Literature Review:

Indigenous Cartography, Counter Mapping & TEK Visualization


A map can be many things. It can be a simple wayfinding device, used to locate oneself in an unfamiliar space. It can communicate important information and data. It can be an expression of authority and power. It can be a tangible representation of a society’s relationship to the land, resources and beings around it. In our settler-colonial society, a map can be a form of knowledge that has the ability to dispossess, an expression of power meant to exert control over a landscape and erase the existence of indigenous populations (Hunt 2017). Maps created using what we consider traditional cartographic principles tend to reinforce colonial power structures by presenting spatial information in a way that suits Western knowledge systems. Indigenous populations living within settler colonial societies with an interest in controlling their representations, territories and resources must simultaneously subvert and conform to modern mapping and cartography techniques, asserting their knowledge systems and worldviews in a way that is understandable and respected by the hegemonic power structures they are fighting against. This literature review will discuss the history of indigenous mapping in terms of dispossession and colonial power, indigenous counter-mapping, current efforts to better map indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, and the legal and moral complexities that come along with any form of modern indigenous cartography.


Review of Literature

A map is the product of choices regarding content, arrangement and intent. The cartographer decides what to include and what to exclude, decisions framed either consciously or subconsciously by their social and cultural biases. By imbuing cartography with this cultural frame, a map is more than just a representation of space, it is also an active production of space (Hunt 2017). During the formation of the country, maps were an important tool in the colonial arsenal to produce the European nation states we know as the United States and Canada. Indigenous populations have participated in counter-mapping techniques throughout history in an effort to decolonize, control their representations, and exert ownership of traditional territories and resources (Mckenzie 2017). Even before active counter-mapping efforts indigenous communities participated in mapping processes of their own, using pictographic message maps carved into trees, or “mapped” their worlds using narratives, stories and oral histories as “material ordering practices” to place themselves within their landscape (Hunt 2017).

Indigenous counter mapping is defined as the “processes through which Indigenous peoples articulate their presence on and right to defend their ancestral lands, territories and resources against state encroachment” (Hunt 2017). Counter mapping is a way for indigenous peoples to reassert power over a colonial landscape in their own language. In his paper on indigenous counter mapping, Hunt (2017) offers two examples of counter mapping with the specific intent of shedding light on power imbalances within the colonial nation state of Canada. The Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Cree name for Edmonton) map of Edmonton Canada, created by the online digital collective Pipelines, overlays aboriginal maps onto a modern map of Edmonton, with the intention of “demonstrat(ing) how colonialism literally changes shape over time, moving from a logic of exclusion (‘Indian’ reserves outside the city limits) to a logic of containment (inner-city poverty is disproportionately Aboriginal, e.g.)” (Pipelines Collective). The map uses cartography to expose an alternative history, counter to the history that modern maps of Edmonton might convey (Hunt 2017).

Another indigenous counter mapping project Hunt (2017) describes is a guerrilla mapping project, less in line with what we might consider traditional mapping and cartography and more an example of the indigenous cartographic tradition of using “material ordering practices” to make sense of the world around them. The Ogimaa Mikana project is an effort to “restore Anishinaabemowin place names to the streets, avenues, roads, paths, and trails of Toronto, to transform a landscape that often obscures or makes invisible the presence of Indigenous peoples” (Hunt 2017). The group’s efforts involve placing stickers of Anishinaabemowin words over the street signs in Toronto. In doing so, the group imbues these spaces with cultural and historic meaning by inserting their language into a colonial space that previously erased it, and (re)maps the Toronto landscape by incorporating indigenous culture and narratives into the ordering practices of the modern urban landscape.

Counter mapping can also be done in a more formal or structured form. Many indigenous populations work within Western forest management organizations to reinforce territory claims and assert ownership over landscapes, often through GIS and cybercartographic practices. According to Mckenzie (2017), “As management and co-management becomes more common in the traditional homelands of Indigenous peoples, the ability to communicate traditional patterns of landscape use and management becomes more critical.” Using a GIS and modern cartography to communicate land management goals and strategies to state and federal agencies is often an integral step towards reclaiming space. Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge has an inherent temporal dimension, which poses challenges when trying to meaningfully represent indigenous knowledge systems within a GIS. Finding ways of simultaneously documenting both the temporal and spatial aspects of indigenous knowledge, as well as incorporating unique cultural conceptions of space is imperative for the maintenance of both cultural sovereignty and ecological functioning in co-managed forest landscapes.

