Indigenous Counter-Mapping: The Use of GIS, Geovisualizations, and Historical Maps to Reconstruct Indigenous Perspectives and Histories

AHA Session 63
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Anne Kelly Knowles, Middlebury College
Anne Kelly Knowles, Middlebury College

Session Abstract

This panel explores the ways in which geospatial technologies and ‘ethno-spatial’ methodologies can be used to map indigenous geographical knowledge and history. Indigenous groups and activists are increasingly turning to “counter-mapping” to reassert claims to territory and natural resources. The term "counter-mapping" refers to efforts by local groups (often indigenous communities) to "appropriate the state's techniques and manner of [spatial] representation to bolster the legitimacy of 'customary' claims to resources" (Peluso 1995: 384). However, the value of counter-mapping goes beyond the reassertion of territorial claims. Efforts to map indigenous participation in and perspectives of historical events can serve as a means to reconstruct indigenous contributions normally omitted, elided, or diminished by historical accounts. In this way, an indigenous spatial history functions as a counter to imperial and national histories which privilege the perspective of the powerful.

Thus, this panel examines the potential of an indigenous spatial history to record / reconstruct indigenous perspectives in order to influence both present-day policy and to change our understanding of the past. We will discuss:

  • PAST PRACTICES: How have past cartographic practices and spatial representations (from textual descriptions and paper maps to GIS and computer-aided mapping) served to erase indigenous culture, history, and agency?
  • CURRENT AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS: How are and how can emerging geospatial technologies and ethno-spatial methodologies be used to reassert indigenous culture, history, and agency?
  • POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: What potential problems arise in this effort to map indigenous geographic knowledge and heritage?

Geographers have long contended that modern cartography is a tool that serves the interests of the powerful (i.e. Harley 1989). Similarly, early critics of GIS saw it as yet another tool of the state and other powerful interests. Likewise, its use by academics for historical research was seen as a form of positivist research, one that reduced complex phenomenon into a simple abstraction and placed too much trust in the data (sources) used.

While many of these early criticisms were valid, the way GIS is used by scholars has changed dramatically in recent years. Now we can speak of GIS and similar geospatial technologies as tools that are 'democratizing' map-making, geographic knowledge production and communication. In this session, we will examine the ways that geospatial technologies can be used to record indigenous geographical knowledge and as a means to protect and/or reclaim traditional lands.

Similarly, scholars studying the more distant past have gone far beyond the uncritical use of GIS to visualize quantitative data from problematic sources. These scholars are finding ways to incorporate a variety of different types of sources - including qualitative sources, archaeological data, and oral histories - as a means to reconstruct and re-imagine past indigenous landscapes, spatial practices, and geographical knowledge. In this way, we will address how historical "counter-mapping" can do two things: 1) deconstruct texts and maps created by the powerful, and 2) reconstruct indigenous activity and its contributions to the shape of historical events and of past and present landscapes.

See more of: AHA Sessions