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Learn About Solar Eclipses from the Anishinaabe Perspective

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Miigwech to David O'Connor, DPI's American Indian Studies Consultant, for his guidance and support in creating this article. 

Total solar eclipses are relatively rare, but partial solar eclipses are relatively common. People belonging to the Anishinaabe (also known Chippewa or Ojibwe) nations of Wisconsin and Great Lakes region have various stories and legends about eclipses. These stories are not just stories – they are representations of a worldview where celestial bodies (the planets, moon, sun, and stars) interact with the world, human lives, and even in concepts of afterlife and rebirth.

In conjunction with your students, we hope to encourage you to incorporate this tribal knowledge into your discussions with your students in preparation for the total solar eclipse, which will occur in many places across North America on Monday, April 8, 2024.

Related: Harnessing the Excitement of the 2024 Solar Eclipse

The Importance of Storytelling with Anishinaabe Cultures and Traditions
(This quote is a slightly edited version of an original quote which can be found here.)

“In the Ojibwe culture, storytelling is an ancient and important art. It’s how tales and teachings about the world are passed from generation to generation, from elder storytellers to eager children.

Different stories are told all year long depending on the seasons but winter, especially, is a season of storytelling. The tradition stems back many generations to when, with each new season, the Ojibwe moved to different locations to hunt, fish, and gather resources from the land. In winter, they would move into large birch bark wigwams and live on the food they had collected and preserved during the spring, summer and fall.

The long, dark winter nights were perfect for telling stories around the fire and their homes. The stories were entertaining and helped pass the time, but they also taught valuable lessons in life.”

Why Is It Important to Learn About the Solar Eclipse from the Anishinaabe Perspective?
During long, dark nights, people still go out to stargaze and identify constellations and planets. Much of the handed-down mythology about the planets, sun, moon, and stars that we are most familiar with comes from ancient Greek or Roman stories and myths.

Celestial bodies have long been used for wayfinding, and prediction/explanation of celestial phenomena like solar eclipses makes sense. When you know a story and its outcome, you can perhaps face phenomena that might be scary or feel unpredictable with a blueprint of how to understand it.

Activities with Students
Students of all ages should learn a subset of the Anishinaabe vocabulary words related to the eclipse. Context should be given about the importance of the language to preserving culture.

Beginning the Discussion: Why Do Humans Tell Stories?
Ask your students this question as a way to help them situate the stories of the Anishinaabe within a wider human context. Transcribe student answers on the board.

Why do you think human beings tell stories?
Why do these different individuals or groups tell stories?
What do the stories do for them? (For younger students, you can keep it simple and just do children/adults; with older students, you can include other groups, or have students break off into small groups to talk about how different groups might use storytelling).

  • Children
  • Adults
  • Businesses
  • Religions
  • Mythmakers
  • Politicians

Every culture across the world has a tradition of storytelling. Storytelling helps teach important lessons and values, can help pass down culturally-relevant knowledge and traditions, it can entertain and be used as a way of bonding with others in the group.

For Younger Students:
Educators can read the story aloud (first, with everyone keeping their eyes closed). Upon the second reading, students can have their eyes open and ask students to draw one portion of the eclipse story that appeals to them and have them share it with the class.

For Older Students:
Educators can read the story aloud or have a student read it.
Consider reading the story multiple times aloud, or have different students read it consecutively.
Ask them to notice how each speaker has different pacing or may emphasize a different part of the retelling of the story being shared.

The additional stories can be read and discussed, and educators and students can talk about why there might be additional/differing stories and meanings. Why might there be differing stories? Draw out ideas about linguistic diversity (dialects/subgroups), oral traditions, and hints at a complex cosmology for which we may not have all the pieces. Thereby reinforcing the importance of learning and preserving Anishinaabe stories.

Transcript of the Anishinaabe Solar Eclipse Story
There is a video retelling of the story here, starting at the 2.13 mark. The audio is not very clear, so reading the story aloud in class may be more helpful.

The following story being shared and told comes from multiple communities in Canada from the east coast and central Canada including the Inu, the Ojibwe, and the Cree and others. It goes:

In the old days, people were not the chiefs and did not hunt animals. Animals were the chiefs and hunted people. They killed everyone except for one girl and her little brother. The boy learned to hunt snowbirds and squirrels with a bow and arrow. He became such a good hunter that he started catching bigger prey.

One day, he felt like something was following him. His skin became heated, and it felt like he was burned. His sister helped him fashion a snare and he set it along a melted path in the snow to catch whatever had burned him. It was the sun’s path. The next day, as the sun rose, it got caught in the snare and darkness followed.

The animals were afraid but amazed by the void. They sent the biggest and most fearsome animal to try to free the sun. The caribou and the moose went first, but it was too hot. The hunting birds flew, but the fire burned their feathers.