Indigenous spatio-temporal data includes observations of things like harvest, species life cycles and interactions, seasonal and lunar cycles and tidal patterns. Mckenzie (2017) et al describe the potential for spatio-temporal visualizations in both static maps and animated maps. In a single static map, variations in size, color hue and value, texture, orientation and shape can all be ways of documenting time. Graphics such as arrows showing migratory paths, or even a simple embedded time-stamp are also ways of including multiple variables (time and space) cartographically. Multiple static maps can be ways of displaying variations in seasonal or annual data or displaying depictions of the same information from multiple standpoints. Maps can be placed side by side or organized in a timeline to show changes throughout time. Animated or cybercartographic maps are perhaps the best platform for displaying complex multivariate data with a social or cultural component such as indigenous knowledge. Online cultural atlases can be interactive, open-source, include narrative sound clips and video, display many layers at once or independently, and be an overall effective method to convey indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge (McKenzie 2017).


Mapping indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge is a complex and nuanced process. Scassa et al (2015) discuss the legal complexities in mapping indigenous knowledge through the lens of cybercartography and digital mapping platforms. As both Scassa (2015) and Mckenzie (2017) argue, cybercartographic or digital atlases can be a highly effective way of displaying multivariate aspects of traditional ecological knowledge, reinforcing culture, mapping important qualitative and narrative aspects of indigenous knowledge systems and preserving knowledge to be passed down to younger generations. Digital atlases are often open source and participatory, allowing multiple community members to add layers or data points. However, there is a tension between the free and open source nature of this type of mapping and the need to protect the anonymity of certain landscapes of cultural importance - private hunting grounds or sacred spaces for example (Scassa 2015). Additionally, Western IP laws, which are oriented towards an individual owner or creator model, are ill-equipped to protect traditional indigenous knowledge which tends to be rooted in community over individual ownership of cultural works and traditions (Scassa 2015).



All of the authors included in this literature review discuss in some respect the challenges and complexities that come along with indigenous mapping within the framework of a colonial society dependent on Western knowledge and conceptions of space. Ultimately, many of these challenges, legal issues and complexities come with attempting to use western cartographic methods to display indigenous knowledge systems. Mckenzie (2017) discusses some of the challenges or pitfalls with TEK visualization in a GIS, including for example difficulty in displaying multiple natural rhythmic cycles (diurnal, lunar, annual and tidal) and how they interrelate, and adaptive or dynamic spatio-temporal boundaries (shifting growing seasons, observations of seasonal rainfalls, or spatial fuzziness of multiple interpretations of a phenomenon). Hunt (2017) reflects on the need to make maps that are legible to the dominant power in order to them to be impactful, but question whether doing so ultimately “reinscribe(s) elements of settler colonial geography.” Scassa (2015) argues that as digital and cybercartography becomes an increasingly utilized mapping platform, more attention needs to be paid to the legal and ethical issues that come along with mapping indigenous knowledge.

The authors included in this literature challenge us to question whether western mapping methods are the best way to convey indigenous knowledge. Perhaps instead a collective effort must be made within western institutions to more fully integrate alternative knowledge systems, material ordering practices and conceptions of time and space into academic, governmental and social spaces. It is important that we approach the art and science of cartography with a critical eye and an awareness of that there are countless ways to “map” a landscape. In doing so, we might integrate into our practice the idea that there are true and valid knowledge systems, cartographic methods, and material ordering practices outside of the western hegemonic norm in order to work towards a landscape of equity and meaningful sovereignty for indigenous peoples.



Works Cited


Hunt, D., & Stevenson, S. A. (2017). Decolonizing geographies of power: Indigenous digital counter-mapping practices on Turtle Island. Settler Colonial Studies, 7(3), 372-392.


Mackenzie, K., Siabato, W., Reitsma, F., & Claramunt, C. (2017). Spatio-temporal visualisation and data exploration of traditional ecological knowledge/indigenous knowledge. Conservation and Society, 15(1), 41-58.


Scassa, T., Engler, N. J., & Taylor, D. F. (2015). Legal issues in mapping traditional knowledge: Digital cartography in the Canadian north. The Cartographic Journal, 52(1), 41-50.