The Poetics of Indigenous Carto-Activism
by Mimi Gellman
“[P]art of what fascinates us when looking at a map is in inhabiting the mind of its maker, considering that particular terrain of imagination overlaid with those unique contour lines of experience. […] The coded visual language of maps is one we all know, but in making maps of our world we each have our own dialect.”
In this era of radically accelerated and instantaneous communications, when ideas and images are proliferated worldwide by the mere touch of an iPhone screen, and when we can circumnavigate the globe by plane in a mere 42 hours, it is not surprising that the world has suddenly become a smaller place—a place that we erroneously believe we know. What does it mean to know a place and what social, political, cultural, spiritual, or geographical perspectives contribute to this knowing?
For decades now, visual artists have been addressing questions of place through the implementation of mapping as an aesthetic expression and form. The well-known maps in the works of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Ai Weiwei, Guillermo Kuitca, Nancy Graves, Jasper Johns, and Nancy Holt come to mind. These artists have taken up mapping as a means of signaling geopolitical instability and the shifting dynamics of power and influence that are a current reflection of postmodern times. This is equally true for contemporary Indigenous artists, who have embraced mapping as a creative act of self-representation and visual sovereignty, as well as an assertion of Indigenous presence and belonging.
It is important to understand that mapping and other modes of cartography are culturally based forms and systems that vary widely from culture to culture, producing diverse forms of mapping projections and embodying particular spatial and placial relations. Maps are dependent on and arise from particular ontologies and cosmologies that predicate how one sees, values, and engages with the land. In a more normative and deleterious sense, they can also be forms of a colonial infrastructure implemented to carve up, divest, and dispossess Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources.
According to geographers JB Harley and David Woodward, the pre-1987 disciplinary criteria that established conventional maps must include direction, scale, coordinates, and at the very least some mimetic relationship to the landscape being discussed. This criteria shifted in 1987, when the field of cartography was opened up and further expanded upon by Harley and Woodward in a more encompassing definition: “Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world.”2 This new definition allowed many heretofore excluded Indigenous artifacts and mapping forms to be recognized as cartography. And this is where it becomes interesting. Historically, Indigenous maps have been widely misinterpreted through this singular lens that presumes that they can be read through these disciplinary criteria alone, without a deep understanding of the Nation-specific languages, worldviews, or senses of place of the map-makers. The field of Indigenous cartography has a wide range of modalities, including terrestrial maps created to delineate territories, assist with seasonal migrations, navigate river systems, and locate animals for hunting. These maps have also been created for more cerebral endeavours: to stake out social or diplomatic positions, to clarify cross-cultural arguments, as mnemonic devices for memory enhancement, and as a means of symbolizing complex spiritual relationships with families, clans, Nations, and the cosmos.
In Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat’s The Settlement from a Distance (1982), Pudlat draws his village as situated on an undulating landscape and also unexpectedly places it within the overhanging clouds. Without intimate knowledge of this landscape, his image might read as a delightfully fanciful work. But this is not the case. Pudlat is painting an extraordinary environmental experience which occurs in frozen landscapes. As writer Robin McGrath attests, under certain conditions when the clouds are hanging low to the ground, the clouds reflect the shifting surfaces of the landscape, bodies of water, changes in flora, and the presence of villages that are too far in the distance to be seen from the perspective of someone looking out to the horizon.3 In order to gauge how far a village might be—or a herd of Caribou, for example—a traveller would look to the clouds to see the landscape across a greater distance. Rather than creating an imaginative image, Pudlat was illustrating the deeply personal knowledge of his territory that he gained through an intimate experiential relationship and years of perceptive observation.
The concept of one’s consciousness being directional is key to many Indigenous ontologies in North America and assists us in the understanding of many historical Indigenous maps as they were not oriented in terms of the four cardinal directions. There would often be a variation in scale which would indicate areas of significance for the map-makers, which they would explain orally along with additional descriptions of the landscape. Possessing knowledge of the local Indigenous language was also key to an accurate appraisal of these maps, as is indicated by linguist Michael Fortescue, who discovered the complexities in language when researching the structure of words for directions in the Arctic, Greenland, and Alaska. “If you want to get to a particular place and you have to go north, the word for north describes a prevailing wind. But if you pass over a big body of water, the wind actually reverses direction, so the same word means the opposite,” he writes.4 Indigenous languages in Canada and the United States express and embody their societies’ understanding of the inherent mutability and relationality found in their universe.
