The NASA space shuttle Atlantis landed on July 21, ending a 30-year program of space exploration and experimentation. One massive payload it carried was called the “Raffaello Multi-purpose Logistics Module,” a container filled with five tons of supplies and spare parts for the space station (ISS). Now dubbed Leonardo, the module will stay at the space station for the duration of its useful life. Its large size will provide much needed space for the astronauts who visit the station in the future.
That is the big component of the flight. But also nestled in the payload was a very tiny experiment: American Indian tobacco seeds in a microgravity environment. This was the first and only plant experiment involving native seeds cultivated only by American Indians from the Western Hemisphere using native agricultural science over millennia.
Instrumentation Technology Associates (ITA) built the hardware that carries the microgravity experiments. A commercial company, experiments are carried on missions for a fee. The company continues to book space on commercial flights and government-sponsored space programs. Valerie Cassanto, the company owner’s daughter assisted in getting the experiment underway. The company’s small hardware would become the home of the tobacco seeds during the flight.
Kenji Williams with other associates at the Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) NASA education team worked with Dakota Astronomer Jim Rock and his wife, educator Roxanne Gould to bring the experiment aboard Atlantis. They met at an environmental science conference in Minnesota. Rock explains how he chose the 800-year old cultivar of small leaf yellow tobacco for the trip, named in Dakota,” Chandi.” Once he was selected to be a part of the volunteers for the group, he immediately thought of tobacco and the “Three Sisters,” the corn, beans, and squash that are traditionally grown together on Indian plots. It soon became apparent that the larger seeds would not fit into the shuttle’s Materials Dispersion Apparatus (MDA) minilabs that have unique power supplies. So Jim fell back to a plan to create an experiment with Indian tobacco alone. The tiny seeds would fit into the MDA spaces.
MDAs are capable of mixing up to three fluids in their environments using a liquid-to-liquid diffusion process. The MDAs are therefore capable of conducting biomedical, manufacturing and fluid sciences processes. The tiny tobacco seeds would get water at a specific time and point in space. The seeds were hard to load because of their tiny size, but Jim was adamant that precision be applied: seven seeds for the Seven Starfire Nations Ocheti Shakowin Oyate. Other containers held 13, 20 and 365 seeds for a total of 405. The astronauts had to turn cranks to deliver water to the seeds at specific times. The number of seeds relates to the Dakota association with loading a pipe for ceremonies and the Dakota/Nakota view of the “river in the sky” the Milky Way, where it is said the people come from a star, an origin: Wakan Titit. And befitting the river association, the seeds were carried to the launching site in tiny canoes, made especially for the voyage.
Even though Jim Rock is trained in science which he also teaches, he brings with him the knowledge of his ancestors, handed down to him specifically by his father, Tabdoka Sapa Itokab Najin Sni, a name that translates as “Do Not Stand In Front Of The Black Buffalo,” acknowledging that which gives life. Rock wrote: “This reminds us to have great respect for the extreme, sacrificial generosity of the buffalo who represents the Universe to us and who is also our stellar ancestor as seen in the racetrack constellations (including Orion and parts of Taurus, Canis Major and Gemini). There we see the “Black (star) Buffalo.” It is to my “Ate” (father) we dedicate this “star seeds of life” experiment.”
The seeds are back on earth now, and on their way to the Science Museum of Minnesota where they will continue to be observed. Rock will continue his work as a Dakota astronomer/educator with the Indigenous Educational Design company working with the Minnesota Planetarium Society, NASA’s Beautiful Earth Project, and NOAA’s WorldViewsNetwork, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, the AIOIC (American Indians Opportunities Industrialization Center) and Dream of Wild Health.
America’s indigenous past now has a link with the most ambitious 30-year old space program ever created. For Jim Rock the experiment in flight was a way to reach toward a long-ago Dakota/Nakota past: the Buffalo’s backbone; those three stars in Orion’s belt.