Mapping With Purpose

Indigenous cartography helping reignite culture and tradition

Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Eugene, Eureka, Corvallis, sprawling urban centers, rural suburb communities, indigenous reservations, you name it. Natchee Blu Barnd, 47, has lived just about everywhere. 

Barnd, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Oregon State’s College of Liberal Arts, carries what he thinks to be a somewhat unique perspective when it comes to the relationship between individuals and the spaces around them. Barnd studies the interaction between the two. He says he views the relationship in a fluid manner.

“Most people were really set like, ‘This is how I engage with the world,’” he says. 

Barnd, having had experienced living in such a depth of communities, says he would often find their viewpoints interesting, but far different from his own.

It wasn’t until he finished his Ph.D. in ethnic studies at University of California, San Diego, that he realized there were others with a similar line of thinking. 

In a time when racial and social tensions run at an all time high, Barnd and his associates are studying indigenous cartography — the art of mapping using native peoples’ perspective — and how it can be used to help return tradition and values to indigenous tribes and communities. Indigenous tribes have used the growing momentum of decolonial mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) to slowly return to their roots. They’ve done so through naming and renaming landmarks that were previously unnamed or whose indigenous names have been replaced as well as relocating past areas of significance and culture. 

Colonial mapping replaced ancestral mapping with the maps we know today — lines, measurements, details — nearly 600 years ago, when the first Europeans came to America. 

Barnd describes colonial mapping as “neutral.” It’s abstracted, surface-level. It marks locations rather than performing a deeper dive into the spaces themselves and their significance. Decolonial mapping, on the other hand, illustrates a less literal form of the art while gifting a community its lost or forgotten knowledge. 

“Maps aren’t just mapping things that are out there, mapping realities,” Barnd says. “They are representing our standings in the realities and our relationships to those things.”

He says it’s a pushback against the formulaic layouts, instead replaced with a focus on the ethos of the communities which inhabit the areas.  

Barnd gives the example of locations of interest that are not based on the locations themselves, but rather what you can physically see from each location.

“It’s not so much, ‘Oh, this is the biggest mountain,’” he says. “It’s more like, ‘From this point I can see 15 other really important things that I can all tell a story about.’ And then each of those has another set of stories from there.”

It’s not about the space itself, he says, rather the relationship the space has with those perspectives or those peoples. A return to decolonial mapping can serve to recapture lost stories and reignite tradition. 

“If you know the places then you can connect those stories,” Barnd says. “You can keep those stories alive and you can keep your cultural practice alive and your language alive and all your ceremony that goes with it.”  

The movement isn’t new, but thanks to technology such as GIS, that can pair places with data about them, it’s picking up steam. 

Indigenous tribes can use GIS to locate plants, watersheds and sacred sites once lost among the spread of urbanization. It can act as a safety measure as well, helping to highlight areas of increased violence toward indigenous women.  

Recently, Barnd and a group of conservation scientists have begun collaborating with the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes of western Oregon. Using GIS technology, they’ve located unnamed creeks in the area surrounding Corvallis. Together, the groups have given them names using indigenous stories and languages. 

Barnd is also in the process of finalizing a journal article on the process of renaming indigenous placed names on a broader scale. It will feature a glance around the nation at landmarks that have lost their indigenous names. He highlighted Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. 

“They call it Devil’s Tower,” he said. “But it has indigenous names that don’t have that kind of connotation. People are fighting those as well as other ones that have really problematic names.”

Renaming can be tedious, but it’s a key step in the reclamation process. Once settled upon, the new name faces a community input process and is sent to the National Board of Geographic Names, a government agency. 

“A lot of these things take time, and if they’re ‘controversial,’ quote-un-quote, sometimes they never get pushed forward or sometimes they just battle over it for quite a long time,” Barnd says. 

Baby steps perhaps, but for these indigenous communities, the work must start somewhere. Change doesn’t come overnight. 

“It’s small and it’s marginal, but that’s where you start,” he says. “You start there and you get used to that, and you practice that, and you expand that. Then you think about the next step.” He continues, “It gets you thinking, but let’s do more, let’s act in some kind of way.”

­This story has been updated.

Comments are closed.