Counter-mapping is a common strategy used to contest the truth of a particular map and correct it. Many Indigenous mapping artists have also employed counter-mapping strategies which use cartography and maps to correct territorial injustices and disrupt the power dynamics embedded within colonial imaginaries. In the digital print series The Paradise Syndrome (2016), Ligwilda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations artist Sonny Assu addresses the colonial theft of land and the forcible confinement of the Kwakwaka’wakw within an area that is now a fraction of their former ancestral territory. Assu scanned mariner charts from a set of spiral-bound navigation books inherited from his grandfather. While working with these charts, he was flooded with nostalgia as he recognized the beaches that he had once combed and the bays and inlets where he had once anchored with his grandfather. In The Paradise Syndrome, Voyage #30, two significant images appear: a large bird’s head drawn in formline which hovers centrally over the chart along with a broken copper shield that is counter-mapped in the top left corner. The bird’s head serves as an important symbolic presence for Assu, who situates it over the demarcated landscape as a means of communicating the realm of Kwakwaka’wakw cosmology. The copper shield, an important symbol of wealth and status in the potlatch ceremony, is drawn with the outline of his reserve, We Wai Kai, at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island. Assu included the shape of a broken copper shield to indicate the land that the government took away from the Kwakwaka’wakw and to signal the broken relationship that the Canadian state continues to have with these Nations. As Assu states, “Pre-contact, the Ligwilda’xw, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the other Pacific coastal First Nations once had full reign over their respective territories. As I looked over these charts, reliving my childhood on the water, I couldn’t help but think of what the government had left us and what harm this has done. Scanning the vast land and water base, I saw the origin place of the Ligwiłda’xw and was able to trace our move south. I saw where the Ligwiłda’xw, once gathered food. Where the Ligwiłda’xw gathered in times of war, and in times of ceremony, with their neighbours.”5
For Métis/settler artist Katherine Boyer, mapping became a vehicle for understanding and honouring her family’s Métis history in the land now known as Manitoba. In Red River Trails (2014), one of a large series of beaded works, Boyer tracks the migration of her family from the Red River settlements to Turtle Mountain and the Souris Valley. In this series, Boyer only chose locations where her family lived, worked, or travelled, narrating their journey across space and time. The media that she uses for this series—seed beads, fur, birch bark, and shroud cloth (a trade item with a significant history in Métis clothing and adornment)—were chosen for their material nature, their affect, and their direct relationship to traditional Métis culture.
From the late 1800s onward, in a cruel and calculated tactic, the colonial government of Canada moved the Métis from their traditional territories to road allowance lands (places that were destined for new railways and industrial development) and to lands designated by the Métis scrip (a government system that issued documents redeemable for land in exchange for their territorial rights). These scrip lands were specifically chosen by the government to separate family farmlands from each other, and Métis in general from their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In contemplating these issues, Boyer employed the slow and meditative act of beading to deeply reflect on her lineage and on the love and the losses that her family felt for their lands. The artist has remarked that this series was also a means of inspiring other Métis youth to explore their own histories of belonging.6 Boyer believes that the land has its own voice, expressing the idea that in order to fully understand the shared responsibility, self-governance, and agency of Métis people, the land must be understood from a deeply embodied experience.
It is interesting to note that users seldom, if ever, question the authority of their maps. As a result, they often fail to appreciate a map’s influence over political, social, and economic perspectives, attitudes, and power dynamics. In a powerful and evocative multimedia installation, Battle for the Woodlands (2014–2018), Anishinaabe artist Bonnie Devine alters an early 19th-century map of Upper and Lower Canada to reflect an Anishinaabe worldview. For Anishinaabeg, the psychic geography of place establishes the Earth as our mother, and it is through our relationship to the land that we recognize our true nature as a non-binary experience deeply connected to place… we are nature. In Battle for the Woodlands, Devine transforms the Great Lakes into animate animal-beings, revealing a world of mutual reciprocity that reflects her understanding of the coherence and boundaries of an Anishinaabe cosmic life. In this mapping installation, the artist narrates the westward migration of people and animals fleeing from colonial land appropriation and the negative forces of industrialization. Also included in this installation is Objects to Clothe Warriors, three painted hide cloaks representing Tecumseh, Chief Pontiac, and Crazy Horse—Indigenous warriors who fought for the territories surrounding the Great Lakes and battled to hold the colonizers back. The three woven basket-figures, Anishinaabitude, placed at the centre of the installation, represent the First Nations of Serpent River, the people of Walpole Island, and the Mississaugas of New Credit who are the contemporary peoples that have the responsibility now to stand against these ongoing colonizing forces. Devine’s deeply personal and political work resituates the land and waters of the Great Lakes as more than a territory to circumscribe and plunder. It reveals a profound and ongoing responsibility to the lands and waters that gave her birth and that offered the Anishinaabeg both home and sustenance.
We are within a significant moment in the history of the Canadian nation-state—a time of deep public reflection and rising awareness of the historic and ongoing destructive impacts of settler colonialism on the bodies, lands, and cultures of peoples indigenous to this place. It is now understood that the political and cultural ramifications of mapping have implications that go far beyond the charting of unknown territories into a claiming of space and an assertion of sovereignty over Indigenous lands. As Canadian courts address Indigenous land claims, and proof of continuous Indigenous land use is sought, it is imperative that we understand the knowledge embedded within Indigenous cartographic traditions—especially if it is true, as many disciplinary cartographers attest, that colonial conquest has been largely based on the notion that the land belongs to those who draw the maps.
Pudlat, Boyer, Assu, and Devine—among so many other contemporary Indigenous artists—remind us of the significance of place to Indigenous people and, most crucially, that an implicit understanding of Indigenous ontologies, histories, and languages is required in order to read these maps accurately. They require an interlocutor (a living Indigenous person) to unpack the knowledge embedded within them, to bring them to life and to give them voice. Unlike Cartesian maps, which are largely projections of conceptual territory and the power relations that they embed, these Indigenous map-works are embodied agents of knowledge that explore lived experiences and alternative realities, both materially and metaphysically. These maps stand as powerful and poetic representations of the ways in which Indigenous artists challenge the status quo, bring to light Nation-specific narratives, and highlight the ongoing devastation that this colonial government continues to perpetrate against Indigenous peoples and Nations.