Toward decolonizing astronomy outreach, three steps away from Eurocentric bias

Veronica Allen 1

  • 1 Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, Groningen


Science communicators are the front line of inspiration for children across the globe. With this influence, we can begin to change the landscape of astronomy away from its Eurocentric past and increase diversity in the coming generations of astronomers. By taking these three steps as a community, we can reduce the “other-ness” felt by non-Europeans and non-native English speakers in general. I would like to call on my fellow communicators to join me in sharing the sky myths of other cultures, offering lessons and outreach materials in the home languages of children, and proposing the renaming of the 24 southern constellations named by 17th and 18th century Europeans. In my talk, I will suggest ways to facilitate these actions as well as the collaborations that we can build in the process.

Sharing the sky myths of other cultures

In outreach situations, we generally tell the ancient Greeks' stories about constellations, but there are many reference books and children's books about sky myths from other cultures.

Children's books about myths originating in the Americas and Polynesia are the most common in English.

This reveals a gap in the available stories that can be shared with children. Picture books and story books with African and South American sky myths are most underrepresented.

Hawaiian Myths of Earth, Sea, and Sky was originally written in 1966 with gorgeous illustrations added in 1988. While it contains myths other than sky myths, it contains stories about the sun and moon, as well as the shark in the Milky Way.

They Dance in the Sky is a collection of dozens of sky myths from Native American cultures as well as equivalent names for specific stars and constellations for various tribes.

Picture books

The Earth Under Sky Bear's Feet This book of poems tells stories of sky myths as well as of specific monuments of Native American peoples. The art inside is also very beautiful.

Coyote Places the Stars This is a lovely retelling of the Navajo tale about how the trickster god Coyote created the constellations.

The Story of the Milky Way - A Cherokee Tale This picture book tells a traditional Cherokee story about the way the Milky Way was made.

Ulaq and the Northern Lights In this picture book, Ulaq the arctic fox visits several animals who tell him their perception of what the Northern Lights are. Each of these explanations is adapted from northern civilizations traditional stories and the back page also explains the scientific origin of the Northern Lights. 

Primary School age +

All the Stars in the Sky tells sky myths from many different Native American peoples with illustrations. The stories are somewhat longer and there are fewer illustrations than in the picture books.

Star Stories This is a recent compilation that includes some Greek contellation myths, as well as at least a few from Africa, Asia, Oceania/Polynesia, and the Americas. This is one of the few books that mentions the "dark constellations" that are recognized by South American and Polynesian peoples. It has also been translated into Dutch, Czech, Turkish, Italian, and Chinese (星之神话 : 世界最美星空故事集). The illustrations are very beautiful and highlighted with reflective gold ink.

If you have more suggestions for children's books of sky myths, email me at

If you want to include sky myths from other cultures without a book, there are several references available.

Judy Volker's Star Lore website is an extensive collection of myths organized both by IAU constellation and by culture.

Venus Rising South African Astronomical Beliefs, Customs and Observations is an ebook available from the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa and includes stories from 12 of the South African peoples about various astronomical features.

ALMA does some cultural astronomy work with the local Atacameño people in Chile and produced a short video about dark constellations in the Milky Way. The ALMA kids website has not yet been recovered after the cyberattack last year, but the video can be seen on Twitter and Facebook.

If you are interested in the topic of cultural sky myths in general, searching for "Cultural Astronomy", "Ethnoastronomy", and to some extent "Archeoastronomy" are good places to start.

Outreach children's home languages

The Problem

While the working language of astronomy is English, teaching children astronomy in English continues the tradition of exclusion between western countries and developing countries. In many countries, science is taught in English (rather than in children's home languages) after children have been in school for several years. This reinforces the idea that science is not something that is done by non-English speakers.

Human mobility has increased significantly in recent decades, partially due to the increased ability for people to emigrate, and partially due to the amount of conflict that has generated refugees. This means there are significant populations of children who do not speak the language of the country where they live resulting in their exclusion from outreach and extracurricular activities. 


Fortunately, the increase of mobility and the multilingual tradition of African schooling also means that there are astronomers and communicators with a huge variety of native languages whose skills can be used to reach these excluded groups.

The IAU Office of Astronomy for Development supports projects like these.

I am working on having my lessons translated into Arabic, Farsi (Dari), Ukrainian, and Tigrinya as these are the largest immigrant populations in my area. Because I believe in paying people for work and not just relying on volunteers, I am also applying for funding for the translation and teaching of the translated lessons.

I would also like to work with native speakers of African languages to translate a lesson about the solar system for 4-10 year olds into local languages so that we can provide these to local educators and communicators.

Renaming southern constellations

Because the original purpose of constellations was to tell stories about how the world worked or to relate Earthly stories to the skies, constellations named after scientific and naval instruments are unimaginative. Additionally, these constellations were named by european explorers alongside colonization and the continued insistence on these names does not fit with modern societal goals.

Eight new constellations suggested by the UK public as reported by the Economics Times

This would not be the first time renaming astronomical objects has been suggested. In 2017, there was a project headed by The Big Bang Fair and the University of Birmingham asking the public to rename constellations to be recognizable to modern children (news article here). The IAU also renamed 86 stars in 2017 and named 20 exoplanetary systems from crowdsourced suggestions in order to include names from a more diverse set of cultures and languages.

Constellations on the chopping block

Dutch Explorers (1590s):
Triangulum Australe

Hevelius (1600s):
Canes Venatici
Leo Minor

La Caille (1700s):



Sharing sky myths

  • Some children's books on sky myths from (non-Ancient Greek) cultures exist.
  • Other books about cultural sky myths exist that you will have to adapt for children.

All Languages are valid

  • Children should learn about astronomy in their native language (where possible).
  • A lot of astronomers are multilingual, so let's get connected to do outreach in more languages.

Rename colonizer constellations

  • Many southern constellations were named by European colonizers.
  • If we want to actually care about decolonization, we should consider renaming some of them.
  • The IAU renames things sometimes, so it isn't impossible!

Contact me if any of this is your jam!