Transcript: Astronomy Ethics Panel on Observatories | Stellar Spectacles Symposium

Transcript: Astronomy Ethics Panel on Observatories | Stellar Spectacles Symposium

This transcript has been edited for clarity. The video recording has been published by the ASX here.

Steffani Grondin 00:00

I’m really looking forward to this informative discussion we’re about to have tonight. I’ll pass it off to each panelists to introduce themselves. Dr. Neilson, would you mind going first?

Hilding Neilson 00:41

Thank you. My name is Hilding Neilson. I’m from the island of Taqamkuk or Newfoundland. I am a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, where I work on different problems in stellar and exoplanet astrophysics, as well as working towards an Indigenous approach to astrophysics. So I look forward to great discussion. Thank you.

Steffani Grondin 01:05

Thanks, Dr. Neilson, Dr. Dempsey, you’re next on my list here.

Jessica Dempsey 01:12

I’m the outgoing deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which is on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, where I spent nearly 15 years in various flavours of instrument science and astronomy. And I’ll be the incoming director of Astron, which is ground-based astronomy for the Netherlands, starting in a couple of months. And I’m very glad to be here.

Steffani Grondin 01:36

Thank you so much.

Bob McLaren 01:39

Hello, I’m Bob McLaren. I actually retired a year ago. But prior to that I was for 31 years on the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Much of my time spent there was involved with the development and the operation of astronomy facilities in Hawaii, both on Mauna Kea, and on Haleakala. Prior to that, I had a period at Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. And before that, I was actually on the faculty of the University of Toronto, Department of Astronomy for about seven years. I got my education at U of T. And originally from Southwestern Ontario. Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this interesting panel.

Steffani Grondin 02:25

Thank you, Dr. McLaren, and round us off, Dr. Pete.

Shandin Pete 02:29

Alright, yeah, good, good day, I think it’s day where you’re at. Maybe it’s evening, I’m not sure. But I’m here at the University of British Columbia, where I’m an assistant professor of teaching in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. I’m originally from Montana in the United States. My tribal group is called the Bitterroot Salish. We’re the eastern-most band of Salish speaking, folks. And my interest in astronomy stems from the reconstruction of our own oral traditions and our stories that relate to the stars in the heavens above us, and where I can find nuggets of information that might help and aid knowledge production in academic science.

Steffani Grondin 03:17

Thanks so much, Dr. Pete. And if you weren’t here last night, again, my name is Stephanie Grondin. And I will be moderating this panel. I’m a second year PhD student at the University of Toronto and yeah, very happy to be here. Great, so we might as well move into our first question of the night here, which is centered around observational astronomy and education. So the question here is saying, “Observational astronomy is a science that has been studied across civilizations and cultures around the world for thousands of years. However, in modern astronomy education, students are typically only introduced or familiarized with the work of astronomers of European descent and the subsequent methods they developed. So the question here is, how can astronomers and educators integrate diverse lesson plans and ways of understanding the night sky when teaching astronomy?” And perhaps to start us off, given what you were just saying there, Dr. Pete, if you’d offer any insights to this?

Shandin Pete 04:18

Sure, yeah. You know, the way that I was brought up in my country or my territory was, all knowledge is respected equally. So to discard anything that might be practical or useful in a sense, that is related to the aspirations of my community — I mean, everything is a valued equally, so the folks where I come from embrace the idea of modernism, but we also try to retain the values and traditions that have been held in our communities for many generations. So the idea of really examining structures such as that we have today, we call higher education, the university structure, the process of knowledge production can be a bit different than what happens in communities. So given that, and knowing that we live in a practical and modern world today, our youth, our young people need to get an education need to get skills to become employable in the vastness of earthly things. And so, the skills that they might gain, of course, rely on understanding and knowing modern tools. But I think one of the highlights of many young students going through academic institutions is when their own culture, or their own understandings from their community is represented in that educational structure. But that can be very difficult, because largely, the representation of Indigenous folks in the sciences is very, very, very low. So it puts the burden on non-Indigenous folks to try to navigate understanding what Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous astronomy, Indigenous science is, and try to translate that into something that the young Indigenous people understand. That’s very, very, very difficult to do.

Steffani Grondin 06:26

Yeah, thank you for that. And perhaps Dr. Neilson, given your background in incorporating Indigenous servings into education, do you have anything you’d like to follow up with?

Hilding Neilson 06:36

Yeah, I think to try to build on Dr. Pete’s response, is to think about, we work in astronomy, that’s a system that’s built historically, in Europe. I used to teach history of astronomy, too. And, you know, it was a direct path from Aristotle through Europe, to Einstein today. And in doing so, we would even skip things like Islamic astronomy, which had a great impact on things like the model our solar system, and the observations that helped prove the Copernican model or Kepler’s laws. We ignore, we don’t really talk about various Asian astronomies, or astronomies from around the world . It’s not just Indigenous astronomies that are Indigenous to North America. And that’s a loss for all of us. Because when we do so, we are removing ourselves from our place on land, from our communities, from understanding each other. And so one of the things that I find very important is to bring Indigenous North American astronomy into the classroom as much as I can, because being in Toronto or being anywhere else in this country, we have a duty to know where we are, and whose land and that’s part of that. But it’s also beneficial, because our elders tell us about two-eyed seeing. This is the idea that if we have Western science as one one lens, and Indigenous knowledge as the other lens. Bringing them together means we can do more than having them apart. And so I think also being more inclusive [with] these knowledge is crucial to make us better scientists, and better researchers. And that can be hard. I mean, there are so few Indigenous people in STEM, and in astronomy and physics, that there are so few voices that can actually deliver or bring that knowledge with them into the classroom. And so we need to reach out to our communities and support the elders and the knowledge keepers, however can share those knowledge as they see fit, and to help us and to support the communities across this country, in sharing these knowledges.

