Indigenous cartographers work to decolonize mapping of traditional lands

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Amid growing national discourse around social and racial justice, a group of cartographers are diving into decolonial mapping as a means to recenter Indigenous voices and values.

In this fall’s special edition of the Cartographica journal, Indigenous and non-Indigenous map scholars have published a series of essays on the history of mapping as a tool of colonization, and the current efforts by Indigenous groups to reclaim traditional names and spaces with their own mapping techniques.

“People think of a map as somehow a translation of what is. And it’s never that. It’s always an interpretation and a representation of some value, some interest, whatever that may be. There’s an embedded political nature,” said Natchee Barnd, an associate professor of ethnic studies in Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts.

For example, he said, “Anytime you create a map of Oregon, you are reasserting, reclaiming and recreating the fact of that as a state. Oregon doesn’t just happen.”

Maps are human-made, Barnd said, which means they can be unmade or remade, as well.

Barnd co-wrote the introductory essay for the journal, in which he and other researchers explain that maps have long been a means of demonstrating and reinforcing territorial ownership. “Decolonial” mapping is a movement seeking to recenter Indigenous mapping practices, not necessarily to replace mainstream Western navigational tools, but to respect and highlight Native culture and history through mapping.

The special edition includes examples from North America, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

In its most basic definition, a map is a form of geographic reference that people use to locate something. But maps vary based on what the mapmaker values or needs: A topographical map centers different features from a map of oil deposits; a map of state borders looks very different from a map of tribal lands.

In Indigenous cartography, a map doesn’t have to be a physical image laid out on paper. It can be a story or a song that describes important places, landmarks and people’s relationship to the land.

This means Indigenous maps can better account for the ever-changing nature of both the natural and built environment, not just serve as a static snapshot. If a wildfire sweeps through an area and alters its appearance, Indigenous mapmakers can add a new chapter or verse to include that part of the story.

“It’s not so much the method that’s different; it’s the epistemology and methodology. In other words, it’s how we know what to put on the map, how we decide what a map is supposed to do and look like, who should be at the table making the map, and how that map is supposed to be read and shared,” said Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona and co-author on the essay and journal. “The form is only one small part of what makes a map Indigenous – the values and practices underpinning and influencing the form are the big stuff.”

Many decolonial maps are created by and for Indigenous groups, and anyone outside that group likely lacks the cultural competency to read them. In addition to territorial borders, these maps may pinpoint spiritual sites or burial grounds, which are not meant to be found by non-tribal members. Historically, Indigenous maps also differed from Western maps in the degree of inter-tribal overlap, rather than strict boundaries.

“Colonial map-making contributed to the repressive erasure of Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world, and this colonial legacy continues to shape geographical imaginations today,” said Reuben Rose-Redwood, another co-author and a geography professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.

The goals of the decolonial mapping movement vary, from reclaiming Indigenous place names, to reinforcing historical treaties, to mapping the locations of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Rose-Redwood said.

It’s a movement that needs everyone on board, Lucchesi said.

“Collaborative mapping projects centered on Indigenous data sovereignty can be a literal path to decolonization, because of the dialogues and relationships they create space for,” she said.

At a minimum, Barnd said the movement wants more people to understand and acknowledge the role mapping has played in colonizers exerting force and violence against Indigenous people.

“The maps don’t get up and attack someone. But there are a number of symbolic violences in the idea of needing to map something,” Barnd said. “It’s the idea that, ‘This is our territory, we’re going to use it; once we map it, we know how we can remove and extract the territory from the folks who are there claiming it.'”

Maps reveal just as much about the map-maker as they do the area depicted, he added.

“The way we think about the world is never what it is. It’s always how we understand ourselves.”

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