Mi’kmaw Moons—a Two-Eyed Seeing Approach
By: Dave Chapman and Cathy LeBlanc
Who are Dave and Cathy?
Dave Chapman is a graduate of University of Ottawa (B.Sc., 1975) and University of British Columbia (M.Sc., 1977). He worked for 31 years as a Defence Scientist. He is a Life Member (since 1986) of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was the editor of the RASC Observer’s Handbook (2012–2016 editions). The RASC awarded him the Simon Newcomb Award in 1986, the Service Award in 2015, and the Fellowship Award in 2020. He has been an amateur astronomer for 60 years. As an undergraduate student in the early 1970s, Dave was honoured to meet Dr. Herzberg and to receive his teachings at a weekend educational retreat.
Cathy Jean LeBlanc is a graduate of St. Thomas University (B.A., 2002). She is a Mi’kmaw cultural interpreter (10 years with Parks Canada) and member of Acadia First Nation. Cathy currently works for the South Shore Regional Centre of Education as a Student Support Worker for Indigenous and African Nova Scotian youth.
In this space, we share our experience in applying the principle of “Two-Eyed Seeing” to the topic of Mi’kmaw Moons. For seven years, we have been teaching the traditional Mi’kmaw cycle of the Moons throughout the ecological year, in combination with a conventional astronomical description of lunar cycles in the familiar Gregorian calendar. We are not experts in Two-Eyed Seeing—we simply describe our journey and understanding that emerged from working together on the Mi’kmaw Moons Project. (In Nova Scotia, we add the Mi’kmaw word Etuaptmumk, pronounced Ed-do-up-dim-moomk, to create the initialism E/TES.)
Mi’kmaq, Mi’kmaw, and Mi’kma’ki. “Mi’kmaq” [meeg-um-awk] is a plural noun denoting the entire First Nation. “Mi’kmaw” [meeg-um-ow] is a singular noun denoting an individual or the language itself. “Mi’kmaw” is also used as an adjective. Mi’kma’ki [meeg-um-ow-gee] is the ancestral homeland of the Mi’kmaq, consisting of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, much of New Brunswick, the Gaspé peninsula of Québec, and parts of Maine.
Here is one video example of how to pronounce this word:
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous Peoples of North America used natural celestial and seasonal cycles to track the passage of time and to organize their activities: the rising and setting of the Sun governed the daily cycle; over a yearly cycle, the variation of the length of the day and the maximum elevation of the Sun determined the weather patterns and events in the natural world around them. In between the daily and yearly cycles, the Moon waxed and waned through its phases over a 29.5-day period, presenting most often 12 but sometimes 13 Full Moons in a year.
The names of the Moons were intimately connected with the natural phenomena (freezing of rivers, frogs croaking, fattening of animals, etc.). The Indigenous way of knowing was observational and relational: these cycles were seen and accepted as part of Life. The European way of knowing was based on western mathematics, astronomy, and physics, and the calendar the settlers brought with them (and still use today) was fundamentally based on these cycles, but had become partly disconnected with the natural cycles. Today, the year and the seasons are intact, but in place of the true lunar cycle, the civic or Gregorian calendar (endorsed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) employs 12 fixed months, varying in duration from 28 to 31 whole days, to fill out the year. Of course, the cycles of the Moon are eternal, but they unfold within the framework of the Gregorian calendar, used globally for political, social, economic, and religious scheduling.
The eventual Indigenous subjugation to European rule required use of the Gregorian calendar, attendance at church, and adoption of the seven-day week. These norms became the new order, and the traditional Indigenous ways, passed on by oral tradition, began a slow decline over hundreds of years, until the present day, when the teachings of the Moon times are all but forgotten. Happily, there are several educational initiatives—including our own—to reverse this trend (See SpiritAligned.org and IntegrativeScience.ca). Now, the traditional Mi’kmaw names for the Moon times have been mapped onto the 12 Gregorian months, as “translations” of those time intervals, and the 13th Moon has been abandoned in a game of calendrical musical chairs.
We hope that by sharing our story, we can inspire and guide other knowledge-keepers (both Indigenous and settler) who would like to apply E/TES to their own practice. E/TES is very much about building relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers in the learning space, wherever that maybe—the classroom, an online webinar, or a talking circle. There are resources that can help you learn, but ultimately one learns E/TES by ‘knowledge gardening,’ that is, by putting insights into practice.
What is the Mi’kmaw Moons Project?
The Mi’kmaw Moons Project is a voluntary undertaking involving two principal partners and several collaborators. A good, concise description of our work appeared in 2021 in SkyNews, the Canadian astronomy magazine.
