Maps: An Exploration of Indigenous North American Cartography

Our project focused on maps and was broken down into three sections. The first was on the history of maps and the role they play in Native American traditions. The next section was a visual representation of the lose of Native American land. Finally, we narrowed in on the movement of land within the Lakota tradition.

We began with broad thinking about maps: their origins, function, and diversity of form. We might forget that a map tells us not only topographical features, but also how a tribe or society organizes itself. Maps can hold a great deal of power, telling viewers where to go, who owns what, and what the history and name of a place is. In terms of colonization, maps played a pivotal role in describing the “New World” and giving European settlers a sense of control and ownership.

"Map of Lewis and Clark Track" 1814

If you think about it, maps are representations of a literal, physical, and conceptual world view; they can be dualistic or a way to reclaim one’s identity and own understanding.

Several indigenous maps we examined have multiple elements that modern geographical maps lack, features like cosmology, myth, advice, etc. Some of these maps function more like community plans or oracle pieces for the community. Maps can have implications for spiritual life as well, they often require a shaman or medicine person to be properly read, which sometimes is done in ceremony.

Sami Tribe Drum Skin Map



The second section focused on the creating a clear visual reference of the amount of land lost in American history. We created four maps: Native American land in 1850, 1870, 1890, and modern day reservations. Land is seen as an integral part of culture, tradition, spirituality, and identity for many indigenous people. Our maps show the clear progression of the loss of Native Americans’ access to the land they once inhabited. A big part of this land loss happened in battles between Indians and those trying to claim this territory. The maps show which states had been established at the time. The American Indians seem to only inhabit the land in territories that have not been established as states. This shows how the dominant mapmakers determine not only how the land is conceived of, but also how the indigenous people were literally moved based on theseconceptions of the land.

The final section of our presentation focused on the progressive loss of Lakota land and the events which contributed to this attempt at the eradication of Lakota culture and property in the 19th century. The Treaties of Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868 granted land to the Lakota from the US government. However, both of these treaties were ultimately not upheld by the government due to Custer’s 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the influx of white settlers that followed. The Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 ended US government’s policy of treating Indians as sovereign nations, but instead as individuals who were wards of the federal government. This furthered the US’s attempt at dismantling the Indian tribal structure. Later in the century, the Dawes Act resulted in Native American land decreasing from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934 through government purchases and the creation of reservations. Finally, in the 20th century, the US offered the Sioux Nation $105 million in compensations for their unjust claiming of Lakota land, but the Sioux ultimately refused and continue to demand for the return of their sacred space: the Black Hills. The first map demonstrates the vast amount of land that would have belonged to the Lakota, had the treaties been upheld, while the second map reveals the present day reality of the reservations in South Dakota.

This project was aimed at providing a strong visual representation for the movement of Native American land throughout the course of American history. Knowing that the lives and spirituality of these people is dependent on their deep connection to land, we are wanted to pose of question.  With this view of the massive lose of land, what are the cultural and spiritual implications are for these people?

Works Cited:

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005.

Peat, F. David. “I Have A Map In My Head.” Revision 18.3 (1996): 11. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Ville Vuolanto, et al. “The Drum As Map: Western Knowledge Systems And

Northern Indigenous Map Making.” Imago Mundi 55.1 (2003): 120-125. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.


-Anna Minsky, Tara Milliken, Anneliese Rice, Julia Van Raalte, and Sarah Merfeld

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