Steffani Grondin 08:44

Yeah, thank you to both of you. And I actually see there’s a question here in the chat that’s very closely related to what both of you were talking about reading, “What are some values of Indigenous or not even just indigenous, but other sources of astronomy that we are really missing out with by only study in Western science?” I guess a couple specific examples. Either Dr. Pete or Dr. Neilson, or perhaps Dr. McClaren, or Dempsey would like to chime in, too.

Jessica Dempsey 09:12

I would just give one example of a way in which Hawaiian cosmology is now being revived and regenerated and intertwined with Western astronomy on Mauna Kea, which is the Hawaiian offering of the A Hua He Inoa program. A Hua He Inoa means to call forth a name. Naming in Hawaiian culture is an incredibly important and very weighty thing to do. And it’s done with great respect. And this was an offering from a group of kupuna from Hawaii, to name objects that have been discovered and published from Mauna Kea telescopes. And this program then will include immersion school students, from the Native Hawaiian schools and their teachers to come in and in Hawaiian, learn about the nature of the objects that have been discovered. And then it will be those groups of students who name them and name them in Hawaiian, those are the names of them given to the IAU to be the official names of these objects. And if you are astronomers out there, I think you all know that astronomers shouldn’t be allowed to name things, we do a terrible job of it. The second part is, it is a way then for the scientists to interact with the Hawaiian cosmology and the Hawaiian language, which is, you know, at the root of reviving and reinvigorating in the Hawaiian people and is in this revitalization movement now, so important. And the example I was able to be involved with was the M-87 image of a black hole from the Event Horizon Telescope. And we actually had a very respected namer, Dr. Larry Kimura, offered the name Powehi, which means embellished fathomless creation. And it actually comes from The Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. And in doing so, in this particular name, it described what we took six research papers to describe. And it was amazing to do this, and it was really resonant in Hawaii, and especially for the students who worked on it. And I think this is something which we were starting to do and lean on more often. Because it is such a powerful way to start to bridge some of these gaps and to bring that native Hawaiian cosmology into the Western cosmology world.

Steffani Grondin 11:53

Yeah, very interesting perspectives. Thank you, everyone. Are there any final thoughts on this? Would anyone else like to add anything?

Hilding Neilson 12:01

I think there are some general aspects that can be discussed, for there’s no one Indigenous methodology to science or learning. But many scholars like Greg Cajete and others, kind of explored how Indigenous knowledges kind of operate a methodology [for] people to learn. And there’s different senses, like in Western science, we tend to be have to rely on objectivity, like we’re separated from our experiment. Whereas for the main Indigenous knowledges, we talk about how we’re in relation with our observations. So they’re two different things operating in that situation. That can help us learn about things like the Drake Equation, because we have to think about things, how we’re related within our observations, not just as objective learners or objective observers. In some respects, they can operate very complementary, for instance.

Bob McLaren 12:59

I’d like to re-emphasize a point that Shandin made earlier, based on my own experience teaching. I taught a lab course, an introductory astronomy lab course. And one of the exercises we did was to simulate voyaging from Tahiti, up to Hawaii, using the methods that we believe the Indigenous people used, as best we understand them. So we used the Stellarium computer program and showed the changing position of the stars and so on, as you move north from Tahiti up to Hawaii. At the time,I thought of this as describing indigenous Hawaiian astronomy I now realize that what itreally does is it shows a Western appreciation for astronomy, it doesn’t have anything of the cultural aspect of it that Shandin was referring to. And I think though, to incorporate that you need someone who ideally is a member of the Indigenous community doing the instruction. And that, of course, gets into the whole area of diversity, which is an important end in itself. So that’s actually the best way to address that aspect of it. But second-best, as Shandin suggested, would be to try to have instructors at least a bit knowledgeable about how to express the cultural aspect in addition to the purely technical.

Steffani Grondin 15:15

Thank you for that. For those great perspectives, everyone. We’ll probably move on to the second question just for the sake of time, so we have lots of time for the audience to discuss as well. But the second question here is now more centred on telescope construction and science projects, and the location sites that you choose when you go about designing these projects. So the question here is saying, If constructed, the Thirty Meter Telescope would be among the largest visible light telescopes in the northern hemisphere. This type of observatory would allow for better observations of deep space objects from the surface of Earth. These sensitive instruments require clear skies, high altitudes and dry air for the best observations. So often mountains are the optimal location for these facilities. However, many mountains have also been and continue to be places of cultural significance by different people around the world for many, many millennia. And the planned development of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea is definitely no exception to this, with the site facing backlash from the local indigenous communities, due to the telescope’s planned construction on sacred land. So the question here is, in light of these legitimate concerns, how do astronomers go about planning observational projects in a way that both maximizes the science usage of the instruments and maintains respect for the land, the local communities and the culture and history of the locations? So perhaps to start us off this time, Dr. McClaren, I know that you have a history of the Hawaiian, many of the Hawaiian observatories, if you could offer maybe your perspective on the history there.