In about seven years of working together, we have revitalized the use of the Mi’kmaw names of the Moons and how they are connected with the annual ecological cycle. We teach the Mi’kmaw language versions and how to pronounce them, plus we tell stories of our personal experiences around them. Above all, we show how individuals with quite different backgrounds can learn to see through the eyes of each other.
We have generated a wealth of content that can be freely accessed online in two places:
The Mi’kmaw Moons project, conducted in spare time with minimal resources, has been carried out by two principal self-organizing volunteers, one a retired settler scientist with amateur astronomy experience, the other an employed Mi’kmaw specialist in Indigenous studies, with experience in cultural outreach programming. The partnership has advanced our knowledge and understanding through the application of “Two-Eyed Seeing,” a method whereby traditional Indigenous knowledge and “western” science each guide the other towards a unified appreciation of the subject matter. The teachings and knowledge have already been shared through a variety of presentations and activities involving mixed groups of all ages, and the sharing continues into 2021.
Dave and Cathy are passionate about sharing their knowledge with the next generation and acknowledging the connection between science and culture, two values we believe that Nobel laureate Gerhard Herzberg advocated in his time.
What is Etuaptmumk/Two-Eyed Seeing (E/TES)?
E/TES is a guiding principle introduced by Elder Dr. Albert Marshall of Eskasoni First Nation in 2004. He teaches that E/TES is learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledge and ways of knowing, and then learning to use both eyes together for the benefit of all. There is a wealth of information on E/TES here.
Etuaptmumk/Two-Eyed Seeing, Storytelling, and Teaching Youth
In a sense, all teaching is the telling of stories, although that characteristic may not always be obvious. Traditionally, Indigenous knowledge-keepers pass their knowledge through telling stories in social settings: around the fire, talking circles, and so on (also through mentoring, song, and dance). The stories involve legendary characters and spirits in human, animal, or inanimate form. Embedded in those stories are life lessons and facts of nature, and this is how knowledge is passed to the next generation. We still tell those stories today, but, most importantly, we tell our own stories, too. The Mi’kmaw Moons Project includes the stories of our journey, including discoveries and experiences along the way. We also include the scientific story of the astronomical underpinnings of the natural cycles.
The Chief Moon—a Holly and Auntie Story
Introduction—The Mi’kmaw Moons Project has developed 12 “Holly and Auntie” stories which are contemporary conversations between an Aunt (in fact, Cathy) and her niece Holly (in fact, Cathy’s niece, named Holly). Some of the stories come from actual events, and some are imagined conversations between the two. Here is just one of the stories, the significance of which we will explain later.
Look for the Chief Moon between December 6 and January 5 (night of December 18/19 in 2021).
Just before the school holidays in December, Holly complained, “Auntie, it’s SO cold and SO dark this time of year. But did you see the full Moon last night? It was so high and bright!”
“Yes, Holly, when the moon is full, it always does the opposite of the sun. In the winter, the sun is low in the sky, the days are short, and the nights are long. But this full moon is the highest in the whole year and it spends more time in the sky than any other full moon. Sometimes we call this moon the Kjiku’s, the Great Moon, or Chief Moon.
“Ah, so this Chief Moon must be around the time of winter solstice on December 21?” asked Holly.
“Yes, exactly, the nights are very, very long, but the full moon rises high in the sky and lights the ground. Mi’kmaq used to hunt moose in winter by night. The deep snow slowed down the moose, and the Mi’kmaq would chase them on snowshoes with dogs. After the hunt, they would pull the moose back to their wigwams using toboggans.
The Mi’kmaq respect the moose and all living things. In traditional culture, they only took what they needed, and they used all parts of the moose, including the hide, the meat, the fat, and the bones. Nothing was wasted. Even the skin and fur from the legs were removed in one piece and made into moccasins. Nowadays, to be safe, no one hunts at night. And moose can only be hunted in special areas in Nova Scotia.
Did You Know?
- The words wigwam and toboggan are based on Mi’kmaw words wikuom and tepeqan.
- The word moccasin comes from the Mi’kmaw word mkisn.
The Mi’kmaw Moons
To understand the cycle of the Mi’kmaw Moons, let’s review what we know about the period of time we call the year and the origin of the seasons. A year lasts for 365.25 days, the time it takes the Earth to revolve 360º along its orbit around the Sun. Owing to the 23.5º inclination of the Earth’s axis of spin, the illumination of the Earth by the Sun has the same cycle, and leads to warm weather in summer, cold weather in winter, and in-between temperatures in spring and fall.
