The Celestial Bear: Planetarium show explores Indigenous legend of our night sky
The popular Celestial Bear show returns to McMaster's planetarium for several sold-out shows this week as part of the launch celebrations for the department of Indigenous Studies.
An Indigenous-focused show at McMaster’s planetarium could change the way you see our night sky.
The Ursa Major constellation, home to the well-known Big Dipper, gets its name from the Latin for “Great Bear”. But by an astronomical coincidence, thousands of miles away from European astronomers, Indigenous peoples gazing on the same group of stars also spotted a bear.
And since 2015, The Celestial Bear: The Six Nations’ Night Sky show at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium has explored the Indigenous legend surrounding the constellation.
The Indigenous Studies Program (now the new Indigenous Studies Department) and the department of Physics and Astronomy collaborated to create the show, now the most popular offering at the planetarium.
The idea for the show came from Mohawk scholar Tom Deer, who pitched his story and vision to planetarium staff Robert Cockcroft and Sarah Symons. The team was helped by two other Indigenous scholars: David Moses, who created the visuals, and English and Cultural Studies Professor Rick Monture, who wrote the script.
The Indigenous legend tells the story of several brothers and their dog, who chase a magical bear across the land and into the sky, where they become stars. The hunters and dog are represented by the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, and the bear by the stars of the cup.
At the time of year when the chase enters the sky, the hunters and bear line up low along the horizon, signalling the beginning of Six Nations hunting season.
As the nights progress, the constellation changes its position in the sky, as told through the parts of the story. Ultimately one of the hunters kills the bear and its blood stains Earth, as represented by autumn leaves turning red.
The show retells this story, using recordings of Cayuga and Mohawk legends in those languages, intermingled with live narration in English and imagery projected on the planetarium’s domed screen.
The use of Cayuga is significant because the endangered language is only spoken in the Six Nations community, where there are fewer than 40 fluent speakers.
The Celestial Bear is included in the planetarium’s public shows as part of Wednesday evening programming, which cycles through all shows three times a year. It’s also available as a private show.
Additionally, it will run for several sold-out shows this week as part of the celebration of the launch of the Indigenous Studies department.