By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Katrina Rosen
Aurora borealis, the dawn of the north. Isn’t that the most beautiful name? In the early 1600s, Galileo Galilei combined the Latin names Aurora—meaning goddess of the dawn, and Boreas—the Greek god of the north. This formed the term aurora borealis, the dawn of the north (or aurora australis, the dawn of the south.) We often refer to them as the northern lights.
I was 11 years old when I remember first seeing the northern lights. We were in Manitoba, Canada, in the middle of the boreal forest. All the leaves had fallen. My sister and I had spent the day jumping in and out of piles of orange and yellow. The night should have left us exhausted, but my parents woke us to see the sky dancing in brilliant green and white. This was before cell phones, before cameras in our pockets, and before I understood anything that was happening above me.
My parents did not know either. They knew it was the northern lights, but they couldn’t explain why. We cozied around the bonfire, faces to the sky, and just imagined what they could possibly be. I am thankful to have experienced the lights before I understood their existence was far more complicated than my childhood interpretation of them.
For thousands of centuries, humans have done the same as my sister and I and wondered what they were. Many myths and legends from different cultures have continued into the present day. According to some Anishinaabe people of central Canada, Nanaboozko created the Earth. When creation was complete, Nanaboozko moved further north, leaving his people in the south. Before he left, Nanaboozko promised to check on them and to look after their well-being. When he lights a large fire, the reflections from that fire light up the sky, and his people know they are not alone.
Perhaps, as some Inuit believe, the spirits are carrying torches to guide those of us still walking in the world. The Inuit word for aurora is aksarnirq, and they are thought to be the souls of the dead dancing through the sky. Maybe the spirits are playing a game of soccer with a walrus skull.
I grew up in southern Manitoba, and just often enough, the lights would display themselves through the leaves of the poplar trees and over our big lakes to give this feeling of protection and wonder. Yet nothing has ever compared to what I have experienced in Churchill, Manitoba.
I reached out to Georgina to ask her what the northern lights meant to her. Georgina is a Cree elder and spent her childhood in the flats of Churchill, Manitoba, north of where the trees grow. She has since raised her own family, grandchildren and now two great-grandchildren. They still reside in Churchill beneath the Aurora Oval. When Georgina was young, the lights would swirl above her family’s teepee, and her parents told her not to clap or whistle at them. If they were to do so, Windigo would come down and take her and her siblings far away. Windigo is a supernatural creature that is the spirit of greed, selfishness and weakness. And many children were told to be wary.
“They were so beautiful, lit up long time ago…” recalls Georgina. “The snow would glisten, and you can hear it crackling as we walked on it.”
I conjured up an image of a moonlit evening beside the frozen Churchill River, a gentle wind coming through from the bay, and moccasins crunching in the snow.
“I’ve always told my children and grandchildren about the northern lights. To respect them. Our ancestors used to tell us they were the spirit of our deceased loved ones traveling on to their hunting grounds.”
Georgina’s belief runs deep, even as she traverses this modern world of science. She recalled the story of taking her grandson out to see the lights near the place she grew up. They were standing outside in the frigid air, and he gave a howling whistle just to test the theory, and Georgina began to shiver.
“It still gives me chills,” she told me.
I envisioned her hugging her grandson fiercely, keeping him safe. The northern lights, like all things in nature, deserve respect.
Now I know the science behind this brilliance, but I hold onto the stories and continue to cradle what I understood of them when I was a child. That they were magnificent and bigger than I could have ever imagined. To see the sky light up and move like the curtain I used to hide behind.