Bob McLaren 17:14

I’m going to give a very short answer first, and then let others weigh in on the question. As you may know, the beginning stage of looking for a location is called a site survey. And currently or, you know, traditionally, site surveys have focused almost entirely on the physical attributes of the site, right? And you decide on your priorities, or your first choice, and then you deal with the other, you address the other local issues? I think that in short form, the way to address that, is that at the same time you’re doing the physical part of the site survey, [you] should be doing the exploration of the community situation, learning as much as you can about the population, if it’s an Indigenous community, what their views are making contacts, and having dialogue with them, from the very, very beginning. I think that’s partly how we got into trouble in Hawaii and other places is that this really, really important interaction with the non-technical aspects of it didn’t get started until, well, sometimes never got started. But in any event, got started way too late.

Steffani Grondin 18:58

Right. And Dr. Dempsey, perhaps with your experience with observatories around the world, could you offer any insights into this question as well?

Jessica Dempsey 19:08

Sure, I mean, I think, you know, Bob is experienced with the Hawaii situation. I was very intensely involved, of course, in the last several years in Hawaii as a spokesperson for the observatories during the protests. And so I’m very keenly aware that this is something that we can’t undo what has been done. And in Hawaii, we have a lot of rifts to heal. And we have a lot of lessons to learn. And as we go forward with future observatories [like the] Event Horizon Telescope, now we’re looking for new sites, and all of the sites you naturally want to go to are on mountains. Mountains are all natural places where your local communities also know that these are important and special in a whole host of different cultural and spiritual ways. And so I’m now focused as much as I am on Hawaii and rebuilding and regenerating our communities and addressing the imbalances and the inequities, which are the source of a lot of these rifts, how do we not do this again? Right? How do we build a telescope, somewhere where it is asked for where the community is not just involved or informed, but deeply intertwined? With how we go forward with a project? Do we do this with Indigenous methodologies? Do we make sure that this community is fully in not just not just in agreement, but understanding what this context is, and making sure that the returns to the community beyond anything we’ve done before in terms of, we can’t just throw a little bit of outreach out there to the students and tick that box and say, well, we’ve done our part, it’s not enough anymore. And so that’s sort of where I’m focused on, is how do we do that? Because I don’t think we’ve tried that probably in astronomy yet. You know, I’m searching for examples. And I’m really interested in talking to Pete here about this, of where are we seeing successful Indigenous methodology projects in other aspects? Because, you know, we need to find these, and we need to adapt them in astronomy, if we want to build even a single future telescope anywhere.

Steffani Grondin 21:24

And even perhaps outside of astronomy, like I know, Dr. Pete, you do a lot of geology and hydrogeology, perhaps this isn’t just an issue with constructing telescopes, but other science experiments as well. Are there any key differences there? Is it mostly the same or similar solutions to this problem?

Shandin Pete 21:43

Yeah, this is, this is kind of a tricky subject, because there’s, there’s some variance in the response related to relationship with land in Indigenous communities. For for the most part, in some traditional Indigenous folks understand that, you know, land ownership is not something that is possible, in a traditional sense that we can own the land in a way, you know, so if you fast forward, back, you know, 1000 years, there was always a some sort of relationship or process where you where you shared land. And if you had overlapping resources that you needed, there was some sort of protocol to either it was war, or it was not war, in a sense, for that resource, but you never did put up a wall, there was never walls built or fences built, or, you know, something that demarked an area as as, like, this is my land. So in the in the recent movement, the land back movement, where Indigenous activism is asking for the return of land to people, it’s kind of an odd concept to some of the older folks in my community that say, we don’t really, we can’t own land in that in that same manner, as is prescribed in some legal traditions. But our sovereignty is founded in the odd legal tradition through treaties and other agreements made between other governments. So we have to kind of fight for our sovereignty in an odd legal system that is not of our own, which we’re oftentimes maybe not prepared for or don’t understand as well, or there’s just this paradigm mismatch when it comes to that legal tradition. If I go back to my advisors and my advisors’ advisors, there’s always this idea and notion of sharing resources, because in the end, humans want to get along, get along with other humans, because we don’t want to die and kill each other off. That’s the common thread among everything. So it was better to share when we could, and if we couldn’t, well, then there had to be some sort of disagreement. And sometimes those are handled in outright war, sometimes they are handled in other ways. So that’s the tricky business of being Indigenous and talking about land, land ownership, land stewardship, anything in that area.

Steffani Grondin 24:20

Yeah, that’s really that’s really interesting, Dr. Pete, and perhaps even build off that someone in the chat here is saying, you know, how do we decide on who owns the land? And what are the rights of the land? So potentially, Dr. Neilson, could you comment on this question here?