A tiny mouse (who in those days was as big as a mountain) was the one that chewed through the snare, freeing the sun. But meanwhile, the intense heat of the sun shrunk him down to his present day size we know today.

Since that time, the people have been hunting on the land and the sun and the moon follow their cycles. The little boy is Tcikabis, and he’s known as the man on the moon.

This story is highly related to annular eclipses during which you still see a line of light around the moon. So that is the snare and the moon is catching it.

Another story goes:
For the Ojibwe people and nations of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindle it.

Some stories say the sun was like a campfire that had gone out. Instead of hiding or banging drums (like in other Indigenous traditions), the Ojibwe fired arrows aimed at the sun.

Eventually, one of the arrows would launch high enough to reignite the sun. Human intervention was required to return the sun to its regular strength.

Sources for this story are available here, here, and here.

Another story:
“A solar eclipse is happening today,” wrote Dave Courchene, Anishinabe Nation, Eagle Clan, known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man) in a statement from Turtle Lodge. “The fire of the sun is eclipsed by the darkness of humanity. Darkness may arrive for a time, but the light — the fire of the sun — will always return. The eclipse is an intimate union between sun and moon. The Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon are in a sacred union, giving birth to New Life on Earth.” Source here.

Importance of Language
From The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary

Ojibwe is the heritage language of more than 200,000 Ojibwe people who reside in the United States and Canada. Ojibwe Country primarily extends from Quebec, across Ontario and Manitoba to Saskatchewan in Canada, and from Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota in the United States.

Ojibwe is not a single standardized language, but a chain of linked local varieties, grouped into nearly a dozen dialects. Each dialect (and within dialects, each local variety) differs in details of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar from the others, with differences between non-adjacent dialects often being great enough to impede understanding between their speakers.

Speakers of Ojibwe consider their language to be precise, descriptive, and visual, and feel that it is among the greatest treasures of their cultural heritage.

Ojibwe is an endangered language. Indigenous languages throughout the world are in decline, and have been since Europeans first colonized the Americas. Beginning in 1879, the United States established off-reservation federal boarding schools to re-educate Indian children and youth in the English language and American life-ways. Boarding schools, urban life, popular culture, and even participation in public school education all demanded that we speak English. The Ojibwe language has historically been repressed by policymakers and educators in the U.S. and Canada, though there are many, complex reasons why fewer people today speak Ojibwe.

Scholars and linguists tell us that language diversity is as important to the world and our systems of knowledge as biological diversity. Ojibwe people understand that fluent speakers of the language have a wisdom that represents an accumulated knowledge of many generations. The Ojibwe language can explain why we must respect the earth and take responsibility for caring for the land, water, and its resources. It is the antidote to global climate change, environmental destruction, and unhealthy lifestyles. The Ojibwe language is where we turn for philosophy, history, science, medicines, stories, and spirituality. It is our university and the key to our cultural survival.

Anishinaabe Vocabulary Related To Celestial Bodies and Eclipses

Giizis is any celestial body that gives off light; in particular the Sun. Technically, the Sun, since it is a star, is Giizis Anang. The Sun, in a metaphoric context, is often referred to as Gimishoomisinaan, "Our Grandfather," Giver of Life.

Ma'iingan Miikana The path of the sun, called Ecliptic(a) in Western astronomy, is called the ‘Wolf Trail’

The eight planets of our Solar System including our Mother Earth, which is orbited by her child the moon, are all part of the Great Spirit Nation, headed by the Sun. All these relatives travel, each with their own names and spirits, across the sky along the Spirit Trail. Of all planets and their celestial family members,

Nookomis Dibik-Giizis, Grandmother Moon is regarded as our principal gekinoo'amaaged, or teacher. She is often called Gookomisinaan: Our Grandmother.

Aki- earth

Waawiyekamig- or "Round Lodge" – as the Anishinaabeg traditionally conceive the cosmos.

The star stories of the Anishinaabeg Peoples are part of this complex system of spiritual philosophies and beliefs. Anangoog, the stars and planets, have always been regarded as our oldest relatives. Anang Gikendaasowin, knowledge of the stars and other celestial bodies, is found in many aspects of our culture; it particularly relates to our knowledge of aandakiiwinan (seasonal changes), nandawenjige and maamawinige (hunting and gathering activities), manidookewinan (our ceremonies), and - last but not least - our aadizookewin (storytelling).

Aatenaagozi– appear to be extinguished (as the sun or moon, in an eclipse).

Aateyaabikishin- be darkened (as the moon or sun in an eclipse).

Makadewaabikizi- there is an eclipse.

Makadewaabikizi a’aw giizis.- There is an eclipse of the sun.

Sources: herehere, and here

Other Anishinaabe Astronomy Resources
Seasons of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe)
Seasonal Constellations
Storytelling About the Winter Night Sky
Observational and Spiritual Meanings of Skywatching for the Anishinaabe
Lunar Calendar of the Anishinaabe
Naming of the Lunar Months