‘Sky World’: Re-conceptualizing Space Exploration

Skywoman Descending Turtle Island, Arnold Jacobs

Our class discussions about Dr Space Junk vs The Universe have touched on issues concerning space exploration and the potential colonization/industrialization of outer space. The frameworks we use in these discussions are very important. As we learn about Indigenous histories, postprocessual archaeology, and the future of anthropology, we should consider which paradigms we are operating within and where our research is based. Do we understand Western science as fact? Regard Indigenous history as myth? Are we driven by curiosity, or is there a looming sense of entitlement and capitalism in our language and discussion?
Question your understanding and conceptualization of what space is. We consider ourselves so far removed from the world above, so it could even be seen as preposterous to the colonized mind that ‘space’ may be entitled to the same respect, cultural consideration that we (more or less) treat our planet with. Much like the ecology of our earthly landscape, this planet is part of a large interstellar community, and we are as well.
I would also ask us to suspend our Westernized mindsets for a moment and reconsider our trust in science and denial of ‘myth.’ Only when we distrust, silence and regard histories as myth can we dignify colonial campaigns on this planet and intercellestially. I want to bring the story of Sky Woman into the conversation when discussing the conceptualization of space. “In the beginning there was Skyworld,” starts Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer describes how Sky Woman initially fell from the Sky World above. As she tumbled into the world below, she was caught by a flock of geese and greeted by a great turtle, among many other animals welcoming her to a world she had never known. Together they built the land, and they grew plant life from the seeds she offered as thanksgiving upon her arrival. We live today as descendants of Sky Woman, a mother native to the world above, and we will continue to offer thanks to this earth and to our co-inhabitants for welcoming us here. Relationality is key in the history of Sky Woman. Descendant from the sky, nurtured by the world below, tending to the land we sew. If we were to consider, actually consider, these truths, would we not approach the Sky World differently?
With a perspective that essentially separates us from the world around us, you can see how easily we can turn a blind eye to exploitation on this planet and, to an even greater extent, ignore the exploitation we cannot see or comprehend, those taking place intercelestially. Western methods of science (the ones that have led the march into space) do not consider many spiritual or immaterial aspects of the world around them. Space expedition and colonization are rooted in western philosophies that not only disregard and mythologize Indigenous truths, but also excuse/corroborate the exploitation of land and space (on this planet and otherwise) through the denial of those truths. If we were to consider Sky World and other histories in our conversations, respect and protection might come more easily to the industrialized mind when considering ‘outer space.’ Regarding the universe as ‘community’ is just the beginning of understanding space, not as a land for discovery and exploitation but as home or friend, worthy of respect and honor.

River of Souls, Carl Gawboy


A. Mitchell et al. Dukarr lakarama: Listening to Guwak, talking back to space colonization,
Political Geography, Volume 81, 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0962629818304086

Gorman, Alice. Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future. The MIT Press, 2020.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Vancouver, B.C.: milkweed editions, 2013.

Maryboy, Nancy C. “Process and Relationship in Indigenous Astronomy: Connectivity of Mother Earth and Father Sky.” International Journal of Applied Science and Sustainable Development, no. 2 (2020).

Additional Reading




Institutional Responsibility: Repatriation @ Vassar

On Monday, October 3rd 2022, I was honored to share a conversation and dinner with Uluwehi Cashman and Halealoha Ayau, folks here to take their family members home. For hundreds of years ancestral remains and artifacts have been stolen from the Kingdom of Hawai’i without their consent. Our campus is one, among plenty of institutions that has, one way or another, come into unrightful possession of iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian remains) and their moepū (funerary artifacts).
This is certainly not the first time institutions, like Vassar, have prospered from the displacement and dehumanization of Indigenous populations. Vassar College is built on land belonging to the Delaware Nation, Delaware Lenape Tribe, and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans. As members of this institution’s community we have benefitted from the colonial practices that have gotten Vassar College to where it is today. Now, this is not an issue specific to Vassar; universities, colleges, museums, archives, and other collections across the world are holding ancestors hostage and contribute to the cruel mishandling of Native land. But, as historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, we must contextualize our own studies in the broad global framework of colonialism, including the actions of our own institution.
For over 30 years Halealoha and other activists have pressured institutions and museums across the world to repatriate stolen cultural artifacts and ancestral remains. These collections and archives, which have been created in the name of ‘science,’ have kept families apart for hundreds of years, and their slow/complicated journey home is telling of the policy and philosophy that trapped them here in the first place. Halealoha described the language and ceremonial revitalizations that have occurred through the repatriation processes. He has been met with some community conflicts throughout his work, but often some of Halealoha’s most harsh critics became his loudest supporters. There should be a grater understanding that this is not just a political issue, that this is a matter of humanity, family reunification, and decolonization.

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, Edward Halealoha Ayau, Mana Caceres and Kalehua Caceres at the Berlin State Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. (Retrieved from https://www.honolulumagazine.com)

As Archaeologists, we are not removed from the colonial history of archaeology nor the actions of the institution we have chosen to study at. Colonial violence that not only infridged upon sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai’i but with every second iwi kupuna and their moepu spend in our possession is another second they are not at rest. Along with repatriation, we should take the time to acknowledge the historical and ongoing perpetrations against Indigenous peoples, not only in academia, but internationally. This disrespect is not just a product of national educational systems, but a result from greater global philosophies which repeatedly disregard and abuse aboriginal populations.
In the 30 plus years since NAGPRA, repatriation processes have been slow and difficult, leaving much of the responsibility to Indigenous groups, themselves, to have to ask for their family members back. Cultural sites have been violated time and time again due to racist philosophy legitimized under the guise of ‘scholarship.’I fear we may be too desensitized to the colonialism in our own lives, and the careless abuses of Indigenous bodies, minds, and culture. The fact that ancestors and artifacts are anywhere that they are not supposed to be (including our campus), is a clear sign of corrupt colonial practices academically and globally.
This was not ‘one bad person,’ but the collective responsibility of the institution, administrators, professors, and students who have benefitted off of the objectification of native land and native bodies in academia. We are all complicit, whether we were aware of it or not, in the exploitation indigenous peoples and continue to be an extension of international colonial violence, unless we enact real substantive change. This really shouldn’t be an issue of legalities and institutional policy, but one of humanity and recongnition of aboriginal personhood.

Kūpunas ready to return home from the Natural History Museum in London. (Retrieved from https://thefunambulist.net)

Bosman, Julie and Mitch Smith. September 15, 2022. “Congress Told Colleges to Return Native Remains. What’s Taking So Long?” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/15/us/native-american-remains-university-of-north-dakota.html

Ayau, Edward Halealoha. April 1, 2022. “Searching, Tracking and Finding Stolen Ancestors: An Insight.” Ka Wai Ola. https://kawaiola.news/i-mana-i-ka-oiwi/searching-tracking-and-finding-stolen-ancestors-an-insight/

Leonard, Lucy, Jessica Moss, Aena Khan, Frankie Knuckles. February 20, 2020. “As College works to comply with NAGPRA, community interrogates institutional, academic history.” The Miscellany News. https://miscellanynews.org/2020/02/20/news/vassar-stores-native-american-human-remains-violates-nagpra/

Further Reading

The Mission: Bringing Home Native Hawaiian Remains