Hilding Neilson 24:34

I think that is a great question. And, and I agree for most Indigenous nations, it’s not about ownership of the land. It’s about rights, it’s about sovereignty in relationship with the land. We talked about mountains being sacred. We’re not talking about religious icons, we’re talking about a natural place with its own spirit, its own right, its own ecosystems. And when we’re talking about sovereignty and land rights, whether it’s Hawaii or Wet’suwet’en, or Standing Rock, it’s not necessarily that ownership is protecting the land. And when we talk about having these telescopes, Bob would know this better than I will. But when we want to build a telescope at Mauna Kea, there’s an environmental review that goes through some governmental agency, and that asks of the impact, but that doesn’t necessarily use Indigenous methods. That doesn’t ask, well, the insects or the plants that are equals for many Indigenous cultures, what their rights are. And I think if I bring it back to the original question of that, I am not really worried about how we apply Indigenous methods, because every nation or every community has its own methodology, and they’ll tell us what to do. I think it’s: where do we start as partners? Where do we start with acknowledging our history of colonization? One of the issues with the Thirty Meter Telescope is not the Thirty Meter Telescope, it’s almost a century of history of astronomy on Mauna Kea that has not done a very good job. And, you know, that’s part of that issue as well. And finally, I think, really, it’s not about sacred, it’s not about supporting, it’s simply about consent. What is consent? Do Indigenous nations have a right to consent to share? That’s a part of the land rights and part of the responsibilities of the Indigenous nations with respect to the land. To protect land involves whether or not we give consent. And so in that respect, we should just assume that if we don’t have consent, we should remove ourselves from the discussion, we should not put a telescope on the mountain because Indigenous rights, I’m sorry, trump are desires to have a really big telescope. And I really would like to have a Thirty Meter Telescope because it’s awesome. But not against the wishes of many Hawaiians. Not all, but many. So we should be, I think this lesson focuses on how we get to tell us more about how we partner with communities to support things like the consent, to support things like language, to support discussions of their indigenous cosmologies, or indigenous research leadership. And we do see there are examples in the greater science. In biology and genomics, there’s the SING program, which is operated around the world by Indigenous scientists, that trains more Indigenous scientists, and is one of the most successful programs in Canada, US. And I think maybe Australia, I’m not an expert on it. But we have a lot we can do here. But I think we need to step back and stop worrying about how we please people, or how we convince people for our telescopes, and just listen to what they want, and what they’re telling us using their methodologies and, and just accept whether or not we have consent. And if we don’t have consent, we should just, we should not build the telescope on that land, any more than if we fail on environmental review, or the state says no.

Steffani Grondin 28:03

Thanks, Dr. Neilson. And I guess a lot of this, too, is some astronomers, not all, but some really want these telescopes to go forward, perhaps regardless of the considerations and a question someone’s asking here, too, is directed to either Dr. Dempsey or Dr. McClaren. They’re saying, you know, what are some of the difficulties from the astronomer side with all of these protests in Hawaii, and I guess extending to other possible construction sites, if either of you could comment on that.

Jessica Dempsey 28:32

Bob was in the thick of this for many more years than I was, but personally, because I ended up essentially being a counselor, for a lot of astronomers who had an existential crisis, and they had lived on the Big Island for many years, you know, and suddenly, they were — you don’t go into astronomy, thinking you’re going to be a bad guy. You don’t really think of the ethical implications of astronomy very often, you’re certainly not taught it in undergrad. You don’t think it’s gonna be, you know, animal testing. And yet, so here’s this ethical conundrum. And what it really highlighted, for a lot of people, was their privilege. And we talked about that a lot as well, you’re guaranteed, you’ve gotten to this age in your life, without having to think about these issues. […] And so there was a lot of real, you know, real soul searching happening from a lot of people, which was really important. And especially for people that lived there decades, and not have to address these issues, which I you know, now think of as an extraordinary thing, that we haven’t done this. And these were issues that were in front of our face on our island in a tiny community. So these were conversations that needed to happen, and that were painful, and really important. And particularly I would say for this current generation of astronomers and not just astronomers, engineers, technicians, the people who live and work in the observatories. They recognize we can’t go on how we did, and we shouldn’t, right, we need to do a paradigm shift in how we work and interact and involve and communicate with our community. So it was painful, but it was important.

Bob McLaren 30:29

Astronomy on Mauna Kea is about a little over 50 years old. And I think it’s important in this context, to understand a little bit about the history of the interaction with the local community, the kind of discussions we’re having now about the cultural importance, and the consent aspect. That aspect is a fairly recent development, at least as far as it was articulated, you know, widely. In fact, it postdates the installation of all the telescopes that are there now. And to give you some examples of what I mean, when telescopes of the 1980s and the 1990s were started, at the groundbreakings, and the dedications, we had what we considered at least, prominent members of the local Native Hawaiian community participating in the ceremonies. We had faculty members from the University of Hawaii at HiloHawaiian Studies Program doing oli’s (chants) and this kind of thing. And so at least from our perspective, granted, not a particularly well informed one, when looking back, but it looked like there was some form of consent. Right? You can say, well, you should have known better, or you weren’t asking the right questions. And that’s fair, that’s fair. But I think there are some extenuating circumstances that help understand a little bit how we got to where we are now. You may say none of that matters. But at least it explained a little bit about the surprise. And you can say, well, now is now and then is then, yeah, but back then it’s not as if the current facilities were built over the type and, and severity of objection that we’re hearing now. And for exactly why that is, that’s a really — , people have written PhD theses, trying to explain that. But certainly, from the perspective that we had back when I came to the University of Hawaii, the issues that we were concerned with were things like the wekiu bug, or the preservation of the shrines, most of the cultural, historical stuff was emphasis on the physical things, the shrines, not at all on the spiritual and the cultural connections. That came, that didn’t really come to the surface until around the year 2000 or so, after everything that’s there now was there. And you can say, it sounds like an excuse, or you should have known better or somebody should have known better, or somebody should have grabbed you by the ear and shaken your head. And, and maybe if you look back, maybe some people did, and I’ve asked friends in the native Hawaiian community, why is this? You know, and you’ll get a variety of responses. That, while they were saying these things, we didn’t hear them, or we weren’t talking to the right people, or that they were preoccupied with other concerns. I’m not saying that this really helps a lot with the current situation, other than extending understanding a little bit better, how we got to where we are, and that may help a little bit in figuring out how we deal with going forward.

