Native Lands: An Interactive Map Reveals the Indigenous Lands on Which Modern Nations Were Built

“Now when I was a lit­tle chap I had a pas­sion for maps. I would look for hours at South Amer­i­ca, or Africa, or Aus­tralia, and lose myself in the all the glo­ries of explo­ration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked par­tic­u­lar­ly invit­ing on a map (but they all look that) I would put my fin­ger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”

                     —Joseph Con­rad, Heart of Dark­ness

In his post-WWII his­tor­i­cal sur­vey, The Sto­ry of Maps, Lloyd A. Brown observes that “the very mate­r­i­al used in the mak­ing of maps, charts and globes con­tributed to their destruc­tion.” Paper burns, rots, suc­cumbs to water-dam­age and insects. Maps and globes made from sol­id sil­ver, brass, cop­per, and oth­er met­als made too-tempt­ing tar­gets for loot­ers and thieves. In this way, maps serve dou­bly as sym­bol­ic indices of what they represent—lands that, in the very act of map­ping them, were often despoiled, over­run, and stolen from their inhab­i­tants.

More­over, in map­ping his­to­ry, it often hap­pened that “if a map were old and obso­lete and parch­ment was scarce, the old ink and rubri­ca­tion could be scraped off and the skin used over again. This prac­tice, account­ing for the loss of many codices as well as valu­able maps and charts, at one time became so per­ni­cious” that the Catholic Church issued decrees to for­bid it. What bet­ter alle­go­ry for con­quest, the wip­ing away of civ­i­liza­tions in order to write new names and bor­ders over them?

The old impe­r­i­al tropes of “blank spaces” on the map and “dark places of the earth” (like “dark­est Africa”), used with such effec­tive­ness in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark­ness, hide the plain truth, in the words of Conrad’s Mar­low:

The con­quest of the earth, which most­ly means the tak­ing it away from those who have a dif­fer­ent com­plex­ion or slight­ly flat­ter noses than our­selves, is not a pret­ty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sen­ti­men­tal pre­tence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sac­ri­fice to.…

Blank spaces rep­re­sent those areas that had not yet been forcibly brought into the Euro­pean econ­o­my of prop­er­ty, the sine qua non of Enlight­en­ment human­i­ty. “Once dis­cov­ered by Euro­peans,” writes his­to­ri­an Michel-Rolph Trouil­lot—once clas­si­fied, mapped, and made sub­ject, “the Oth­er final­ly enters the human world.” For sev­er­al decades now, post­colo­nial projects have engaged in the pro­gres­sive dis­en­chant­ment of “the idea,” in the recog­ni­tion of messy rela­tion­ships between nam­ing, map­ping, and pow­er, and the recov­ery, to the extent pos­si­ble, of the names, bor­ders, and iden­ti­ties beneath palimpsest his­to­ries.

Such projects pro­lif­er­ate out­side acad­e­mia as tech­nol­o­gy ampli­fies pre­vi­ous­ly unheard dis­sent­ing voic­es and per­spec­tives and as, to use an old post­colo­nial phrase, “the empire writes back”—or, in this case, “maps back.” Such is the intent of the online project Native Land, an inter­ac­tive web­site that “does the oppo­site” of cen­turies of colo­nial map­ping, writes Atlas Obscu­ra, “by strip­ping out coun­try and state bor­ders in order to high­light the com­plex patch­work of his­toric and present-day Indige­nous ter­ri­to­ries, treaties, and lan­guages that stretch across the Unit­ed States, Cana­da,” the Cana­di­an Arc­tic, Green­land, and Aus­tralia.

Also a mobile app for Apple and Android, the map allows vis­i­tors to enter street address­es or ZIP codes in the search bar, “to dis­cov­er whose tra­di­tion­al ter­ri­to­ry their home was built on.”

White House offi­cials will dis­cov­er that 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue is found on the over­lap­ping tra­di­tion­al ter­ri­to­ries of the Pamunkey and Pis­cat­away tribes. Tourists will learn that the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty was erect­ed on Lenape land, and aspir­ing lawyers that Har­vard was erect­ed in a place first inhab­it­ed by the Wamponoag and Mass­a­chu­sett peo­ples.

The map was cre­at­ed by Cana­di­an activist and pro­gram­mer Vic­tor Tem­pra­no, founder of the com­pa­ny Map­ster, which funds the project. Tem­pra­no pref­aces the Native Land “About” page with a dis­claimer: “This is not an aca­d­e­m­ic or pro­fes­sion­al sur­vey,” he writes, and is “con­stant­ly being refined from user input.” He defines his pur­pose as “help­ing peo­ple get inter­est­ed and engaged” by ask­ing ques­tions like “who has the right to define where a par­tic­u­lar ter­ri­to­ry ends, and anoth­er begins?”

