Make Way for the Wintermaker

There's more than one way to see the constellations. Here's a look through Native American eyes.

Orion crosses the late fall sky in search of prey

The grand figure of Orion the Hunter brightens November skies, rising around 9 p.m. local time in late November.
Johannes Hevelius, 1690

Orion the Hunter is arguably one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky. Striding the celestial equator, he charges up from this eastern horizon around 9 o'clock in late November, club in one hand and shield in the other.

Weaponized and ready, this dude's got hunting on his mind.

But there's another Orion. In the eyes of the Ojibwe people, one of the largest groups of Native Americans on the North American continent, Orion was and still is Biboonkeonini, the Wintermaker. Want to blame someone for frozen fingers and all that snow you'll soon be shoveling? Wintermaker's your guy.

The Wintermaker returns, bringing the cold winds of winter

The Ojibwe constellation of the Wintermaker includes the familiar stars of our Orion, but his outstretched arms reach to include Procyon in Canis Minor and Aldebaran in Taurus. The painting depicts the Ojibwe way of seeing star figures — both their inner spirit and outer form.
Annette Lee

The Wintermaker, a skilled canoeist, ushers in the cold and winds that characterize the season. Northern hemisphere skywatchers associate these same qualities with hunterly Orion, but the western character and myth have no direct seasonal connection like the Ojibwe constellation. Still, it's fascinating that both figures are formed of nearly identical stars, testimony to the striking pattern and strong impression Orion–Wintermaker made on two very different cultures.

Switching dippers for animals

The Fisher (bottom) and Loon take the place of our Big and Little Dippers in native Ojibwe constellation mythology.
Annette Lee

Wintermaker is joined this month by Ojiig the Great Fisher (Big Dipper), a weasel or marten-like animal considered a great hero by the Ojibwe people. Legend has it he freed the birds and season of spring by tricking their captor. On a dark night, we can trace the stars forming the bucket of the nearby Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). Maang the Loon resides here. He's a transcendent symbol, standing at the tenuous border between the material and spirit world in Ojibwe mythology. If you've ever heard a loon at night on a camping trip, you'd be inclined to agree. Is there any sound that better embodies the feel of wilderness? Here it is (click left end of bar to play):

The basis for our modern list of 88 constellations goes back at least 6,000 years to the peoples who lived in Babylonia, now modern-day Iraq. They did one thing we still do best: connect random, unrelated objects into patterns. What better place to play this game than the star-sprinkled sky? Some of their patterns we still recognize — a lion (Leo), a scorpion (Scorpius), and a bull (Taurus), among others.

Moose and Crane provide symbolize practical needs and inner spirit

Recognize these two? Mooz, or Moose, is formed of stars we know as Pegasus the Winged Horse. Cygnus the Swan (upper right) is the Ojibwe Ajiijaak, or Crane. The Moose provides food, clothing, and shelter; the Crane inspires strength and determination.
Annette Lee

The ancient Greeks and Romans added their own patterns to the mix, bequeathing us the 48 classical constellations. In the first half of the 15th century, Europeans created new patterns from hitherto unfamiliar southern hemisphere stars seen for the first time during the oceanic voyages of discovery. Still later, mapmakers and astronomers filled in little gaps between constellations with small additional figures. Some tried to sneak in the likes of a typewriter (Officina Typographica), a stargazing fish (Uranoscopus), and toad (Bufo), but sadly, these and others didn't make the final cut. The newest constellations, created in the mid-18th century when astronomers broke up the unwieldy Argo Navis, the Ship Argo, are Carina the Keel, Puppis the Poop Deck, and Vela the Sails.

See the panther and take heed

The curved tail of Mishi Bizhiw, the Mountain Lion or Great Panther, re-purposes Leo's Sickle and includes stars of Cancer. When the Panther was overhead in early spring, it was a reminder to not tempt fate and cross the dangerously thin ice of melting lakes.
Annette Lee

Constellations were standardized and their borders clearly defined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in the late 1920s under the leadership of Belgian astronomer Eugene Delporte of the Royal Observatory of Brussels. Since then, no one's messed with boundaries or, for that matter, made up new constellations. Standards were needed so that astronomers around the planet could agree on what stars, particularly newly discovered variable stars and novae, belonged to what constellation.

Dakota artist and assistant professor of physics and astronomy at St. Cloud State University created the paintings of traditional Ojibwe sky figures used in this article. St. Cloud State University

Dakota artist and assistant professor of physics and astronomy at St. Cloud State University created the paintings of traditional Ojibwe constellations used in this article.
St. Cloud State University

We know and love the traditional constellations. Many of us have formed lifelong associations with their seasonal arrivals and departures. But sometimes it's nice to switch lenses and see how others see the sky. It's not only fun to connect the dots to make new patterns; at the same time, we broaden our understanding of another culture. No matter Greek, Polynesian, Chinese, or Ojibwe, each civilization imbues the starry heavens with their own unique vision of life. Instructive stories, moral guidance, and lessons in human fallibility have been heaped upon the stars for you and I to ponder on the next clear night.

All the beautiful paintings used in this article were created by Annette Lee, assistant professor of astronomy and physics at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and member of the Dakota-Sioux tribe. Lee also directs the planetarium at the university and researches Ojibwe and Lakota star lore and mythology. She's currently involved with the Native Skywatchers Project, an initiative to revive and celebrate indigenous peoples' connection to the stars. See her complete Ojibwe star map and Lakota map.

Curious about the origin of star names? Check out the Dictionary of Modern Star Names!

Astronomy Blogs, Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing
Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, just published and available at Amazon and BN.

5 thoughts on “Make Way for the Wintermaker

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thanks Bob and Annette, and all your colleagues. Now that I know the IAU constellations visible from mid-northern latitudes, I’m getting interested to learn the constellations and sky lore of other cultures. Could you recommend any books?

  2. Bob-PatrickBob-Patrick

    Thank you for this article about Native American sky atlases. I forwarded the link to our Kentucky Heritage Native American consultant. I received a note of appreciation.

    Bob Patrick

All comments must follow the Sky & Telescope Terms of Use and will be moderated prior to posting. Please be civil in your comments. Sky & Telescope reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter’s username, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.