Leading the Way: Aboriginal People Today

Rob Cardinal

Star Chief

Aboriginal people have many different and interesting stories that link the sky to the creation of the world. As a young man, Rob Cardinal found the stars and galaxy fascinating, but from a purely scientific position. With a talent to match his interest, he went on to become an accomplished astronomer and astrophysicist, discovering multiple comets and a unique near-earth asteroid. But his greatest discovery was much closer to home.

As a successful planetary scientist at the University of Calgary, Rob is driven to explore and discover. But what motivates him the most, is being a good father. Born Cree Blackfoot, Rob was just five days old when his father forced his mother to give him up for adoption. “My birthmother wanted me to have a chance because she couldn’t give me what she wanted. But she gave me two very important things, she gave me my grandfather’s name, and she registered me with the band.” Rob’s two siblings remained in the home but his father soon abandoned them as well.

At 18 months, Rob was adopted in Edmonton by a single mother. Although his mother was keen for him to understand his heritage, he recalls feeling disconnected from his roots. He remembers being in the bath tub, trying to scrub his skin white. “I was four or five years old, and already ashamed to be Aboriginal.”

Although he knows his adoptive mother had the best intentions, adoption had taken its toll.

“In the meantime, I’ve lost who I am. I’d lost my culture, my language my family – my past. It was hard to be angry because who was I supposed to be angry at? I was surrounded by people with the best of intentions. But there was anger and shame, and the shame of being angry. Then there was frustration. It’s a vicious circle.”

At just 15, Rob began to go off the rails. By 17 he had dropped out of high school and was living on the streets, high, drunk, and lost. Eventually he hit rock bottom, depressed and physically ill. He was hospitalized for months and went through many more months of treatment programs.

Caught by a social safety net, Rob recovered and set out to finish high school and was surprised to score high marks in physics and math. “My plan was to be a carpenter. But my physics teacher said, ‘Rob you’ve got a talent here - you need to take a science degree’.” The encouragement made a big impression and Rob was soon applying to universities.

Not long after, Rob was attending the University of Victoria. He was taking an overview course in astronomy when he discovered a keen interest in the unknown.

“My professor would always point out what we don’t know, and the limits of our knowledge. I wanted to answer some of those questions.”

When another professor encouraged him to study asteroids, he discovered his calling. “He completely changed my mind on cosmology. I could see that this is the only practical astronomy there is. The danger is the sexy part – the impact of an asteroid is real and it can happen, but we have the ability to know it before it happens.” In addition, Rob was driven by the prospect of mining asteroids for materials that can be used in space to build habitats, starships and other space machines. His studies then led him to his current career during which he’s discovered two comets and an asteroid.

As awareness of his discoveries grew, Rob was called upon to speak at various events. He was speaking at the 40th anniversary of Old Sun College on his reserve, when a woman approached and said she knew who his family was. For two years she called and for just as long, he avoided her. In 2013, he finally called her back and within 20 minutes Rob knew all about his life and his huge family. The woman was his aunt. “I had spent my life not wanting to know them; I figured they’d all be dead anyway. My thought was ‘where do you find Aboriginal people: jails, institutions and grave yards’. But I learned that this was far from the case.”

Finding his family was one thing, but Rob knew that in order to understand himself, he needed to know more. He learned that his mother had been forced into residential school and the resulting damage ran deep in his family.

“I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘intergenerational trauma’ until four years ago. Until then, I never understood what my problem was and why I was so messed up. But it’s in my DNA."

Finding his family, history and culture helped to ground Rob. Therapy was also instrumental in leading him out of the dark. “I was able to take that second chance that I was given but I wouldn’t say that I got over it or that I’m even over it now.”

Although he still struggles, Rob uses what he’s learned to help others. He says three key actions are necessary for recovery: gratitude, forgiveness and compassion. “I see these as the three blades of sweet grass, woven together for strength. It helps remind me to be gentle with myself when I’m having a bad day.”

Rob’s Blackfoot name is Kakató'sina, pronounced: ga ga doh SEE na, which means Star Chief. He sees asteroids as the new buffalo and a huge part of the future economy, and is particularly interested in helping Aboriginal youth. Through public speaking he encourages youth to study science, while staying connected to their culture. “That’s what First Light is all about.” Rob says of his latest endeavor, which is set to launch late in 2014. The First Light initiative will see telescopes set up in First Nations communities, inviting youth to explore the night sky.

“Aboriginal people hold that we come from the sky, and that’s the literal truth. We’re made from the ashes of stars. Looking for asteroids is like looking for our birth family.”

When asked how an established scientist can be open to spirituality, Rob smiles.

“The light, the energy and matter are about five per cent of what the universe is made of. We have no clue what the rest is. When you know that a huge part of the universe is not understood, there’s plenty of room there for spirit.”