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Traditional Legends: Meanings on Many Levels

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Originally appears in the Fall 2009 issue

In all cultures, traditional legends have meanings on many levels. One such legend is the Mi’kmaq story of the Celestial Bear hunt, which explains changes in the night sky over the course of a full year. In the Indigenous world view, all life follows cycles; and in the Mi’kmaq worldview, that which happens on Earth is mirrored in the sky (see sidebar, “The Legend of the Sky Bear”). The story of the Celestial Bear is a fascinating topic of discussion that can be reinforced by nighttime sky-gazing expeditions. If group sky-gazing is difficult to arrange, teachers can prepare take-home sky-gazing assignments that can be completed under the supervision of parents or guardians.

The constellation commonly known as Ursa Major was recognized as a bear by many ancient peoples, including the Mi’kmaq.1 In the Mi’kmaq legend, the seven stars “following” the Bear, or Muin, were thought to be hunters chasing it across the night sky.2 This group of seven hunters consists of the three stars that form the handle of the Big Dipper (Robin, or Jipjawej; Chickadee, or Jikjaqoqwej; Moosebird/Gray Jay or Nikjaqoqwej) and four stars in the constellation Bootes (Passenger Pigeon, or Ples; Blue Jay, or Tities; Owl, or Kukukwes; and little Saw-whet Owl, or Kupkwe’j). Muin’s den is what others know as Corona Borealis.

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Annamarie Hatcher is a Senior Research Associate of Integrative Science at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Sana Kavanagh is a Research Associate in Integrative Science at Cape Breton University. Cheryl Bartlett is a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Integrative Science and Professor of Biology at Cape Breton University. Murdena Marshall is an elder and spiritual leader of the Mi’kmaq Nation in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, and former Associate Professor of Mi’kmaq Studies at Cape Breton University.

Acknowledgments: We thank Lillian Marshall, elder of the Mi’kmaq Nation of Potlotek (Chapel Island), Nova Scotia, a keen observer of the stars who patiently worked with us on the story of the Celestial Bear. We also thank Jane Meader, Mi’kmaq Nation, Membertou, for many fruitful discussions of legends. Illustrations are by Sana Kavanagh.