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Indigenous Maps and the Misinterpretation of Indigenous Sources

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

By: Isra Henson

When studying Indigenous sources, we often look at oral sources exclusively. There are limited archaeological or literary sources from Indigenous peoples, especially from before contact. The sources that are meant to be a mixture of both physical and oral information are generally ignored. This week’s blog will look at Indigenous maps as an example of how Europeans frequently misinterpreted, and still do misinterpret, Indigenous ways of knowing.

What we see now as a standard map is very different from what used to be commonly used. On these older maps, south was the primary cardinal direction, which means that we would now see these historical maps as upside-down. They could also be more decorative and artistic in nature, unlike the maps of today which are typically utilitarian and practical in appearance. Many of these maps made by Europeans of what is now known as North America are woefully inaccurate in addition to all the other differences; the maps made by Indigenous peoples appear even more foreign than those of the Europeans. To start, they were not meant to lay out every single detail like European maps were supposed to. They were, instead, supposed to act as memory aids that came along with an oral explanation. The maps would include important landmarks but did not include to-scale distances. They focused more on how long a person would take to walk or canoe to a place rather than how many kilometers or miles the distance was. Since the scale the map used was the time it took to travel rather than a measurement of length, the distance between two sets of points equally far apart on the map could be greatly different if, for example, it was more difficult to travel between the points of one set over the other.

When Europeans came to North America, they asked Indigenous people to help them navigate and understand this new land. Indigenous peoples drew maps for them and tried to explain them, but because Europeans saw the most important part of cartography as the actual physical drawing they did not pay much attention to the oral aspect. This meant they often misread the maps and did not understand what the Indigenous map-makers were trying to communicate. This led European colonizers to believe that there was an in-land sea somewhere in the west; what the map-makers had actually drawn was supposed to be what is now Hudson’s Bay. Because of this significant failure to understand Indigenous peoples, Europeans wasted a lot of time and resources in attempting to locate a natural feature that did not exist. Akwimoke, who acted as an informant for the Hudson’s Bay Company, drew many maps for them in the early 1800s. His map was the one that was thought to show the Western Sea. This is an example of how Europeans relied on Indigenous peoples in the early days, and even the later days, of colonization. Without the assistance of Indigenous peoples, many Europeans would have suffered greatly and their generosity was met with distrust, violence, and hundreds of years of marginalization.

This inability or unwillingness to try and understand a new perspective is common throughout colonial history. Maps are just one example of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between European and Indigenous ways of knowing and teaching. Recognizing the legitimacy of Indigenous cartographical practices can help establish their sovereignty over the land.

Works Cited

Fossett, Renee. “Mapping Inuktuk: Inuit Views of the Real World”. In Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, edited by Jennifer S.H. Brown, and Elizabeth Vibert, 111-131. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003.

Binnema, Theodore. “How Does a Map Mean?: Old Swan’s Map of 1801 and the Blackfoot World”. In From Rupert’s Land to Canada : Essays in Honour of John E. Foster, 201-224. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001.

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