Steffani Grondin 34:58

Thank you Dr. McClaren for that history, that was very interesting to hear about that. And perhaps I see Dr. Pete, you’re typing an answer here, but perhaps some for this question in the chat, it actually goes right off of Dr. McLaren’s point here, with this history, how do we learn from this? And how do we start conversations for consent, or input from local communities? Not maybe just in astronomy, but across all fields of science? Especially with recent protests, do you think it’ll be more difficult to hold these types of conversations in the future? Or what can we do to improve?

Shandin Pete 35:32

Yeah, that’s a really difficult one, it calls for the astronomer or the researcher, really, to be in tune with the community changes in the community’s needs. And that’s a whole other skill set that we’re not, we may not come in with as a trained geologist or scientist or hydrologist and coming from a different community, we might not understand the difference in generational needs. I think, importantly, the things that I’ve seen in the generations that are coming behind me, is this, this real attachment to activism and standing up for rights that maybe my generation wouldn’t hold so strongly to for whatever reason. And I think understanding that history and that generational experience with that history, I think is important. I know, in the area, I come from the generations to two or three generations before me there was a strong, strong push to, to sell land and to sell resources to make money for economic reasons. And that was the primary motivation, it wasn’t necessarily to retain resources to augment some lost cultural protocols or lost cultural ceremonies or anything related to culture. But now the youth are very strong and passionate about reviving those and returning those into the mainstream operation in the community. So it goes in line with saying, okay, well, we’ve got, in this example, this telescope, do we really need it? Does it help us in any way? And if it doesn’t, if it’s not practical, then yeah, that’s, we want it out of here, because it’s not doing anything for us. So I think the challenge for researchers, young researchers, old researchers in any field is really to get to know the pulse of the community. Make your discipline practical to the folks that it really matters to and in this case, where your instruments are located, not just jobs, not just outreach, but really find ways to make it seem like an exciting endeavor. And, you know, making, marriaging Indigenous knowledge with them with academic knowledge, I think is a great way to go. But that’s really, really the challenge. It’s really a challenge, because a lot of knowledge has been lost in Indigenous communities. What if this can be a catapult to refiguring out those, or revealing those? I think that’s important. And that’s what really excites me about astronomy right now, is just revealing some things that are in these oral traditions that modern astronomy can help us reveal.

Steffani Grondin 38:18

Totally, and Dr. Neilson, just wondering if you’d like to follow up on any of these points that have been made here recently?

Hilding Neilson 38:24

Yeah, I think there’s a lot. There’s questions about what is consent and how we just had that conversation, I think it’s a very challenging one. You know, we don’t get to decide what consent is. A community has to say that however they choose whether it is through their tradition through traditional elders to have blind vote through whatever. Our goal, I think, from the astronomy side — what we do, in terms of consent, is support communities. And to prevent things like violence against communities. One of the things that I think really changed my place in academia was the protests in 2019. When I saw that the kupuna of the elders were being arrested. Friends of mine, who are Hawaiin, were on that mountain and were threatened with sound cannons, with the National Guard. And as one of the kupuna put it, they’re threatened with the National Guard, because there are too many natives in one spot. And so we have to be very clear. We cannot achieve consent through violence, we cannot achieve consent through saying, this is how you give us consent. We can only choose consent through the wishes of the community. And I don’t have, there’s no good answer what that means. So having that conversation with communities can be very difficult. I think in Hawaii, it may not be possible anymore. I’m not sure, if I’m honest. There’s just a diversity of opinion across the board, and there’s a long history that we have to come to terms with. As Bob mentioned, astronomers didn’t really know these things, or know these things are happening. And I don’t think anyone really did. Because astronomers are people, and society 20 years ago, 30 years ago, was very colonizing everywhere. And it still is today. You know, today we have some of the tools with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we have tools of consent [that] First Nations in Canada have been developing. And as a field, I think we need to embrace these as tools for going forward and to listen to these communities. And that includes listening to Indigenous knowledges and bringing them forward at every age. Mi’kmaq children can be taught anywhere from when they’re walking to growing up, because you know, it’s all land based knowledge, it’s understanding the water, the medicine, the land, and having the ability to explore that. So I think bringing that Indigenous knowledge and education should happen at every level, from K to wherever your last degree is. And we can do that. But I think if we ever want to have a system with consent, we need to start from scratch and try to work on our reconciliation with communities we have harmed, whether it is in Hawaii, or in southern United States, or in Chile, or in Canada, because we build telescopes in Canada, and historically, and we may want to build telescopes in northern Canada, or elsewhere in the future. And so we need to start from the beginning to have these conversations of consent and partnership. I don’t think if, if we want to be equitable partners, we don’t go and say, we’ll give you so much dollars to rent some of the land here. How about we go and say, how do we share? How do we learn from each other? How do we share these resources? How do we both benefit from this great access to the sky with telescopes in ways that we never have before? And if astronomy is supposedly for everyone, then Indigenous peoples in these communities will have their own desires and wants for these telescopes. And if not, it’s our job to respect that.

