Northern Dene Constellations as Worldview Projections with Case Studies from the Ahtna, Gwich’in, and Sahtúot’ı̨nę

Chris M. Cannon, Wilson Justin, Paul Herbert, Charles Hubbard and Charlie Neyelle

Abstract

The sky is routinely overlooked in Northern Dene ethnology as a meaningful domain of linguistic and cultural knowledge. However, a decade of comparative ethnological research in Alaska and Canada has shown that Dene stellar knowledge is largely tied to sacred and covert knowledge systems. In this paper, we describe an Ahtna, Gwich’in, and Sahtúot’ı̨nę constellation identified as the incarnated spirit of an ancient Traveler-Transformer figure who circled the world in Distant Time. Although this Traveler is widely known in mythology, his enigmatic transformation to the sky embodies a specialized domain of knowledge rooted in the traditional beliefs and practices of medicine people. This “Traveler” constellation is not only a world custodian and arche-type of an idealized medicine person, but it is also a teacher, ally, gamekeeper, and the embodiment of the world. We identify variations of this constellation throughout the Northern Dene region.

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