Sky Full of Diamonds

“We have very important stories that need to be told” Michael Kusugak, writer of award-winning books inspired by Inuit legends.

By |

The sky has always been hugely important to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, with celestial objects and stars used to navigate on hunting excursions and to understand seasons and the passing of time. Over many years, as lives have changed, Indigenous astronomy is heard about less and less. This World Astronomy Day, we celebrate these precious stories – preserving them forever as our diamonds in the sky. 

One such story begins twenty years ago, when Canadian astronomer JJ Kavelaars had an exciting dilemma. He had recently been part of a team of four that had discovered new moons orbiting Saturn and in recognition of this, Kavelaars had been invited to name four of them.

“We wanted to expand the cultural inclusivity of planetary science by naming the new moons in a different way and reflect our heritage as Canadian people,” Kavelaars explains.

Months passed with no inspiration. Then, while reading a book called Hide and Sneak to his children, Kavelaars had an idea. The mischievous bird-like creature in the book that his children loved so much was called Ijiraq, written about by an Inuit author who grew up in Repulse Bay, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), called Michael Kusugak. Through contacting Michael for permission to name the first moon after his story of Ijiraq, Kavelaars would uncover even more wonderful stories, passed down through generations of Indigenous Peoples that are now etched forever in the night sky.

“If you look at the names of celestial bodies they are all named after Greek and Roman mythology,” says Michael, who is now in his seventies. “Uranus has a lot of moons, some of which are named after characters from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope and as far as I know they are the only real people who have moons named after their characters and now there is me.”

Asked to help name three further stars, Michael did not hesitate. “Kiviuq is probably the most important character in the Inuit legends of my people,” he explains. In Michael’s re-telling of Kiviuq’s stories, the Inuit hero survives a vicious storm that drowns fishermen from his village and discovers a strange land of giants after being guided by a little white bird. “He is said to have travelled all across the north trying to find his way back home, having adventures all across Canada, Alaska, Greenland and I’m sure Siberia,” says Michael. “There are countless tales from different communities of the adventures he has as he travels their lands, becoming a shaman and trying to find his way home. The old people say that he was born so long ago that he was the very first person on earth and is still alive today, but his body is turning into stone. They say that some day when his heart turns completely to stone and stops, that will be the end of the universe.”

Kiviuq immediately took his place in the solar system, his name given to one of the newly discovered small red moons that orbits Saturn every 449 Earth days. His moon has a radius of around eight kilometres. Michael then helped to name two more of the five Inuit moons that have since been identified, called Paaliaq and Siarnaq.

“Siarnaq is named after an Inuit legend about a young woman called Sedna,” says Michael. “Escaping a marriage, she sank to the bottom of the sea and remains there still, and after all these years her hair keeps growing and it’s part of the waves. She is part of the creatures and the fishes of the sea.” Paaliaq is a character that Michael made up when working on his best-selling children’s book The Curse of the Shaman, in which fictional characters re-tell Inuit stories. Paaliaq is based on a family friend and is depicted in Michael’s stories as a fearless hunter.

In 2007, seven years after Michael’s Inuit moons were first discovered, another group of astronomers found a fifth previously unknown moon orbiting Saturn which they named Tarqeq, after a hunter who watches over human behaviour. In the mythology of the Indigenous people of northern Alaska, he is said to control the animals. Collectively, with Kiviuq, Siarnaq, Paaliaq and Ijiraq this group of moons is commonly known as the Inuit Satellite Group.

Stories such as Michael’s are a very important part of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Peoples who live and work in areas of natural wonder, where diamonds are discovered and mined.

It can include everything from landscapes, artifacts and archaeological sites to language, art, stories and music and customary practices like hunting and gathering. Respecting this is hugely important to the members of the Natural Diamond Council, some of whom have operations that are located within the traditional territories of the Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Canada.

“The fantastic outcome of this was the opportunity to personally connect with Inuit communities,” Kavelaars says. “When we named Siarnaq, I remember speaking with Michael and saying that of all the names, it was going to be hard to pronounce and he laughed and said, ‘Yes, the same way Roger is hard to say for Inuit!’. It’s important to create opportunities for everyone to see themselves in the scientific community in which we work.”

Allison Rippin Armstrong, an environmental specialist who assesses how mines will affect the ecosystem and whether they can bring the greatest possible benefit to the local economy and communities agrees. “It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to learn about culture, traditions and history directly from Indigenous Peoples. Collaborating on all aspects and phases of any project not only strengthens the work, but also helps to ensure that Indigenous Peoples rights and culture are respected and protected.”

Learn more about how these communities are central to us and learn about the new legends of the diamond world here.