TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker
The Turtle Island Mapping Project
For the moment, this map includes only North America and much of Mesoamerica. When plotted, the resulting map is just over a square metre in size. The eventual addition of South America will at least double that size. Its orientation with East at the top is deliberate, and is meant to help the viewer shake off the version of "North America" they have seen most often, and consider the continent with fresh eyes. This positioning also places the major trade axis of the continent parallel to the viewer's "reading line" to draw their gaze from end to end of the land, as opposed to mainstream maps which tend to guide the eye away from the far north and south. The result is not perfect as the base map is still reflective of a distorted mercator projection, but the two features together help disrupt the training most North Americans have had not to really see the far north and south regions, and to see the east and west as broken apart.
One purpose this map does not have is to be used for the measurement of distances. Relative shapes and positions of traditional territories are correct as far as the data I have gathered allows, but since data has not been pinned and recalculated to a specific map projection formula, only the most general distance data is reflected. For this reason, there is no scale.
I did try at first to place all names in the same orientation, usually horizontal, with longer names in narrower territories broken up into hyphenated syllables. Even the font size was the same for all names. However, this soon became unwieldy and illegible, and I found this approach would force me to use numbers and a lengthy catalogue to list the names that didn't fit inside the territory. This would have been utterly unsatisfactory, because matching numbers to names in a key is a nuisance, and it is easy to make numerous mistakes putting together the key and trying to use it later. So instead I have allowed the font size to vary and the line of text to vary in orientation so it will fit. Especially on the coasts, where the land is covered by many smaller territories, I used a combination of labels with arrows. Then in an early test printing I checked the smallest font size to make certain it could be read without a magnifying glass at typical viewing distance. I have made some additional adjustments since this version, such as adding a translucent white background to the names in order to improve their legibility.
Nowadays creating maps with roughly the same idea behind seems to be an area of growing interest, along with people claiming that they can map traditional territories on request for free as a service to Indigenous groups. The latter people may mean well, but their claims are definitely problematic, and I have already observed examples of their work creeping into such online references as the canadian encyclopedia (a source that must be used with great care in any event). For the other people working on "pre-contact" maps, the proliferation of maps made by Indigenous groups has caused a certain level of headache for the unwary who may not have historical research to help them gauge what fits in the time period they have in mind and what doesn't. For instance, I have a reasonably good map of the traditional territory of the Métis Nation, yet you won't find a trace of it on this mapping project, because it is a post-contact development.
One puzzle that I have not yet solved to my satisfaction is how to better handle the fact that traditional territory was and is not static. There are core stable portions, but the "edges" are in fact areas of overlap and blending, places where sometimes everyone is friendly to one another and other times they are emphatically not. Since traditional territory is more than a place or a region – it is better described as a process and enacting of relationship between people, plants, animals, and land – a static, flat map is hardly sufficient. But then again, neither would a movie or some sort of three dimensional model. The only way to truly do traditional land justice is to live on the land within the network of action and relationships it entails as an active participant.
UPDATE (2018-03-29): Over the past several years numerous other mapping projects following similar lines to this one have sprung up across the internet. It seems revisioning the americas in a way that recaptures and perhaps fore-visions a non-colonial, non-settler imposed geography has caught the imaginations of many more people. That, and the availability of affordable and accessible GIS mapping software has changed completely now that there are free and open options like QGIS, and a growing community of scholars engaged in "historical GIS," mapping of past geographies via combining diverse datapoints in a GIS system.
The Turtle Island Map Project began unexpectedly about seven years ago, when I first began stumbling across information about the territories of Indigenous nations in the Americas. First just verbal descriptions, and then maps. Line maps, poorly scanned maps, difficult to read maps, all showing different traditional territories. Starting around 2009, beautifully rendered maps began to be published, many of them in colour. Better still, these maps were being published by the Indigenous nations themselves. The map that served as a direct trigger was developed and published by the British Columbia Ministry of Education (BCME) and titled The First Nations Peoples of British Columbia (wayback machine capture). Its key features include a basis in Indigenous knowledge, the eschewing of simplistic and deceiving boundary lines, and the use of proper names rather than colonial labels (although the BCME map is not completely consistent on this point). The inspiration is my wish to know what the social landscape of Turtle Island looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The map at left is what I have managed to put together so far. It is a work in progress intended to show that pre-invasion social geography, or at least something approaching it. Accordingly, it has a version number. This image is informed by several earlier maps as well as extensive and ongoing research in historical, anthropological, and linguistic sources. Most importantly, it is based on the writings and websites of the Indigenous nations themselves whenever possible, which has helped significantly with replacing colonial labels. As you can see, many colonial labels still need to be replaced, especially to the south, and the traditional territory information is by no means complete. In addition, I have work to do to improve the base map, as it is quite inadequate in the Caribbean and "West Indies" areas, and I have already received requests to expand the map to include South America.