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here’s a roundup of the maps of “North American indigenous territories” I’ve seen on tumblr in the last two weeks. please note the following:
- save for the second one, none of them are dated. “pre-contact” is not a date. “colonial” is not a date. the first could mean 1500 or 1850 or anywhere in between. the latter could be any one of those dates, all the way up to the present. an ahistoric map is an uncontextualized map which means it is an essentially useless and ignorant map.
- they all contradict each other. which one is right? they were all drawn by white academics, so it’s hard to really know, huh?
- they all have major flaws and inaccuracies. there are at least 500 different tribes in N. America—none of these maps save the second to last one have that many listed, and that one is of Northern California alone!
Academics and cartographers will lie to you and say that it’s hard to know which lands belonged to whom in the “pre-contact days.” This is a reflection of their unwillingness to dialogue with indigenous peoples and knowledges than it is actual existing information, because you can bet Native peoples know which land is theirs.
They’ll legitimate “estimations” and “generalizations” for the sake of “general knowledge” that “indigenous peoples were there.” That’s part of a larger colonial narrative that tells us it’s okay to belittle indigenous histories and knowledges for the sake of ignorance produced by that same colonial narrative.
Finally, they’ll hide behind industry-granted authority grounded in objectivism—as if colonizers could ever be objective about the lands they’re colonizing. In the words of Fanon, “for the colonized person, objectivity is always turned against them.” This authority is granted by colonial institutions of power that actively works to the detriment of indigenous peoples and legitimates epistemic and material violence from academics and professionals. There is no such thing as objectivity, much less an objective map.
Aside from formal reservation boundaries, there are no maps in existence which adequately represent indigenous territories of North America (and even reservation boundaries are complicated and changing, and don’t include unrecognized tribes). What does indigenous territory mean? Is it legal landholdings? Cultural areas? Linguistic areas? Historic areas, and if so, from which time period? The only way to account for the multiple and varied iterations and meanings of “indigenous territories” is to create maps of extremely small areas, working from indigenous knowledges and histories. They would have to be something like 20x60mi on each page, and even then would require multiple iterations, taking historic change, varying definitions, and varying narratives into account (many boundaries are contested or overlap!). The final project would be a whole series of massive atlases.
Maps are an assertion of power. Think carefully what kind of power you’re perpetuating when using maps like these. For more information and to see other posts I’ve written on the subject (including the use of GIS and linguistic area maps), see these posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.
A reader pointed me to this great post about maps of America.