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Native Land Digital and the rhetoric of maps

Title: Native Land Digital
Authors: Native Land Digital
Years: 2015-present
Runs in a web browser or as a mobile app.

I saw some discussion emerging on this in the main thread yesterday and figured I'd start a code critique thread for it.

I really like maps! As an avid hiker, I find myself looking at topological maps often, and during a hike I'll often stop and just study the map—looking out at the geographic features and where they're represented on the map—because I like to have a sense of where I am in relation to the features of the land and where they are in relation to each other (in relation to their representations on this piece of paper). It helps me feel connected to the land that I'm on.

There's a lot of information that gets encoded into maps—intentionally or not—and like code, different modes of representation communicate different things and carry different assumptions. Maps are rhetorical, and affect our understanding of space as much as they are informed by it. Some things I'm thinking about here are a recent article from Real Life on the rhetoric of digital maps, how different projections impact perceived importance of different locations cough cough mercator projection cough cough, and as a John Green fan I'm often reminded of paper towns and how the history of paper towns influenced his novel of the same name.

When I look at a new map, like this one or the one at, I often find myself reading it for a while like I do with trail maps for whatever rhetorical connection is being made with the land, and I just don't see very much in this map. The org's stated rhetoric for this make is for the reader to be surprised by the scale of the space occupied by native peoples and to be able to see which groups occupied various regions (which facilitates learning about the pre-settler history of the land). It does those two things well, but that's about all I got out of looking at it.

Even though they are critical of settler notions of territory it's still only readable in a settler's terms. Because the geographic data is limited, if I want to see which peoples previously occupied the lands that I currently live on, I have to use the "settler labels" overlay to be able to make sense of location (I say this as someone who's well-versed in using the geography). I think part of where this comes from, and more broadly, the technology they're using for the map itself emerged from European cartography. I was immediately reminded of a blog post written by a colleague of mine in the history department here at TTU on differences spatial and temporal rhetoric (which includes a maps), which launched me on a whole ADHD rabbit hole yesterday looking at the history of mapmaking and some different styles of maps used in various cultures around the world. Some of the especially interesting ones to me were Inuit coastline maps made from carved driftwood and the Polynesian stick charts that @yaxu mentioned already in the weekly discussion thread.

My impression is that the methods of cartography that came to inform digital maps (mainly GIS) were mostly influenced by "enlightenment-era" values surrounding their idea of scientific advancement. In particular, I'm thinking about "precision", which of course has its benefits—the reason the French government officially adopted the metric system was because it was useful to hold tax officials accountable—but it raises a question about where we run into the limitations of precision and where it turns out to be not-so-useful. Computers and modern maps are both designed with the assumption that precision is useful, so computer maps have that assumption as well. But this map of native territories and languages, it seems to me, is detrimented by the rhetoric of precision. The intent is to push back against colonial notions of borders/boundaries, which it does by rejecting the kind of "jigsaw-puzzle" composition where boundaries don't overlap, but even in the vaguely outlined regions that it denotes, there's still a hard line that precisely outlines the ends of a region. Not only does the precision obscure some of what the map wants to convey, but it also still communicates some rhetoric of borders.

Anyway, I think that's enough for a starter. I'm really curious to hear from folks who have more knowledge of indigenous modes of thought.


  • @cfocht This is great basis for critiquing specific code related to this project! What code should we begin looking at?

    Should we look the JSON API, the GeoJSON for the location coordinates, or some other passage? Is there open source code available? Should we contact the creators about what software they're using so we could take a look?

  • Right! I was so caught up with the map I forgot to poke around at the code. The JSON files seem like a good place to start.

    Looking at the list of tribal territories, the first in the file is:


    so the first parts here are name and French name, I have no idea what "slug" is meant to indicate, but clearly is along the line of naming, a url where we can find more info on that tribe, a polygon that overlays map data, and a unique identifier for each tribe/nation.

    What's interesting is that I didn't even find the links to detailed pages until looking at the JSON, and that's a statement of those webpages being "a part" of the map.

    It looks like the NLD map is built on Mapbox GL JS, which is a javascript library for web maps. I see much insight coming from looking at the mapbox code other than being another web map of the day, but maybe there's some insight there that isn't occurring to me.

    The direction here that's piquing my interest, opening up this code, is the way the intertwining of these three parts, where the map API pulls the JSON files, wihch include links to wordpress site (which open up a specific part of the map in themselves).

  • Great, can we try reformatting this slightly? @jeremydouglass has been helping me to see that the JSON is a little easier to read if you separate out the elements of the object.


    And here's a bit on slug's from the "Our Wonderful Wily API" page of the project.

    This allows you to fetch a specific territory, treaty, or language, based on its “slug” registered in Native Land’s database. These slugs don’t always correspond to the nation’s name, because we might make changes to the name over time, but the slug was created when the geographic shape was first added to our map. These should be stable. We do have a problem with some slugs, particularly in South America, being duplicated, but we are working on getting that problem fixed very soon.

    You can find a list of slugs alongside the names on the API docs page. Click the right-hand side to expand the territories, languages, or treaties dataset. It may take a while to load, and then use Ctrl+F to find the nation name you’re looking for, and you’ll find the slug beside it.

  • It's interesting to start with the json data prior to looking at the map. We can consider, they are both sharing the same 'data': one through a visual representation, map-making, a practice many millennia old (see History of Cartography for example); the other a contemporary organizational method, a data interchange format intended to be human-readable though with the highest priority being that this data can be used to be fed into software. When programming web applications for example, data as json and other data formats are often described as 'ingested' by software, then processed and output for various purpose.

    I was interested to check @cfocht 's link to the article "Writing about Indians When You're Not One: Space and Time" describing differences in spatial and temporal rhetoric. Here the physical representation of areas that may have overlapping or changing boundaries over several centuries are frozen into 'hard' data. I am surmising likely it is drawn maps that were consulted to create this json data file, a textual representation. But then for us as viewers of the website map to see it, that data is transformed back into a visual map representation. How does this reflect (or not) those nuances of temporal and spacial thinking?

  • The aspect I find particularly interesting in this is the way of expressing the spacial data as specific coordinates is itself colonial. In a lot of cultures boundaries were expressed in geographical features rather than specific coordinates, these features meant different things and may have been shared between groups as meeting points or only visited during certain seasons or used as cross group meeting place at certain times/events/festivals. So boundaries could be spatial and temporal which is a real challenge when applying the more fixed view of boundaries that comes from the colonial mindset.

  • What I find interesting is that the original data points for the map were longitude and latitude... and although we live in a hyper quantified world - much of the information in the json (the new map datapoints) are descriptive (if not qualitative) ... going to @annatito how can we represent these geographical features in our json (also thinking of the excellent book Wisdom Sits in Places about placenames and geography

  • @meredith I don't know what the answer is to this, the difficulty is that computer tends to require things to be concrete numerical formats. I do wonder if there could be some different input mechanism, with community members walking the boundaries of their traditional lands using a mobile app or small GPS device which could move the input of the data into a spacial format. But the issue then is that in most of these places the land had been stolen and is not available for the communities to walk.

    (Also wisdom sits in places is a great book, though it is sitting on my shelf staring at me accusingly because I haven't finished it yet)

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