One integral part of colonization that is seldom discussed is the process of surveying stolen land, and then proclaiming dominion over it by whitewashing and redefining its features in the image of the invader.
President Thomas Jefferson charged Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their expedition, The Corps of Discovery, with exploring and mapping the “uncharted” West in 1803 after the United States purchased a large swath of land, that amounts to the Great Plains, from France. Indubitably, France had no authority to sell the land that hundreds of Indigenous Nations had lived on for thousands of years, and the land in question was hardly “uncharted.” Native peoples had their own systems of cartography and were deeply, intimately knowledgeable of every river, valley, mountain peak and crevasse throughout their territories. This fact was evidenced by Lewis and Clark’s reliance upon Sacajawea, the Native woman who acted as the expedition’s invaluable guide, to survive their trek through the western wilds.
The act of re-mapping the already claimed and occupied ancestral homelands of millions of Indigenous peoples also fostered the deluded colonial assertion that settlers were discovering a country that was uninhabited, thereby suggesting that the Natives who lived there were subhuman, racing toward extinction, and undeserving of the vast wealth they’d cultivated through skillful, astute land and resource management.
Blinded by greed and ego, the Empire failed to see the wisdom of Indigenous ways. Today, in the midst of climate disaster, we are reaping the consequences of their selfish, gluttonous, genocidal conceited lies.
The act of re-mapping the already claimed and occupied ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples fostered the deluded colonial assertion that settlers were discovering an uninhabited country.
In recent years, western science, a relatively young branch of human intellect, has begun to delve into and embrace the significance of Indigenous knowledge, especially pertaining to the conservation and revitalization of biodiversity and Earth’s many distinct ecosystems, when studies revealed that we were effective in accomplishing these endeavors.
Now that same enthusiasm is spreading to cartography. While it hasn’t received the same media attention other movements have, what could be more powerful than the decolonization of space and time itself?
Native Nations, who are still very much alive, are fighting to reclaim the traditional names of features within their homelands. Just this past summer, a mountain peak named after a misogynistic racial slur, Squ*w’s Tit, near Canmore, Alberta, was renamed its traditional Stoney Nakoda name, Anû Kathâ Îpa, which translates to Bald Eagle Peak in English.
In 2020, Lake Calhoun in Minnesota, named after John C. Calhoun, a strong proponent of slavery and Native removal, officially returned to its early Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, meaning White Earth Lake.
In the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, a peak formerly named after U.S. General William S. Harney, a war criminal responsible for the brutal slaughter of nearly 100 Brulé Lakota men, women, and children at the Battle of Blue Water Creek, also known as The Harney Massacre, is now called Black Elk Peak, after the renowned Oglala Lakota wicasa wakan (medicine man) and heyoka who vision quested there.
Native Nations, who are still very much alive, are fighting to reclaim the traditional names of features within their homelands.
Indigenous Mapping is part of an Indigenous-led movement to decolonize cartography, the science of map-making. They actively “support geospatial capacity building that generates facilities, programs, and resources to promote Indigenous Peoples’ ability to collect, analyze, and visualize community-based geospatial information.” They’ve been holding workshops to advance and develop culturally appropriate and inclusive geospatial technologies specifically for Indigenous leadership, agencies, and Native communities, to strengthen and bolster Indigenous rights.
While map-making has long been used as a means of navigation and for the purposes of communication, it’s also been utilized to exert power over the disenfranchised and oppressed. For this reason, it must be decolonized with the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge—expertise that’s been omitted from the field for hundreds of years to the detriment of humanity and Mother Earth.
“The underlying notion of a map is an exertion of power—the person holding the pen ultimately decides what gets put into the map and what is excluded,” says Steve DeRoy, Anishinaabe/Saulteaux, an award-winning cartographer and the founder of Indigenous Mapping. It is his goal to provide Native communities with the technological tools they need to get in the driver’s seat, in order to decolonize landscapes.
It’s important to understand that decolonization does not require one to rebuff all forms of modernity and physically return oneself to precolonial living conditions. Systems of ancient Indigenous knowledge can be enhanced and disseminated widely by using contemporary, innovative tools like GPS, satellite data, and more.
“The underlying notion of a map is an exertion of power—the person holding the pen ultimately decides what gets put into the map and what is excluded.”
Colonialism continues to inflict harm on Indigenous Nations, and it uses geography and maps that erase our existence as one method of achieving that. Harvard University is being accused of shirking the law, or to be specific, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). A Harvard Peabody collection still holds the remains of thousands of Indigenous ancestors. They received a five year extension to complete lawfully mandated Tribal consultations, but still failed to do so. They listed 6,372 of the 6,586 individuals in their possession as “culturally unidentifiable” even though the remains are of known geographical origin. The Association of American Indian Affairs maintains that about 96.75% of the ancestral remains held captive at the Peabody would absolutely allow Tribal consultation and repatriation to take place because Indigenous territories are known, providing a direct link to the Native Nation where remains were taken from. Labeling the remains as unidentifiable shifts the burden to Tribes, who lack the funding, resources and manpower Harvard has, to prove affiliation and thus reclaim their ancestors and bring them home.
Besides protecting the rights of Native Nations, decolonizing cartography reestablishes Indigenous worldviews, which are an about-face from the cold, callous colonial view of land as mere property existing only for the purposes of extraction and consumption. Instead, it uncovers landscapes as cultural keystones where natural economies of sustainability can flourish and allow us to live in balance with our environment.
Ultimately, Indigenous mapping provides Native peoples with another means of determining their own futures. When Indigenous peoples become active participants in the visual representation of time and space, they are helping create a new Indigenized world, one future generations, both Native and non-Native, can thrive in.