Steffani Grondin 42:22

Thanks, Dr. Neilson, and, Dr. Dempsey, I’m also interested in your take on this given your experience working with youth and trying to get them involved in science. How do you incorporate, right from the start, you know, different ways of learning, whether it be in Indigenous learning, or just different multicultural learning in your teachings?

Jessica Dempsey 42:43

Yeah, I mean, I think this is the thing, which is that we’ve got such a Western way of doing curricula. And you can’t just translate this curricula into an Indigenous language and say, yeah, here, we’ve made it an Indigenous educational system, right. And when you have to deconstruct the whole thing, and start from scratch, with the relevant context, and the relevant Indigenous knowledge, which means, of course, having, and Pete has as a problem being, there’s only, if you put all the burden on the few Indigenous people who already astronomers, that’s what you’re going to spend your entire time doing. So generating another pool of young, Indigenous physicists, astronomers, geologists is, you know, of course, the first thing to do, and then you fold them into creating a curriculum, which is far more adapted and relevant. We’re doing this now with young girls and Native Hawaiian girls, and working with some of them to mentor them with the older, Native Hawaiian girls who are already in the programs in university. And we’re doing this as we go, figuring out how do you create a curriculum which is relevant to these girls and their experience, rather than trying to shoehorn them into a Western culture, because that’s how you make them feel seen. That’s how they know this is something that within the context is worth, you know, is worth their time. And we are committed to, and it’s a lot of work and, and I would say to Pete, you know, we haven’t figured it out by any means. But we have to start somewhere. And you know, these girls are incredible. And seeing them, they’re developing curriculum, right, they’re telling us what’s relevant, and then they’re folding it back in and adapting it for this next generation. And that the idea is to not let them you can’t drop one extra Indigenous student into the University of Hawaii and expect them to sink or swim. Because that’s how we lose them. You know, it has to start with inclusivity. And it has to start with us recognizing that our curriculums are culturally bereft of the kind of support of a community like we see on the Hawaiian islands, for example. So these are things we’re just starting on. And we can’t let this fall on the shoulders just of the very few Indigenous people who are already within our structures, right? We have to learn this. So I mean, I learned this on a daily basis. And, and I now I can very badly speak to native Indigenous languages. But that’s where you start, right? You have to start with saying, why doesn’t every astronomer or technician who comes to work on Mauna Kea observatory, why is it not mandatory that you learn Hawaiian? So we’re starting at that sort of expectation level. And so now, my, you know, my observatory, we start with six months for every incoming person, and that’s mandatory. And the rest of it, then is optional. And everyone is choosing to continue after that six months. So there’s just little things we’re starting to do to shift the burden of how we adapt these things. So that just a couple of examples, but no, we need to find more.

Steffani Grondin 46:01

Thanks, Dr. Dempsey. And I guess we have five minutes left. But Dr. Pete, a question, specifically, perhaps for you is, there are others, we’ve heard a lot about the history of observational astronomy. But there are a lot of young astronomers, early career astronomers that are starting out and to want to make science, astronomy, a more equitable, inclusive environment. And as an astronomer, who is a settler, as a non Indigenous person, you know, how can we, what are some actions or initiatives that we can take incorporating into our careers and our learnings to do this to make a better future for everyone and all peoples involved?

Shandin Pete 46:46

That’s a tough one. It’s a really tough question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer to that. But what I do know is, you know, to make something to make something interesting, you really have to tap into what, what the current generation thinks is, is worth their time. And even for me, as a, you know, a person, you know, pushing on pushing almost 50, I have a hard time tapping into the desires of the young Indigenous generation, because I’m a couple generations removed. I could highlight any part of a cultural pursuit that I think would be important to bring back into the community. But if they’re just not into it, that’s going to be a challenge, and I think all educators face that same challenge. So I don’t think it’s so vastly different to what we’re talking about than what any educator tries to do. I think one of the bigger problems is really that we’re trying to teach these really active and hands-on types of disciplines inside the four walls of a classroom. And that’s a really odd, odd way to learn something. And, you know, it’s been working for a while, but I think we’re starting to recognize that we need to take maybe a more applied approach. And I don’t know if that’s the right answer. But I know, in a more actively engaged classroom, it requires challenging the status quo of instruction at institutions. And I think most faculty, at least where I work, embrace that, and you don’t see a whole lot of just straight lecturing, there’s a lot of hands-on activity, a lot of getting outside of the classroom when they can. And I think that same approach also happens in communities, you see a big failure in something like language revitalization. So traditional language revitalization generally has been occurring in a classroom and has largely been a failure for the most part in a lot of communities. But when they start taking that language instruction and putting it back into format, that seems to work where it’s an activity on the land, and that you seem to have a little more results, that’s I don’t have evidence to prove that. But just to see some of these activities, you see it, you see it working, and people really embracing because you’re marriaging that idea of language learning, with an activity that’s also founded in the culture. And that’s where the language lives, that’s where it derives. So finding where astronomy lives and thrives among the native paradigms is super important. And I haven’t dove into it deep enough yet. But from my own traditions, I know that the big questions that I have that I want answered, and I’m hoping to inspire some younger folks in this by them finding their own big questions.

