Current & Trending

Decolonizing the Map: Creating the Indigenous Mapping Collective

  • SHARE:
“For far too long Indigenous peoples have been excluded from the map. We’re changing that.” 
- Steve DeRoy 
  Founder, Indigenous Mapping Workshop

Mapping is a powerful tool that holds stories. But who controls the narrative? Historically, maps were created by professional cartographers, many of whom played a large role in colonization. These maps have shaped the way many of us see the world today. Of course, that begs the questions, who or what is left out of the map and how can that be changed?

Reclaiming Indigenous Lands Through Mapping 

For many Indigenous communities, mapping plays a large role in reclaiming their lands. Mapping is not new to Indigenous peoples, in fact, some of the world’s earliest maps can be seen in cave paintings or heard in the stories that have been passed down through generations. Today many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island and beyond use cartographic mapping to track traditional knowledge of their lands and waters. These maps can show sacred sites, the paths of moose or caribou, the best areas to find a particular species of fish, where to pick traditional medicine and much more. Maps are often used when major projects such as mines or oil rigs are proposed on Indigenous land; they illustrate potential impacts these projects could have on the environment and the communities’ way of life.

Building Capacity Among Indigenous Peoples

Oftentimes, Indigenous communities contract mapping work out to professional cartographers and Geographic Information System (GIS) experts. This is one of the roles that Anishinaabe cartographer, Steve DeRoy, and our team at The Firelight Group have filled for over 10 years. In Steve’s 23 years as a cartographer, he's noticed a large shift in mapping to online platforms and quickly realized that this opens the space for more people to create, shape, and share maps than ever before. He set a goal to build capacity among Indigenous peoples and to give them the tools to create their own maps. This is how the Indigenous Mapping Workshop (IMW) was born.

“It was great attending the workshop and learning how others have used maps for different purposes and I watched many of the beginners tutorials – after the workshop was over I was able to use Google Earth Pro to make videos and use all of these other neat features I didn’t know about before.”
- Cheyanne Ironman
  Member, Indigenous Mapping Collective

A Partnership with Google and Google Earth

The first IMW was held in 2014 in partnership with Google and Google Earth Outreach and took place in Victoria, British Columbia. This partnership actually helped pave the way for Google to recognize the names of traditional lands on their mapping platforms (read more about that here). Since then, workshops have taken place across Canada,  Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many partners have been added along the way and we have been very fortunate to work with many federal and regional organizations as well as folks from Esri, Mapbox, Digital Democracy and even NASA.

“The opportunity to network and work alongside others who are doing similar work is so valuable. The great diversity in Indigenous communities and territories is reflected in the many stories and methods that grow from specific geographic regions and histories.”
- Leora Gansworth
  Member, Indigenous Mapping Collective

Connecting Indigenous Mappers Around the World 

In 2020, IMW was expected to take place in Saskatchewan, Canada in partnership with the First Nations University of Canada and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Lands Technicians. This of course came to a grinding halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdown orders were put in place across the globe. For a while the workshop was shelved, but as time went on, we realized there was the possibility to continue the 2020 workshop online and build capacity among more participants than ever before. What we didn’t expect was the enthusiasm with more than 850 people registering  for the event in over 35 countries and across six continents (in case you are wondering, Antarctica was the one continent not represented at the workshop)! The reach was astonishing; Steve had always dreamed of connecting Indigenous mappers from across the globe but none of us imagined it would happen so soon, especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

“It means a lot to us that the Indigenous Mapping Collective exists and that we could join it – that there is a community of support for our projects. We are not GIS gurus or developers. We are Indigenous people trying to share our story.”
- Stacie Sheldon and Margaret Noodin of
  Member, Indigenous Mapping Collective

A New Platform - A New Way to Reach Global Indigenous Communities

Of course, all things must come to an end. Right? Well, when we planned 2020IMW, we also envisioned a permanent virtual space for folks to continue to connect with each other and even revisit workshop materials well after the workshop ended, literally building a global Indigenous mapping community. Building a virtual community was not easy; we had tried previously with two other platforms but ultimately found the engagement wasn’t there. But launching a platform in conjunction with a full virtual event – that was something we hadn’t tried before. This platform became known as the Indigenous Mapping Collective and it is thriving.

Our top priority with The Indigenous Mapping Collective is to ensure Indigenous peoples have access to the tools and knowledge to build capacity with mapping technologies; to accomplish this, membership is free for all Indigenous peoples, Nations, and organizations. We continue to hold monthly webinars in this space and welcome new members from all levels of experience.

“I knew it was important to join the Indigenous Mapping Collective, because as an Indigenous geographer, I need to be with ‘my people’ and join this global movement. I am excited about journeying alongside this collection of Indigenous and allied professionals who seek to advance and improve the tools and training so we can recreate spatial maps and insert ourselves as Indigenous people into them. This includes the application of storytelling and Indigenous knowledge systems into spaces and places that have been previously occupied by non-Indigenous, colonial knowledge for far too long.”
- Vanessa Ambtman Smith
  Member, Indigenous Mapping Collective

From the beginning, we knew this project was significant, the very act of Indigenous mapping is a decolonial act. Indigenous peoples around the world are reclaiming their lands and waters by documenting their traditional place names, creating their own mapping icons, plotting their sacred sites in their own languages and, ultimately sharing their stories. Indigenous peoples are not only decolonizing the map, they’re Indigenizing it.

Looking Ahead: Indigenizing the Map

Want to learn more about Indigenizing the map? What does Indigenizing the map even mean? Be sure to check out our next post in this blog series where we highlight some of the maps created by members of the Indigenous Mapping Collective. For now, chi-miigwech (big thank you)!

Learn more by hearing directly from Steve DeRoy! Visit Indigenous Mapping Collective to join. 

Sabrina Fields

Sabrina Fields The Firelight Group

Sabrina is a queer European settler living on Anishinabek Nation, the traditional land of the Confederacy of Three Fires: Ojibwe (Chippewas), Odawa, and Potawatami Nations, and Eelūnaapèewii Lahkèewiit (Delaware Nation) presently known as Chatham, Ontario.  

Sabrina works with The Firelight Group, an Indigenous-owned research consultancy, as their Communications Coordinator where she manages Firelight’s social media, graphic design, and coordinates with Indigenous communities and organizations to plan social media campaigns. Part of her role is to help organize the Indigenous Mapping Workshop and to promote content on the Indigenous Mapping Collective. 

Sabrina is passionate about storytelling as a means of community building. She graduated from York University in 2018 Summa Cum Laude, with a degree in Communication Studies and a minor in Gender & Women’s Studies. In her spare time, you can often find her feeding stray cats, sipping tea in a pair of slippers, or watching cartoons. Sabrina is honored to be a part of the Firelight team. 

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!