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Under the snowshoe trail: Documenting Alaska’s indigenous astronomy

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Title: Under the snowshoe trail: Documenting Alaska’s indigenous astronomy
Issue Date: 02 Mar 2013
Description: Astronomy is a fundamental component of all Alaska Native cultures, yet there has so far been no systematic effort to document indigenous knowledge of the Alaskan sky. What little work has been done suggests a rich domain of linguistic knowledge. Comparison with the Eastern Arctic suggests that Alaskan star knowledge is especially rich and detailed (MacDonald 1998), and at least in some cases this knowledge was maintained into modern times (Bradley 2002). However, this astronomical knowledge system is today even more endangered than Alaskan languages themselves. Modern technology has replaced every aspect in which astronomy was utilized, leading to the disuse and loss of traditional astronomy knowledge.

In this presentation I describe an approach to documenting traditional astronomical knowledge which draws on the existing linguistic archival record in combination with interviews with modern speakers to reconstruct concepts of indigenous astronomy for each of Alaska’s twenty Native languages. Although previous documentation did not focus on astronomy, clues can be gleaned from field notes describing time-reckoning and navigation. While there is significant diversity across this group of languages, several major cosmological themes can be identified which emerge across a diverse range of objects and phenomena in the sky. Additionally, indigenous astronomy can be shown to have four general purposes: navigation, time-reckoning, weather forecasting, and mythological/religious components. The Big Dipper and other stars in Ursa Major is the most important constellation in Alaska representing each major use of indigenous astronomy. The concept of the Milky Way as a snowshoe trail spans Alaska language groups.

Though still in its initial stages, the approach described here demonstrates that indigenous astronomy can be reliably reconstructed by combining archival research with first-hand field work in an endangered language situation. This has implications more broadly for documentation of other fields of traditional knowledge which, like astronomy, often fall between the disciplinary gaps of linguistic documentation.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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