Steffani Grondin 49:42

Thank you, Dr. Pete. Yeah. Thank you so much. Potentially, I’ll pose the same question, perhaps, rounding this off with Dr. McClaren, then Dr. Neilson, then Dr. Dempsey. You know, just perhaps general resources that you’d like to share thoughts on how we can best Go forward. It’s an astronomical community, given all three of you are astronomers? Perhaps Dr. McClaren, if you’d like to give some short thoughts on that.

Bob McLaren 50:10

Well, just a couple random thoughts. One, Dr. Pete was talking about ways of resolving differences and conflicts, and war is probably the worst, I would say. But I know the second worst, and that’s litigation. People don’t get killed, at least not physically. But it absolutely removes any possibility of constructive dialogue, because it’s by design an adversarial process. I mean, you get a result, like you get in a war. But it’s not necessarily a very satisfying result. And part of the reason, I meant to mention it earlier, that we have not made the kind of progress that we should have in Hawaii, is that virtually the entire period from 2000, even up ’til now has been consumed with one type of court litigation or legalistic procedure and one after another. And that is definitely not productive for the kind of progress that you’d like to see. So that’s one thought that I’d like to leave people with, at least, try to stay out of court, like says in the Bible, right. The other thing is completely separate, talking about potential possibility of further astronomy development on Mauna Kea, that some kind of consent that you might envisage, it might be possible. I think it’s a big mistake to think of the TMT in isolation, as separate from everything else, I think it need to focus first on on whether, and what version if at all, you’re in favour of astronomy, looking at both the pros and the cons in general, something about the overall scope, and then think about what particular components fit into that sort of a top-down approach to your thinking of what’s the best thing to do, and not a bottom-up approach, which focuses on particular facilities at the beginning.

Steffani Grondin 52:52

Thanks Dr. McClaren, we might be a few minutes over time here. But if that’s okay, with all the panelists, I’d love to just get kind of a closing remark or thoughts by Dr. Neilson and Dr. Dempsey before we leave today.

Hilding Neilson 53:05

Thank you, I think I hesitate to do this, but I feel I should push back again to Bob’s point a little bit. In Canada and parts of the US, Indigenous nations undergo litigation a lot against the state. And that’s largely because their voice is ignored, the power imbalance between the state and the people is too much. And litigation in the court cases are sometimes the only way to get heard, or to establish rights, which has happened across Canada. In Nova Scotia with fishing, Wet’suwet’en […], [and] Standing Rock sometimes. And I think we need to realize that historically, our dialogues have not been equal partners. And we need to find ways to create that equal partnership to have trust, to have a global dialogue and to move forward. And I think in terms of resources for students in Canadian astronomy, the Canadian Astronomical Society, which is our professional society, has underwent its big 10 year plan of what we want to do in the next 10 years. And a huge part of that is coming up with ways to have consent or how we would broach consent in the future and ongoing, how we will work with Indigenous engagement, how we’ll work in communities across Canada, in the North in rural, in reserve, to create space for Indigenous peoples in our field. Because right now, in Canada and Canadian astronomy, there’s like two Indigenous astronomers, including myself. Add physics, you might get five or six. And we’re not, that’s a huge part of the problem right now is, why would any Indigenous person want to go into physics and astronomy in Canada when you don’t see we don’t see ourselves reflected in our teaching in the classroom, we don’t see ourselves in the knowledge, and we don’t see our communities or elders. And I think that is a huge thing we need to not overcome, but learn to change. Because we’ll only ever have an equitable society in Canada when Indigenous people are everywhere. And Indigenous knowledge is everywhere. And we work to support the communities in this country, which is the goal of reconciliation in the long term. And so things are happening, albeit glacially slow. But hopefully, maybe next year, we’ll have better news. Thank you.

Steffani Grondin 55:41

Thanks, Dr. Neilson. And Dr. Dempsey, the floor is yours for some final thoughts.

Jessica Dempsey 55:46

Thank you. Young astronomers, particularly out there when I asked them, they’re sort of tortured about this. That’s okay. You know, you’re it’s okay to be feeling conflicted about this. In fact, that’s really important. Don’t be afraid of having difficult conversations. We’re not used to them anymore. We’re not used to going into them with an open mind and not defensively. And astronomy is not an ivory tower science anymore. That’s fantastic. That’s going to be messy, it’s going to be human. And it’s going to involve commitments to our community that didn’t exist before. That’s brilliant. Right? So I always ask people, don’t walk away from those conversations. Don’t get defensive, be willing to get in the mix. What are you prepared to do? And that’s the question I ask everyone, going forward, which is to be willing to be in the mix, to be willing to maybe cross a picket line or two, right? Find out where you stand, and what you believe in. And when you build those relationships, that’s when we’re going to make the magic. That’s how we’re going to problem solve this together and find a new paradigm. But it can’t be like the old one, it’s not going to be. And there are enough people out there saying we’re not going to let it happen anymore. But let’s not just stop creating. And let’s not just stop and walk away either. Because that’s the classic colonialist knee jerk reaction. Let’s figure out how to do this together. And yet, it’s going to be tricky and messy, and probably kind of awesome. So for me, I have a lot of hope. But it also means a lot of work. And that’s actually something I’m looking forward to.

