Blog Post #1: Digital Humanities At Work: GIS and the Remapping of North America

Through our discussions in class and online sources, my understanding of what digital humanities are has been broadened.  I am beginning to see the applicability of DH in most of the classes I am taking currently.  One of the overarching themes I have noticed taking shape as the semester progresses is one of Indigenous rights and knowledge, and the multifaceted nature of maps.  Through courses like Forbidden Archaeology, Spatial Archaeology, and Archaeological Survey Methods, I am better understanding the ways in which Indigenous rights and digital map making intersect.  It has fostered an ongoing dialogue between me and my professors, and within myself concerning the appropriateness of GIS map making for making visible an Indigenous North American continent.  Does this provide First Peoples with the image they need to better represent themselves?  Or does it deny the principle of Indigenous knowledge production in which knowledge is privileged?  Perhaps this sharing of knowledge would jeopardize Indigenous relationships with the land.  Digital Humanities call for the remediation of humanities learning through varying digital media.  It enables collaboration and larger-scale accessibility to information.  In this context, DH through the medium of GIS could be a productive or ill-suited means of respecting Indigenous land claims.

I am very interested in the ways in which Geographic Imaging Systems (GIS) can be used to remap and reimagine North America from an Indigenous perspective.  GIS is a technology we talked about in class concerning the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project (PQP), but has infinitely vast applications.  GIS differs from two-dimensional mapping because it allows for the layering of data that can then be analyzed.  This project would involve using a satellite image base map of North America, removing the colonial boundaries familiar to many Americans, and mapping Indigenous place names in North America.  This is a digital humanities project not only because it utilizes a digital medium, but also because this medium is necessary for interaction with the data presented.  An interactive map like this could popularize a different image of North America–one without the influence of colonial boundaries.  I could envision a map like this serving also as a platform for Indigenous voices to be heard and stories that they are willing to be contribute to be shared.  However, the display of these places and potentially stories must be considered in light of Indigenous modes of knowledge production and whether particular tribes would be willing to privilege outsiders with the knowledge of their ways of life.  While this could be a powerful tool for acknowledging Indigenous land claims and presence in North America, it must be mediated in a thoughtful and respectful manner if at all.

Digital Humanities plays a part in this process of remapping.  The medium through which this remapping is facilitated is GIS, which is a digital platform; however, it is not this alone that makes this a digital humanities project.  It is this intersectionality and engagement with the digital map that makes this a digital humanities endeavor.

Aaron Carapella, an amateur map maker from Oklahoma, created a  decolonized map of North America that labels over 600 tribes and their associated territories.  In the NPR interview with him, it is stated that maps wield power and the naming of places and people exercises such a power.  Carapella, associated with the Cherokee tribe, is an example of an Indigenous person using maps as a means for defending Indigenous land claims.  In this sense, Carapella is using map making to combat a familiar perception of the United States as continental.  A digitized version of this map in a GIS computer program could allow for a three-dimensional experience of an Indigenous past.  


 Fig. 1   Carapella’s map of Indigenous lands

Intersectionality and a multidisciplinary approach is key when considering land claims of Native Americans.  The mapping of linguistic development and the archaeological record onto a decolonized map makes an argument against the standard, Western belief that the first people on the continent only arrived in North America around 12,000 years ago.  The diversity of languages within North America and the archaeological record can place Indigenous peoples in North America at a pre-glaciation date, potentially 30,000 years ago.  GIS mapping provides a medium that is interdisciplinary in this sense, allowing the mapping of many layers of data.  The conglomeration of data on the map proves a point and tells a story, in this case, one of a longer Native American habitation of North America.  Building off of Carapella’s map, a GIS map of Native American territories could popularize an image of North America outside of one with colonial boundaries.  The digital platform could provide the virtual location for discourse on land ownership and Indigenous rights.  However, this project must be done in a careful and respectful manner.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s