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Cartography in American Historical Context

The "Miguel Map," drawn by an unnamed Indigenous man who the invading Spaniards named "Miguel." Drawn in 1602, either in the modern state of New Mexico or in modern-day Mexico City.
Blakeslee, D. (2017, October 26). The Miguel Map Revisited. Plains Anthropologist, 63(245), 67–84.

This post is part of a series of reflections from the “Midwest Indigenous Cartography” project, which is an ongoing initiative that seeks to explore Indigenous worldviews, conceptions of cartography, and map-making practices, particularly in the Midwest.

The word “Cartography” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as, “the science or art of making maps.” On the spectrum of human experience and interactions with maps—or more loosely defined as depictions of or interactions with the land upon which humans live—I have found that Indigenous peoples (those of the Midwest being no exception) can fall anywhere on this art to science spectrum. As with almost every term related to this topic, the words art and science are European artifacts that obfuscate the interpersonal relationships that inform map-making and Indigenous relationships to their land. The classical study of maps as drawings—typically as close to ‘to scale’ as possible, of land, rivers, mountains, etc.—takes the form of markings on paper, using landmarks and symbols as guideposts. These depictions, in their European ‘cartographic’ sense, are almost exclusively used as tools for navigation and guidance (Offen, 2000).

Indigenous representations of land and their relation thereto come in myriad and varied forms, many of which do not resemble the classical European idea of ‘maps’ drawn on paper. I find the example of the “Miguel Map” relevant in illustrating this point (Blakeslee, 2017). The Miguel Map is one of, if not the earliest, native-drawn maps of what is now known as the United States. Although the region is not considered part of the greater Midwest, I feel its existence and story (cited in Plains Anthropologist) are key to gaining a proper understanding of the ways in which Indigenous practices of mapping and representing land differ from traditional European practices. The map originated from an early Spanish expedition to explore parts of what is now the southern United States. The invading Spanish captured a man who they named Miguel and made him draw a map of the region. This supposed earliest native-drawn depiction is not one that came from the organic need of an Indigenous nation to depict their surroundings and lands on parchment, but rather from the invading, European need to frame the region in a manner they could understand. Most of the native-drawn maps, most of which came from similar situations as the ‘Miguel Map’ and limited in number, can be found on the Library of Congress Website, linked at the bottom of the article. Even the term ‘land’—whose definition may seem to anyone educated in the United States within the last century to be self-evident—proves ungainly when attempting to educate oneself on the interpersonal nature of Indigenous people’s relationships to their environments.

“For Indigenous peoples, our pasts, presents, and futures involve living and being in reciprocal, consensual, and sustainable relations with the natural world, which includes human relationships to each other as well as with lands, waters, landscapes, atmospheres, and plant and animal nations (for brevity, we will collectively describe this network, imperfectly, with the English word ‘lands’)” (Nature, C. F. H. A. 2022). This quote from an article written for Humans & Nature gives perspective as to how the word ‘land’ does not suffice in discussing Indigenous peoples’ relationships with their environments.

European invaders, whether from Spain, England, France, the Netherlands, or Germany, viewed land purely as property, as a wild frontier onto which their will and domain must be exerted. The wild had to be tamed for true ownership to be realized. This view of land as property was one of the main driving forces that pushed colonizers to set sail for the Americas. The land that existed in these various nations was finite. Most, if not all of it, was owned by dynastic families with claims to its ownership dating back centuries. The people of these cultures knew no other way to frame the concept of land than as a means to gain wealth, and more importantly, power (Round, 2007). From this dynamic springs the idea that true freedom is the liberty to exert one’s own will over a piece of land. Therefore, any individual who traveled to a “new world” with far fewer residents would view his or her piece of land as finite and therefore a singular domain unto itself. It could be mapped, explored, and conquered, much in the same way Europe was hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the time of the expansive colonization of other continents.