In a manner similar to several other traditional cultures, the Mi’kmaq divide the year into 12 intervals, each associated with ecological events around them, according to the gradual change of the seasons. Here are the 12:
|Mi’kmaw||Pronunciation||English||Date Range (approximate)|
|Punamujuik’us||Boo-na-moo-jooey-goos||Tomcod Spawning /Frost Fish||5 January – 3 February|
|Apuknajit||Ah-boo-gah-na-jit||Snow Blinding||3 February – 5 March|
|Siwkewiku’s||See-uke-ay-we-goos||Spring / Maple Sugar||5 March – 4 April|
|Penatmuiku’s||Ben-a-dim-ooh-we-goos||Birds Laying Eggs||4 April – 5 May|
|Sqoljuiku’s||Skoalch-ooh-we-goos||Frogs Croaking||5 May – 5 June|
|Nipniku’s||Nib-nee-goos||Trees Fully Leafed||5 June – 6 July|
|Peskewiku’s||Bes-gay-we-goos||Birds Shedding Feathers||6 July – 7 August|
|Kisikewiku’s||Gis-ig-ay-we-goos||Berry Ripening||7 August –7 September|
|Wikumkewiku’s||We-goom -gay-we-goos||Mate Calling||7 September – 8 October|
|Wikewiku’s||Wig-gay-we-goos||Animal Fattening||8 October –7 November|
|Keptekewiku’s||Geb-deg-gay-we-goos||Rivers Starting to Freeze||7 November – 6 December|
|Kesikewiku’s / Kjiku’s||Ges-ig-gay-we-goos||Winter / Chief Moon||6 December – 5 January|
It is unlikely the Mi’kmaq counted days for these intervals. Instead, they probably marked the passage of time by observing the happenings in Nature, mindful of what happened before and what was expected to come. In any case, they would not have used the Gregorian calendar before the Europeans introduced it. The approximate date ranges shown derive from applying an astronomical eye to the sequence, making sure that the Chief Moon Time aligns with the Winter Solstice (more about that later).
Where do the Moons come in? In most years, one sees 12 Full Moons throughout the annual solar cycle, so the Full Moons are a convenient means of noting the passage of time from one interval to the next. The Full Moon in a given date interval takes on that name. For example, on October 21, 2021, there is a Full Moon—it is the Full “Animal Fattening” Moon. But there are complications, as sometimes there are 13 Full Moons in a year.
The Lunar Cycle and the 13th Moon
Let’s review what we know about the phases of the Moon and the length of the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle is close to 29.5 days—this is the average length of time between phases of the same type, from one Full Moon to the next Full Moon, for example. Astronomers call that period the “synodic month.” A lunation begins with a New Moon (which we cannot see) and progresses through waxing Crescent, First Quarter, waxing Gibbous, Full, waning Gibbous, Last (or Third) Quarter, waning Crescent, back to New Moon—with 3.5 to 4 days in between each.
Mathematically-minded readers will note that 12 cycles of 29.5 days adds up to just 354 days, about 11 days short of a complete year of 365.25 days. This shortfall has two important consequences: from one year to the next, each Full Moon appears 10 to 11 days earlier than the same one from the previous year; eventually, the Moon names—if followed in a strict sequence of 12—become unsynchronized with the natural events taking place, which are governed by the solar cycle. The Mi’kmaw Moons begin to arrive too early. After three cycles of 12, there would be a discrepancy of one entire interval.
The Mi’kmaw Elders tell us that occasionally a 13th Moon would be needed to restore the alignment of the sequence, but—sadly—the details of those teachings have largely disappeared. Using E/TES, the Mi’kmaw Moons Project has proposed a solution: simply put, if two Full Moons fall into a single date range (one at the start and one at the end), one repeats the Moon name. For example, in 2020, there were Full Moons on June 5 and July 5, both within the “Trees Fully Leafed” time period, so we repeated that interval (the actual calculation was performed precisely using an astronomical algorithm not calendar dates). The following Full Moon was on August 3, in “Birds Shedding Feathers” time.
We emphasize that this approach is NOT traditional knowledge, which is unknown to us, but rather an application of E/TES whereby we apply conventional astronomy to the traditional ways to create a new way of understanding of these cycles. Because the astronomy is precisely known, it is possible to forecast a credible Mi’kmaw calendar, retaining traditional names and associations for future generations.
Recently, we have learned about a traditional means of including a 13th Moon that we are still investigating using E/TES: when it is observed that a 13th Moon is needed, which would become apparent by summer, then after “Berry Picking” Moon, we may add “Halfway Moon” in late summer. If one counts the Moons starting with “Spring Moon,” then “Halfway Moon” would be the seventh in a series of 13 Moons, before “Spring Moon” recurs, so it would indeed be halfway. However this approach is applied, “Mate Calling Moon” would be at the right time, along with subsequent Moons.