As neo-colo­nial projects like oil pipelines once again threat­en the sur­vival of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and indige­nous peo­ple find them­selves and their chil­dren caged in pris­ons for cross­ing mil­i­ta­rized nation­al bor­ders, such ques­tions could not be more rel­e­vant. Tem­pra­no does not make any claims to defin­i­tive his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy and points to oth­er, sim­i­lar projects that sup­ple­ment the “blank spaces” in his own online map, such as huge areas of South Amer­i­ca being re-mapped on the ground by Ama­zon­ian tribes enter­ing field data into smart phones, and Aaron Capella’s Trib­al Nations Maps, which offers attrac­tive print­ed prod­ucts, per­fect for use in class­rooms.

Tem­pra­no quotes Capel­la in order to illu­mi­nate his work: “This map is in hon­or of all the Indige­nous Nations [of colo­nial states]. It seeks to encour­age people—Native and non-Native—to remem­ber that these were once a vast land of autonomous Native peo­ples, who called the land by many dif­fer­ent names accord­ing to their lan­guages and geog­ra­phy. The hope is that it instills pride in the descen­dants of these Peo­ple, brings an aware­ness of Indige­nous his­to­ry and remem­bers the Nations that fought and con­tin­ue to fight valiant­ly to pre­serve their way of life.”

Vis­it Native Land here and enter an address in North or South Amer­i­ca or Aus­tralia to learn about pre­vi­ous or con­cur­rent Native inhab­i­tants, their lan­guages, and the his­tor­i­cal treaties signed and bro­ken over the cen­turies. Click­ing on the ter­ri­to­ry of each Indige­nous nation brings up links to oth­er infor­ma­tive sites and allows users to sub­mit cor­rec­tions to help guide this inclu­sive project toward greater accu­ra­cy.

The site also fea­tures a Teacher’s Guide, Blog by Tem­pra­no, and a page on the impor­tance of Ter­ri­to­ry Acknowl­edge­ment, a way for us to “insert an aware­ness of indige­nous pres­ence and land rights in every­day life,” and one of many “trans­for­ma­tive acts,” as Chelsea Vow­el, a Métis woman from the Plains Cree writes, “that to some extent undo Indige­nous era­sure.”

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

200+ Films by Indige­nous Direc­tors Now Free to View Online: A New Archive Launched by the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • DB says:

    There are no indige­nous peo­ple who lived in the rest of the globe?

  • M Pickett says:

    “This map is in hon­or of all the Indige­nous Nations [of colo­nial states].

  • Michael Sugruv says:

    Much of this is pro­pa­gan­da. This is a hypo­thet­i­cal snap­shot of Indi­an lands at the point of Euro­pean con­tact, which has noth­ing what­ev­er to do with abo­rig­i­nal first inhab­i­tants. Claims like “Har­vard was erect­ed in a place first inhab­it­ed by the Wamponoag and Mass­a­chu­sett peo­ples” are horse exhaust. Humans have been in the Amer­i­c­as for at least 14k years and on the east coast for per­haps 10k years. The idea that God gave the peo­ple the first Euro­peans encoun­tered deeds as prelap­sar­i­an first inhab­i­tants, rein­forced by indige­nous cre­ation myths, is rub­bish. Over the course of mil­len­nia, just like the Old World, pop­u­la­tions moved, dis­placed and exter­mi­nat­ed pri­or pop­u­la­tions, as the new his­tor­i­cal DNA data shows. Nobody knows who first set­tled what is now Cam­bridge Mass­a­chu­setts because the ini­tial inhab­i­tants were killed off or dis­placed start­ing thou­sands of years ago and con­tin­u­ing up to the Wampanoags and Mass­a­chu­setts, who were not ab orig­ine inhab­i­tants, they were the last man stand­ing after cen­turies of geno­ci­dal vio­lence.

  • Spencer says:

    For those read­ing this. There is zero evi­dence that first nations peo­ple com­mit­ted geno­ci­dal vio­lence. The only decent point made here is that peo­ple have been on the move since we had legs. Land acknowl­edg­ments are per­for­ma­tive, but with any luck they lay on the path to repa­ra­tions for geno­cide com­mit­ted by ances­tors of peo­ple who cur­rent­ly ben­e­fit from that geno­cide. This post reads as an attempt to rationalize/legitimize geno­cide (a geno­cide that is still hap­pen­ing) by propos­ing it was done before and it will be done again. I doubt many peo­ple think geno­cide should hap­pen, so let’s all take an awk­ward step in the right direc­tion. Learn the names of the tribes that lived and LIVE where you stand and say them aloud.

  • Harrie Baken says:

    The are miss­ing. Even the name Pales­tine is miss­ing. Nak­ba, Zion­ism, Apartheid — miss­ing.
    For the his­to­ry and maps of the annex­a­tion and col­o­niza­tion (war crime), see:

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