In some ways, the assertion that Indigenous nations would have drawn maps in the same ways as European invaders is ridiculous. The dichotomy between native representations and conceptualizations of land and the invading European attitude towards it could not be more pronounced than with the practice of land allotments for Indigenous nations. At the turn of the 20th century, after more than a century of mostly settler-initiated conflict with Indigenous nations, the government of the expanding United States decided to “allot” pieces of land to various nations. Under the false assumption that these nations were searching for the same thing they were, the settler government gave these nations land, to satisfy the universal (so they thought) desire for a piece of land to call one’s own (Brousseau, 2018). Most Indigenous nations, however, have a different way of framing land and the soil, plants, and animals that occupy it. There is no claim any one individual can make to a piece of soil. We all belong to the earth and have come from it. Therefore, to assert that any one person or type of people has more right to exert their domain over that soil is preposterous. Many nations, especially in the Midwest, migrated through the seasons to stay close to food sources, mainly buffalo and other animals that also moved with the seasons.

As anyone who attended elementary school in the Midwest (or anywhere in the United States for that matter) knows, the colonizers of Europe left their nations across Europe to avoid religious persecution. Natural resources were an economic, and arguably stronger motivation for anyone wanting to leave the European continent at the time. They believed that laying claim to the ownership of land and its subsequent destruction was their right as humans. This attitude can only survive in the minds of its adoptees if these people believe that humans are the pinnacle of earthly existence. Therefore, anything non-human—like the trees, the plants, the animals who graze on those plants, the air, and any other aspect of the natural world—is less deserving of continued existence if their destruction could serve the needs of humanity’s convenience.

Another key example of the differences in framing and tradition that mark the wide gulf between the European relationship to land and more Indigenous relationships is naming conventions and their significance thereto. Whereas European colonizers would elect to name locations of seeming significance after famous or important people in their written history, and put such places on a map—leaving no aspect of the name itself to lend clues as to its significance, location, or use—Indigenous tribes are far more likely to name a place after what can be found there or done there. In conclusion, the traditions and customs of many indigenous nations native to the modern Midwestern United States call into question the accepted definition of cartography. Where land and life are not separate, no separate field of study and understanding is needed. The definition given at the beginning of this article is ever subject to change and evolution, as are us all.

It is not known who Chegeree was, but he was apparently a native man who had knowledge of the region surrounding the Mississippi River Valley. The map was created around the year 1755.
This map was drawn by Chegeree (the Indian) who says he has travelled through the country. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. [ca. 1755]

Works Referenced
Blakeslee, D. (2017, October 26). The Miguel Map Revisited. Plains Anthropologist, 63(245), 67–84.

Brousseau, M. (2018, season-01). Allotment Knowledges: Grid Spaces, Home Places, and Storyscapes on the Way to Rainy Mountain. Native American and Indigenous Studies, 5(1), 136–167. 

Johnson, K. F. (2008). Writing Deeper Maps: Mapmaking, Local Indigenous Knowledges, and Literary  Nationalism in Native Women’s Writing. Studies in American Indian Literatures

Nature, C. F. H. A. (2022, September 1). Restoring Indigenous Systems of Relationality. Center for
Humans and Nature.

Offen, K. (2000, February).  Cartographic Encounters: Perspectives on Native American Mapmaking and Map Use. American Studies International, 38, 120–121.

Research Guides: Native American Spaces:  Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress: Indian Maps,Mapping, and Geographic Knowledge. (n.d.).

Round, P. H. (2007, season-02). Indigenous Illustration: Native American Artists and Nineteenth-Century US Print Culture. American Literary History, 19(2), 267–289.

For more resources related to the Midwest Indigenous Cartography Project, see our project bibliography on Zotero.

Soren Sandstrom is a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, studying Psychology and German. He has been working with the Midwest Indigenous Cartography Research Project since October and will graduate in May. He spent the 2021-22 school year at the Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany. He loves to learn about language and cultures and brings that curiosity to his work with the Midwest Indigenous Cartography team.

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