Steffani Grondin 57:28

Thanks, Dr. Dempsey. I think that’s a perfect way to end the talk. Oh, briefly, I saw Dr. Pete, you posted a resource in here into the chat. Do you really quickly want to plug this resource before we head out today?

Shandin Pete 57:40

Oddly, I’d just seen it come across my LinkedIn newsfeed. It’s a new book coming out. I know nothing about it. I just saw that it was kind of neat. I think my phone is spying on me.

Hilding Neilson 57:52

I’ve already pre ordered myself, and it is about the first astronomers in Australia. But if you want something that’s a little more Canadian, or relative to Canada, I would look up the Cree astronomer Wilfred Buck, who tells the greatest stories of Cree astronomy and his ways he tells the stories are essentially medicine, first of all.

Steffani Grondin 58:17

Thanks. I think the ASX would love to put these resources on their website, too. So if you’re in the audience or watching this later on on YouTube, you can definitely check those out after. But thank you so much. Sorry, we’re a bit over time here. But again, thank you to Dr. Pete, Dr. Neilson, Dr. McClaren, and Dr. Dempsey for a really informative and useful discussion, unnecessary discussion. And hopefully, by having these discussions and continuing talks like these, we can make astronomy a more equitable place for everyone in the future. So thank you again, to all of our panelists. We really appreciate you being here today and giving us your expertise.

About: The panel discussion covered the history, ethics, and impact of observational astronomy on Indigenous communities, with discussion on pertinent issues surrounding the use of land, responsibilities of astronomers, and share perspectives about the impact of observational astronomy to local communities and the environment. The event was part of the Stellar Spectacles symposium, the flagship annual event of the ASX at the University of Toronto.

Speaker biographies:

  • Professor Hilding Neilson is a non-tenure stream assistant professor in the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is an interdisciplinary scientist and educator working to blend Indigenous knowledges into astronomy curriculum with the goal of Indigenizing astronomy in Canada. His research also focuses on probing the physics of stars from those like our Sun to the biggest, most massive stars and how we use these stars as laboratories to better understand our Universe from cosmology to extrasolar planets.
  • Professor Shandin Pete was raised in Nłq̓alqʷ (“Place of the thick trees”, Arlee, Montana). His mother is from the Bitterroot Band of Salish in Montana and his father is Diné from Beshbihtoh Valley in Arizona. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Teaching at the University of British Columbia in the Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Department. His disciplinary focus is on hydrogeology and science education with interest in Indigenous research methodologies, geoscientific ethnography, Indigenous astronomy, social-political tribal structures, culturally congruent instructional strategies, and Indigenous science philosophies. Most of his work in recent years has focused on community engagement to understanding shifts in an Indigenous paradigm of research for science knowledge production. This work has included investigations into traditional oral histories and customs that inform understanding of landscape phenomenon.
  • Professor Robert (Bob) McLaren grew up in the small town of Watford, Ontario, obtaining a Ph.D in Physics from the University of Toronto in 1973. While on a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, he reoriented his research interests from condensed matter physics to infrared astronomy. In 1975, he returned to Toronto to take a faculty position in the Department of Astronomy, which position he held until relocating to Hawaii in 1982. From 1982 to 1990, he worked at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, serving as its Executive Director during the final three years. In 1990, Dr. McLaren joined the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii as a faculty member and an Associate Director. His main area of responsibility was the implementation of the University’s plan for astronomy development on Maunakea. This included the agreements, permitting and other local arrangements for Keck 2, Subaru, Gemini and the Submillimeter Array. After the commissioning of these facilities, he devoted his efforts to teaching, administrative duties, and the site testing and planning for the Thirty Meter Telescope. He served as the Institute’s Interim Director from 1997 to 2000 and from 2018 through 2020. He retired from the University in February 2021.
  • Dr. Jessica Dempsey is the Director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. Prior to that she spent over a decade managing, operating and building instruments for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. She is a proud member of the Breakthrough Prize winning Event Horizon Telescope team. Born and raised in Australia, Jessica was the first Australian female scientist to work at the geographic South Pole, where she spent five summers building site-testing instrumentation, before wintering at the South Pole station in 2005 for the ACBAR CMB experiment. Jessica has a passionate commitment to creating greater diversity and gender equity at all levels of astronomy and to enhancing opportunities for girls to become future leaders in science and technology careers.
  • Steffani Grondin is a second year PhD student in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, specializing in binary systems and escaped stars. She received a Combined Honours Physics and Astronomy degree from the University of British Columbia, where she researched pulsars and white dwarfs. Steffani is also passionate about science communication and has been featured in CBC News and the Discovery Channel. When she isn’t debugging her code, you can find her hiking, racing triathlons or shooting film on her 85-year old camera.

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