James Rock has always been a “science nerd.” The lenses of Rock’s first pair of glasses at 2 years old fascinated him, and as a young boy he soon found himself upgrading to telescope lenses to study the sky.
Rock is also a Native American of the Lakota Tribe, and said his culture promotes astute observation and appreciation for “Mni Sota” (a Native American form of Minnesota) which means the land where the water reflects the sky and the sky reflects the water.
Rock will present “The Night Sky from a Native American Perspective,” a free event from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Capitol Theater sponsored by the Southeast Iowa Astronomy Club and the John H. Witte Jr. Foundation. The presentation will feature photographs of the night sky, and touch on the beliefs and myths that surround constellations.
When Judy Smithson-Hilkins, of the Southeast Iowa Astronomy Club, invited Rock, a University of Minnesota-Duluth astronomy and physics professor, to speak, she wanted to know more about what images in the stars meant to Native American culture.
Rock teaches a course in ethno- and archaeoastronomy in which he incorporates some of the Native American experience, and co-authored a Dakota/Lakota constellation guide. He also served as a member of NASA’s Beautiful Earth Team and investigated and designed the first Native American experiment aboard a NASA space shuttle in 2011.
“I think it’s a new perspective,” said Smithson-Hilkins. “That when you look at the night sky this is what the Native Americans thought it to be instead of the Greek mythology.”
While Rock had always been interested in astronomy, he originally planned to become an engineer. After visiting some indigenous relatives in South America he realized that while they might not wear white lab coats, they live a balanced, sustainable life with the Earth and the sky. They strive to be good relatives, which Rock noted does not simply mean family members.
“We don’t just mean human-to-human, but as life form-to-life form,” said Rock.
Rock is also an activist and author on the subject of sacred site restoration issues, and will visit the Mississippian Mounds in Kingston and speak about the Native American burial ground site at his presentation Friday, as well.
As advisor of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, or AISES, on his campus, Rock said he constantly sees Native American students who are becoming chemical engineers, pharmacists and other leaders in a variety of science fields, while still holding true to their values and traditions and languages.
He said he hopes the public will come out Friday night to better understand this community of people and how they understand the night sky.
“It lets the wider public know we are still here and what they can do to be aware of our organizations and promote some of that,” said Rock. “And to be good partners and relatives. I’m very glad to share this.”