Native Americans in Maps – Thesis Topic #6 Research Proposal

“Getting the Natives off the Map”

This is one of the expansions on a post called “What’s Your Thesis”?, in which I list several possible topics for my masters thesis.
Update: I got my thesis on the reinvention of reporting approved by my mentor on Nov. 30th! Work on the topic can now start! See for example the resource collection “Readings in Digital Journalism

How do you get Natives off the map?

The question sounds like the beginning of a bad joke… but sadly, it is part of American history!

Almost two years ago, when I just started my year as a Fulbright Exchange Graduate at the University of Washington, I wrote a paper on Indian Representation in Maps. The title was a typically overloaded conglomerate of everything the paper contained: “Reading the ‘Blank Spaces’ – Native American Representation in 19th Century Maps of the Pacific Northwest”.

My working title was more catchy: “Getting the Natives off the Map”!

The Theory Behind The Thesis

Maps are not natural representations of the world, they are human made and as such, they contain an (implicit or explicit) ideology. This ideology is written into the visual documents in terms of graphic language, such as lines, colors etc. Maps involve two elements of power: First, the power of the creator to shape the document in any way he likes using graphic language. Second, the power the document itself has in influencing those who use it in order to make sense of the described space. There is a “naturalization” effect through the second form of power. The idea of the space influences the perception of the space (see Harley for theoretical base).

The Thesis

White settlers and government used maps as ideological tools in order to gain control and exercise power over Indian tribes through graphic language. This is most strongly reflected in the representation and reshaping of borders and territorial boundaries.

Previous Research & Methodology

In 2008, I have shown that – unlike Boelhower claims – maps of the Pacific Northwest were not entirely created to “wipe out” the Indians, but show changes in exercising power over the Indians according to the creator, type of map and the socio-political climate of the time.

In the research I looked at maps of the time period and area, analyzing the graphic language that was used as a means of communication and after a “thick description” interpreted the documents both as individual texts and in their socio-political and historical relation. Therefore, this might be called a New Historicist approach to the matter. I would apply the same method to further research.

Findings: Some creators were trying to wash out established boundaries between government and Indian territory, attempting to include the “Independent Nations” into the construct that was American Nationalism. Others were trying to strengthen the boundaries in attempts to create a separation between the two.

Research Proposal(s):

Although I have covered with my previous research a time span from 1814 to 1905, there might be resources and other maps during that time period, that I might not yet have come across.

However, in order to make subsequent research more valuable, it would be worthy to expand the corpus.
There are two promising ways of expansion:

Update: Talking to my prof., we both agreed that proposal #2 would be the most promising… soI’ll give you this proposal first:

2. What happened on the “other side”?

Expands the corpus to maps or other visual conceptualizations of Native American territory that was created not by the “outside” whites, but by Native Americans themselves. By comparing the way Indians saw and visualized (if at all) the land on which they lived, I could contrast the different narratives creating different visual concepts of “America”. There might also be an osmosis of conceptualizations of space, although it is more likely that tribes took over spacial concepts from settlers than vice versa.

This ethnically centered research would work out the different visual conceptualizations of space and thus create an understanding of both the major differences in spacial conceptualization of the two groups as well as the powers that existed on both sides and were used in order to influence the spacial understanding of each group.

I am currently unaware if there are any Indian maps or whether there are enough “maps” to allow the interpretation of a narrative or other form of conceptual description of the Indian self. Also, I have a deeply biased outsider’s perspective.

Another problem is the perception of “Native Americans” as a homogeneous group. There might, in fact, exist a wide range of different concepts of space among Native American tribes. Also, mixing between “Natives” and “Americans” occured so that it is difficult to keep up a binary understanding of the two groups.

1.What happened after the 19th century?

Expanding the corpus to the 20th and even 21st century would show a visual chronology of the changing ideologies underlying the creation of maps and the graphic language. It would also challenge the revival of the idea of maps as “mirrors of landscape” , an idea that continuously resurfaces due to technological developments seemingly bringing  “objectivity” into mapping through automation of measuring tools, which is not true.

This research would paint a history of Indian narratives created by Whites and thus deepen the understanding of a White exertion of power over Indians in the United States from the 19th century to today.

Too large?
The narrative created through the description of these maps might become incoherent through a growing number of inluences on the map maker.
Would it bring any additional knowledge gain in terms of the representation of Indian Americans? Unclear!

3.What happened in the rest of the US?

The Pacific Northwest is special as it marks the “end” of the United States, perceived in terms of White Settlement. Here, settlers finally ran out of space and tribes could no longer be removed to spaces further West. This might have had an influence on the socio-political climate in the area and thus the way people dealt with the tribes. In other areas, such as New England, the representation of Native Americans might be different.

This research would expand the understanding of a visual conceptualiation and exertion of power over Indians by white settlers beyond the model region of the Pacific Northwest. It would be a test for the theory that might have potential to explain the power-relations of the American Nation over the Indian Nations all over the Unites States.

The problem with this approach is that the US is a vast country. Which would be a good are to focus on? And what if I do not find material by the same or similar sources or of the same time? Other problems connected with this attempt can already be found in Boelhower who tried to explain the use of maps for Nationalization in the entire US, but failed to observe the local character of the Pacific Northwest.

  1. As if three pages of writing weren’t enough on this:

    These are the original “Early Washington” maps, I used in my 2008 research.

    When looking around today, I also found a link to maps that focuses entirely on Native American Territories in the Pacific Northwest

    Also, there is a list of essays on Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest that might come in handy on this!

  2. To be Done:
    a) connect with geography professor what he knows about the subject
    b) check of there are Indian Maps of 19th ct. PNW
    c) check available 20th ct maps of PNW
    [d) check other available maps]

  3. And another resource I came across through Facebook: “Schneider, Ute, Die Macht der Karten. Eine Geschichte der Kartographie vom Mittelalter bis heute, Darmstadt 2004.
    Thanks to Michael!!

  1. November 22nd, 2010

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