Should Google Be Mapping Tribal Lands?

The search engine's indigenous mapping project presents itself as a powerful expression of empowerment for tribal communities worldwide, but it could bear huge consequences.

Hans Neleman/Getty

The pioneering geographer Bernard Nietschmann once contended “more indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns.”

Well, perhaps we would do better to just call it a toss-up. Nietschmann, an active proponent of indigenous mapping as a tool of empowerment, added in the same breath that “this assertion has its corollary: more indigenous territory can be re­claimed and defended by maps than by guns.”

In a similar spirit, Google, in partnership with the National Congress on American Indians, organized its inaugural “Indigenous Mapping Day” last year, in honor of the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. While indigenous peoples have been effectively using counter mapping techniques increasingly since at least the ’60s, the collective nature of Google’s initiative presented itself as a powerful expression of empowerment for indigenous communities worldwide.

Of course, it all depends on what empowerment entails. If it means the dissemination of local, tribal knowledge in a spatial language mandated by arguably the most influential (not to mention systematically reductive) mapping entity consulted today, we might do well to consider the consequences of such an alleged form of empowerment. Such deliberation, it might be added, extends more broadly within the context of the implications—both potentially positive and negative—that such collaboration has for any community.

Much in the same tenor used to goad remote communities across the world to contribute to its mapping project, on this occasion Google pointed to the apparent unfortunate plight of many indigenous communities that still lack access to accurate mapping information. That is, communities that don’t appear when called up on a Google Maps search, or do not conceive space in the terms that Google mandates. Google’s call on August 9 encouraged these communities to collectively help remedy this situation by proactively charting their own home turf: filling in the holes with the names and locations of important infrastructure such as local roads, educational and health facilities, tribal offices, and other points of interest. Additional information, such as cultural significance or contact details, could also be included in conjunction with a specific location. What’s more, many tribes had the opportunity to do so deploying Google Map Maker in their own language and font. Currently Cherokee, Hawaiian, Inuktitut, Inupiaq, Kalaallisut, and Navajo are supported.

Google Map Maker, so the rhetoric goes, has the potential to be particularly suited to joining traditional and contemporary indigenous cartographic strategies, translating cognitive and collective spatial knowledge into the constrains of a very specific, invariably accessible and objective, visual dialect. Mashed up maps can be custom-designed to seamlessly interweave layers of topography, history, statistical data, and cultural information. Recent projects such as those created by the Surui in the Amazon and the Cherokee in North Carolina using Google Map Maker certainly seem to go in this direction. One might be quick to acknowledge the constructiveness of such maps in relaying specific historical narratives, but there are more ways of thinking about space than those that Google endorses. This is particularly, though not exclusively, evident in indigenous communities.

Closely tied to specific cultural practices, traditional indigenous cartographic conventions exceed the parameters of what one generally thinks of as a map today. For one, these maps often use narrative to chart the landscape, rather than constraining it to a grid with coordinates. Think of the sky chart, the song map, the winter count, and the cloud atlas. Topography in these maps is performative. Memory is embedded in geography, so that place is conceived in terms of an event or events tied to a specific (though by no means necessarily static) narrative, which is described by way of gesture, ritual, song, poem, dance, or speech.

These maps contain multiple layers of meaning, often informed by time rather than space, indicate practical seasonal information, such as the harvest or hunting season, as well as encode different registers of collectively important historical events or locales, such as sacred and other culturally significant sites.

As we rely more and more on Google to be the steward of our spatial knowledge, we might pause to reflect upon the ways in which that custodian mandates the terms in which we think about space and, by extension, our communities. Participatory mapping, it would seem, takes on a new meaning in this context. We may be told that we are charting our own terrain, but on whose terms, and therefore we might even ask, in a sense, on whose turf? Or, as anthropologist Hugh Brody once succinctly put it: “When social scientific work is undertaken at least in part to convey another people’s sense of their needs, the problems are as much political as they are methodological.”

Maps have long served to formalize authority over peoples and their lands and resources. This is particularly evident within the context of the subjugation of indigenous peoples where land itself has been an instrument in the service of subjugation even as indigenous communities have remained deeply invested in local topographies. Given that indigenous sovereignty is something that must be continually reasserted, maps do prove powerful tools for influencing both national and international policy, upholding territorial rights involving sovereign and ceded lands, as well as in maintaining or revitalizing cultural practices, including culturally specific relationships to collectively-held lands.

The tools of the surveyor, and by extension those of the census-taker in particular, have all too frequently glossed over data pertaining to indigenous peoples and their lands. Data invisibility is important since policy decisions are frequently determined by what is being measured. In other words, as Nietschmann put it, “If you don’t map yourselves, someone else will.”

Still, one cannot help but wonder what an Indigenous Mapping Day might look like without being placed under the aegis of the Google gods. Google is doing a good service in developing interfaces in Native languages and largely in conjunction with individual Nations themselves, but the question remains: If mapping itself is a language, we might ask: whose language?