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- Walidah Imarisha

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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

The Map Is Not the Territory (2018-10-02)

Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker. Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker.
Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker. C. Osborne, august 2018

If there is one thing that we can count on, it is finding more and more maps. Maps of all kinds, "just in time maps" via "you do the work, we'll take the money" crowdsourced apps used in web browsers all over the world, those amazing hangers' on, paper road maps available in myriad grocery stores and gas stations. The young and adventurous may even find their way to maps not just in their school textbooks, whether electronic or paper, but also in the fading genre of atlases, books of maps and/or charts named for the ancient greek mythical figure who once commonly featured on their covers. That is a lot of maps. But, as Mark Monmonier wrote in his still relevant and brilliant How to Lie With Maps, maps are not neutral depictions or simple reproductions. They are designed to tell stories, and by nature people who make maps must decide what to include and what to leave out, how to label and how much, all to facilitate telling the intended story. A major tool in colonisation and rationalizing that genocidal practice was and is mapping. Alas, like all forms of storytelling, mapping can be abused to support doing terrible things. We can tell ourselves the most appalling stories, and the most wondrous ones.

We all make maps, even if we don't produce two-dimensional representations of them. The sense of how to get from home to the various places we need to go, especially the ones we go to on a fairly regular basis, is in fact an internalized map with our home placed in the centre and the routes to our most commonly visited places expanding out from it. This can be surprisingly close to what we actually draw if asked to do so, with adjustments to reflect key landmarks such as major streets and interesting buildings if we live in cities, or water bodies, mountains, and so on if we don't. This may seem obvious, but on an anecdotal basis at least, I can say that this is not an intuitive connection.

One of my earliest experiences with mapping in the sense of making a map, was being given an assignment in elementary school. The instructions were to draw a map of the city and colour it in. I suspect that the directions did say to make sure there was a legend and a north arrow, though that detail is long gone from my memory. For the purposes of this assignment, each of us were given what at least to me at the time, was the largest sheet of paper I had ever seen, tabloid sized, 14 inches by 17 inches, rather shorter and a little narrower than an ISO B3 sheet. We were supposed to fill that with our maps. It was a veritable sea of paper. Still, the assignment didn't seem too complicated. We weren't supposed to make up a city necessarily, we were supposed to try to represent the city as we knew it. You already know where this is going. I flunked that assignment pretty much. The teacher was thoroughly annoyed. He felt that I had ignored the instructions, and he demanded to know where the freeways were, and the roads, the real roads, and the major buildings like city hall. He complained that he didn't recognize the city I drew. As an adult I know that this was entirely to be expected. As a child, I remember being completely confused. If he didn't recognize the city I drew, I didn't recognize the city he described.

My city was far greener than his description that emphasized concrete, buildings, and various types of roads and bridges. There was basically one kind of black road, that could be a bit narrower at times, but was otherwise uniform. Much of the road surface I saw was newly done in those years because my family was living in a very new suburb. Lacking regular access to a car and money for the bus, we walked everywhere. So my map showed lots of patches of woods and intriguing shortcuts that pedestrians walking long distances learn, especially for self-defence from traffic and hot summer weather. I noted places where we could pick and eat the blackberries and where we couldn't because there was too much road traffic – we were always hungry, this mattered – and the street that one year was filled with streams of migrating and hungry tent caterpillars. I do mean filled. Those critters know not to head into wheeled traffic, but as for sidewalks and other paths, they'll take their chances. Both of these cities were present then, and at least to some degree are now. But not being poor and therefore remanded to the travel opportunities afforded by his two feet, this teacher couldn't believe that greener city existed, or at least, that it was important enough to map.

I have thought about this often, looking at maps that attempt to show Indigenous territories. Two-dimensional, snapshot type maps are profoundly bad at depicting them, and not just because the Earth is three-dimensional. Mainstream thought encourages the conflation of map with territory, of an extremely limited story as a fixed definition, hedged in by borders that in the physical world are complete absurdities. I have had the blessed experience of showing a young friend who was a little younger than I was at the time of that mapping assignment, the one metre wide line designating the official border between the settler states of canada and the united states. She looked at me skeptically. "That," she said witheringly, "is the border?" I assured her it was, and we actually weren't allowed to cross it yet as we hadn't cleared customs. She put her hands on her hips. "That's ridiculous." As indeed it was, and is.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23