For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the night sky and its stories. As a young girl I would lay under the stars, feeling so tiny yet so connected — nothing lifts my spirit more than witnessing the night sky and all its star stories.
When I heard that Jes Croucher of ᐸᐋᐧᒥᐤ Pawâmiw Creative was hosting a virtual series called Cree Constellation Stories in May, featuring Elder Leonard Cardinal and Amanda Cardinal, I knew I had to listen in.
The acimowina acahkosak (star stories) are sacred, and I spoke with Elder Leonard after the series finished.
There have been stories and teachings related to the night sky since the beginning of time, Leonard tells me.
“We always had the night sky, stars, and there’s a name — we call that ‘acahakosak’ [pronounced atch-ah-kos-ak] in the language,” he says. “Part of that word speaks about our connection to spirit and also those spirits in the sky, and we have a profound connection with them because we are part of that evolution of that system.”
Leonard is Woodlands Cree, sakâwiyino (pronounced sag-ah-wee-noh and meaning “people of the forest”) and sîpîwiyino (pronounced see-pee-ee-ynoh and meaning “people of the rivers”). He says he comes from a family of hunters and trappers and was raised traditionally on the land.
His parents Katherine and Joseph Cardinal are both from Calling Lake, Alberta, he says. He describes his mother as a residential school survivor, and he says both of his parents were storytellers. His uncles, too.
“My father was born around 1902,” he says. “He had a lot of old knowledge. He never went to residential school. Same with my grandfather on that side.”
Leonard says growing up on the land, hunting with his family, he learned to be “self-sufficient.” While on the land, they would tell stories in the evenings as a way to pass on teachings, as well as for fun.
“That helped us to entertain us, but at the same time, it taught us a lot of different things about the land [and] about values and behaviors and stuff like that.”
Storytelling is intertwined with land teachings, he says, and pihêhewatew (chicken grouse belly) was part of that.
“We always [had] that chicken belly hanging inside the cabin whenever there was storytelling,” he says. It was part of our process to hunt a chicken, process it according to our protocols, and then eat it, he explains.
“After, we would blow that bag [belly] up and we’d let it dry there … [and] that would complete that story.”
Our relationship to the sky
During the winter, Leonard says his family would go out on the land to trap animals and “navigate through the forests.” He says this is a part of the relationship with the land — and with the sky.
“When we talk about those stars, it’s like we go back, and we reconnect with our ancestors again,” he says.
As with most ceremonies, star stories are sacred, and Elder Leonard says there is a time and a place for each one. These stories are passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling by Elders, he says.
“There are certain stories that are talked about openly and then there’s other ones that are more hidden. And there’s a reason for that because there’s a relationship you have to make with the Elders and ceremonial practices,” he says. “There are some [stories] for entertainment and there are some that go deeper and deeper.
“To me those stories were very important because it gave me a sense of belonging and an identity of who I was as sakâwiyino,” he says. “I knew that I had a history, and I had a connection to this land.”
Star stories help us wake up knowledge that’s been laid to sleep, he explains.
“It helps us to feel good, so we can take pride in who we are as Indigenous Peoples. That’s how I relate to those stars.”
‘Reawakening in us to who we once were’
In May, Elder Leonard participated in the virtual series: Cree Constellation Stories.
Elder Leonard says that virtual gatherings are new to him, but he decided to participate because he knows many people have been living in isolation and Indigenous people haven’t been able to hold ceremonies and traditional gatherings.
“The story became the medicine for the people,” says Leonard. “I’m finding that it’s bringing different things into the homes of other people, whether it’s wisdom, knowledge [or] healing.
“If it wasn’t for my parents teaching me these things, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and wisdom that I do have today. And so when I share that with somebody else, my hope is that they’ll take it further and they’ll do better by it.”
He encourages people to stay connected to the land and to seek out storytellers in their community if they can.
“When these stories are [told] in those land-based teachings, it’s actually reawakening in us to who we once were … Nothing is lost. We just need to wake it back up — it’s all inside of us.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Out of respect for Elder Leonard Cardinal, we refer to him by his first name on subsequent references in this story.