children.

“I’m a cosmic bus driver,” said Rock, who last year became program director at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). “I’ll go wherever they want.”

Rock is actually driving the universe, so to speak, around in his UMD van. The vehicle carries the Charles L. Matsch GeoDome, an inflatable portable planetarium that can bring the night sky into the classroom—though “portable” may be too generous a word for the GeoDome, which must be toted around in three or four suitcases.

“Rather than saying ‘portable,’ it’s ‘mobile,’ ” Rock said. “It’s like a tipi; you can’t put it up by yourself.”

The GeoDome inflates in mere minutes but takes about an hour to set up fully. It needs a power hookup and a space at least 15 feet tall. But once in place, it reaches as far as the most distant stars and planets.

Viewers sit or lie inside and can watch the projections on the dome. The GeoDome has been used for all sorts of classrooms and public settings, but the special project funding with the grant is specific to teaching astronomy and storytelling to Native students. Rock looks forward to expanding that program, bringing knowledge of their own cultures’ connection to the stars.

Rock, a self-described space nerd, is tailor-made for this job. He taught high school and has consulted for NASA’s Beautiful Earth programs, which aim to bring Native students back in touch with astronomy, and done the same for NOAA’s Worldview Network. His own heritage is Dakota, but he can converse in the stories of the Ojibwe, too. He is able to explain how Native cultures understand concepts like stellar nucleosynthesis, the evolving or aging of stars.

“We know that stars are born and stars die,” he said, explaining that the Dakota and Ojibwe origin stories link people to the stars and the birth of the stars, stories that echo today’s Big Bang theory. “These stories are spot on, and they are way ahead of science.”

Children are fascinated by the stories, the scientific knowledge and the images from the universe. Rock introduces them to the “pizza moon” of Jupiter, Io, where volcanic activity has a created a sphere with pizza-looking qualities, and to Mars’s “spud moon,” the 10-mile-long potato-shaped rock that orbits that planet. There are even some heavenly bodies, like asteroids, that have indigenous names, he tells them.

Through traditional stories, the children come to understand that as “star relatives” these distant places are like “an auntie’s house, or an uncle,” as Rock put it. He also can contrast those stark places with our own world, emphasizing the need to care for our planet.

“This is the beautiful blue planet, where there is water and life,” he said he tells them, adding that he is carried along by the children’s curiosity and enthusiasm. “There’s room for kids to make their own interpretations and stories.”

The $5,000 grant will help pay travel expenses to schools on regional reservations and other schools that serve underrepresented minorities, said Marc Seigar, head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy. The goal is to promote “cultural astronomy,” he said.

Rock often enlists the help of local elders to relate the stories of the past.

“I hope we can continue to get grants that understand that this is such a motivating factor for our own people,” Rock said of the program, whose aim is not only to reconnect Native children with their own cultural stories and knowledge but also to inspire them to consider science in their future careers.

“We take them on a beautiful ride,” Rock said. “Those are the distant campfires. It’s like a field trip into the sacred realm, and we treat it like that.”

Photo: Hannah Broadbent, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth / Jim Rock teaching about how the ancient Lakota used the stars to gauge their place in the cosmos.

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