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Spirits Dancing: Blending Indigenous and Western Perspectives on the Night Sky with Travis Novitsky

Nov 27, 2023 08:14AM ● By Content Editor

Photograph by Travis Novitsky 

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - November 25, 2023

When Travis Novitsky was around five years old and growing up on the reservation in Grand Portage, Minnesota, he remembers his dad going out at night to take photos of the sky, northern lights, or lightning shows and wishing he could go with him. Following in his footsteps, Novitsky acquired his first camera in middle school and later, in 2002 or 2003, his first digital camera capable of capturing the night sky. 

Two decades later, Novitsky, affectionately known as the "night sky guy," has established himself as a renowned nature photographer, specializing in capturing the skyscape above. “I never sought projects out, but I think that when you do something you love and do it well, these types of things start to find you,” he told Boreal Community Media. His passion has led him to an impressive array of accomplishments, including gallery exhibitions at places like Johnson Heritage Post in Grand Marais and the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, MN, media interviews, a PBS documentary titled Northern Nights, Starry Skies, and most recently, a book titled "Spirits Dancing - The Night Sky, Indigenous Knowledge & Cultural Connections to the Cosmos" (November 2023, Minnesota Historical Society Press).

Diving into the human connection to the night sky, particularly the aurora borealis and the Milky Way, the book "Spirits Dancing" is a collaborative work between Travis Novitsky and Annette S. Lee, an Indigenous astronomer, artist, and founder of Native Skywatchers.

The idea for "Spirits Dancing" originated seven years ago, when Novitsky was approached by the Minnesota Historical Society Press (MHSP). The initial concept mirrored the published book, with a designated author for the Western scientific portion. However, this arrangement didn't end up working out. Several years went by, and MHSP once again contacted Novitsky with the idea of collaborating with Lee. 

Embedded throughout the text is the overarching theme of Two Eyed Seeing, or Etuaptmumk, which advocates for viewing the world through both Indigenous and Western knowledge. Lee spearheaded the concept of weaving Two-Eyed Seeing into the book, providing both the Western scientific perspective and her teachings derived from her D(L)akota, Irish, and Chinese heritage. Novitsky's contributions include stunning photographs and personal narratives of his personal and professional journey, which naturally mirror the land and sky, perfectly exemplifying Two-Eyed Seeing.

"I've been told I walk in both worlds well," Novitsky shared, referring to his ability to navigate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of life. "For example, a meeting with the state of Minnesota is very different than a tribal council meeting. Some people find that they can navigate better in one 'world' versus the other." When discussing the theme as presented in the book, reflecting both science and Indigenous knowledge, he added, "Both are right in their own ways."

In the Ojibwe language, Jiibayah Niimi'idiway is a phrase used for the aurora borealis, meaning "spirits dancing". It correlates closely with the Milky Way, or Jiibay Ziibi, which means "River of Souls".

Ojibwe scholar Carl Gawboy, quoted in “Spirits Dancing” and referred to by Novitsky, tells of the Ojibwe belief that when we die, our soul finds a waiting canoe and paddles down the Milky Way, where it greets other loved ones who have previously passed. Other Indigenous teachings tell the story of the soul walking down the Milky Way, or Road of the Spirits, but since the Ojibwe people traditionally used canoes for transportation, their story reflects their deep connection to water.

When the northern lights appear, Novitsky shared that the teachings say this is the people we love, our ancestors, dancing. Spirits dancing. 

The familiarity of the night sky through Ojibwe and other Indigenous teachings forms one side of the Two-Eyed Seeing approach. Western knowledge, represented by some of Annette Lee's contributions to the book, provides the other side. Novitsky’s process for finding a photograph location, which can take years, is a good example of this. 

When he finds a location that catches his eye, a number of factors go into play depending on the time of year: what will the tree line look like in the different seasons? Where will the Milky Way appear in the frame, and what time will it “rise”? What will the shoreline look like? Will the moon be out? Then factor in the unpredictability of the northern lights, and his photographs become even more remarkable. Sometimes, he admitted, he forgets about a location until he stumbles upon it again in the future, or he finds a location but is not able to return until later. Other times, the landscape is altered through fire, cutting, or storms. “The woods are always changing, and it provides a new viewpoint I wouldn’t normally get.” 

When asked what his favorite location is, he said with a smile: “Anytime I’m under the Milky Way, and can see the stars reflecting in the water.”

You can find Spirits Dancing - The Night Sky, Indigenous Knowledge & Cultural Connections to the Cosmos at Drury Lane, or anywhere books are sold. 

Novitsky will also be signing books at a variety of locations in November and December:

  • November 25th: Book signing at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, MN from 11:00 AM to 1:30 PM.
  • December 2nd: Book signing at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, MN from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM. 
  • December 8th: Presentation and book signing as part of the Cook County Dark Sky Festival. Location: Grand Portage National Monument. Program starts at 6:30 PM.
  • December 13th: Presentation and book signing at the Bell Museum in St. Paul. Program starts at 6:00 PM.

To learn more about Travis Novitsky, visit:

To learn more about Annette S Lee, visit: 

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here