The Chief Moon—E/TES Analysis
The Chief Moon has special significance and for some time puzzled the Mi’kmaw Moons Project, because it did not seem to connect to anything happening on Earth in Nature, like the other Moons do. The clue came from the story “Moon Chief” in the book Red Earth: Tales of the Micmacs [sic] by Marion Robertson (Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, 1973). In summary, an old Mi’kmaw couple are starving in midwinter after their food has run out, and the old man appeals to the spirit of the Moon Chief in the sky. The next day, a moose appears nearby, stuck in the deep snow, and the old man kills it, ensuring their survival until spring.
At first, we did not see the connection, but it gradually became clear: the Full Moon near the Winter solstice is the highest of all the Full Moons in the sky and, as such, illuminates the Earth for the longest time of all the Full Moons—what better spirit to appeal to than the highest and most illuminating Moon of all? The Chief Moon draws our attention up to the sky. Kji’kus, the Chief Moon, is the one closest to the Winter Solstice.
Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters—A Mi’kmaw Sky Story
We conclude our brief exploration of E/TES by acknowledging another important story: Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. This story is not directly related to the Mi’kmaw Moons, but there may be a connection, as we shall see. There is insufficient space here to recount the full story, but the Mi’kmaw Moons Project hosts 25-minute videos recounting the story in English, French, and Mi’kmaw on our YouTube channel.
In brief, Muin (moo-in), the She-Bear, awakens in her den in the spring and begins to forage through the forest. The bird hunters are starving after the long winter and begin to chase her. The first three are Robin, Chickadee (with her pot), and Grey Jay. These four characters are represented by the seven stars of the star pattern known commonly as the Big Dipper: the four stars of the Bowl represent Muin, and the three stars of the Handle represent the first three bird hunters. (In other versions of this story, these three stars are human hunters.)
One of those stars even has a dim companion star, which represents the birchbark cooking pot. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation in western astronomy, but is part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The remaining four bird hunters are represented by stars in a neighbouring constellation, Boötes, the Herdsman. The story of a great hunt in the northern sky involving a bear is a recurring motif in classic and indigenous astronomy all around the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, attesting to its prehistoric origins—there is much more to be learned about this tale.
The stars of Muin and the first three bird hunters never set in Mi’kma’ki. Through the spring, summer, and fall, they move across the northern sky and under the Polaris, skimming across the treetops, when observed just as dawn breaks. In the fall, Robin attacks Muin and kills her. This is when Muin dies and her spirit leaves her body, her blood splashing everywhere, turning the maple leaves and even Robin’s chest a deep red. Eventually, the four other bird hunters catch up and join a feast of bear meat, cooked in Chickadee’s birchbark pot. Muin’s carcass rises overhead in the sky and spends the winter there, in repose, on her back. But that’s not the end of the story: in the spring, it starts all over again.
The Muin story is told throughout the year, and the position of Muin (the Bowl of the Big Dipper), traditionally observed as dawn breaks, changes continually throughout the year, so it can be understood as a kind of annual calendar in the sky. Let’s see where Muin lies at the time of Chief Moon (2021 December 19) at the instant night ends and astronomical dawn begins (when the Sun is still 18º below the horizon). It is 6:00 a.m. AST and the Sun will not rise until 7:47 a.m., 1 hour and 47 minutes later. During this time, the sky will gradually brighten and the stars of the Muin story will fade. This is what the fire-keepers would see:
Note that Muin (the Bowl of the Big Dipper) is high overhead in the sky at that time, above Polaris, the north star (which happens to be the end of the Handle of the Little Dipper). Thus, Muin is highest in the sky at dawn at the time of the Full Chief Moon. The precise position will vary from year to year, with the date of Full Moon, but the relationship generally holds (verified through simulation). The fire-watchers must have noted it. Currently, the Mi’kmaw Moons Project is not aware of any deeper connection between these stories, but we feel it worth investigating this apparent relationship.
We hope that you have enjoyed and learned from this account of how the Mi’kmaw Moons Project applies Etuaptmumk/Two-Eyed Seeing to the Mi’kmaw Moons and the sky story Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. We have found that looking at these phenomena and stories through both eyes provides an enriched understanding and appreciation of Nature and the Cosmos. Perhaps it will inspire you to become a “knowledge gardener” and begin to apply E/TES in your own educational journey. Best wishes! Wela’lioq (thank you all) for spending your time with us.