A map isn’t just a map. 

The work of alternate cartographer Denis Wood often reminds me that maps are equal parts poetry and science. They can also be some of the most insidious and powerful tools of cultural oppression. 

Maps are a very special kind of data visualization because they frame the way we see the world around us. They are fundamental to how we understand our own geographical and social reality. In so much of my work as a data scientist, I am adding layers to maps while automatically accepting (and entrenching) the underlying divisions, boundaries and place names. I can get so deep in the world of zip codes, state lines and city limits that I don’t pause to question my unthinking adoption of these structures and reinforcement of colonial and industrial paradigms. 

No map of people is ‘the right one’. Alternative maps which move the locus of power to a place that rebalances injustice and offers a voice to muffled perspectives need to be used.  When I saw the maps curated and maintained by Native Land Digital, I was absolutely floored, not only by the evident amount of work and collaboration but by the immediate and powerful message it conveyed. It was a rejection of a power dynamic that had no regard for its perspective. It inserted its voice against a cultural dominance so pervasive that I can sometimes forget it’s there.

More than just beautiful, these maps are extremely useful.

 

Instead of waiting for ‘traditional’ map makers and data scientists to reform their systems and become literate in a map culture other than their own, the team at Native Land have generously come to them: they’ve shared this information in a way that the very people who often ignore it will find the most useful.   

The Native Land maps are crowdsourced, curated maps that show boundaries of Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages. Just one glance at the maps gives me an immediate understanding of how different the world looks through these lenses. Native Land Digital is maintained, owned and governed by an Indigenous Team and Board of Directors and funding is provided by individual donors and supporters. Their digital site offers an open API that can be used to access their data to make your own maps. No more excuses. 

To make this even easier for people and teams with less technical knowledge, We All Count has linked the Native Land Digital data into a set of Tableau workbooks and a dashboard. It’s free to download and use here. Please acknowledge and link to Native Land Digital in any projects that take advantage of this extremely valuable data equity tool.