Mapping Native America

There are lots of maps of Native America floating around in books and on-line, most suggesting a sea of an indigenous nation-states that was fixed in time until the Europeans arrived. In reality, these “tribes” labeled on maps were most often broadly


As with Europe, any map of North America is merely a snapshot in time.

defined ethnic groups that moved and shifted over the centuries. They had widely varying political structures. Some were loose aggregations of towns and villages, others, like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, were vast empires with a centralized government.  Over time, territories grew or shrank at the expense of others. Any map is a snapshot in time– and many maps seem to draw on different times in history and merge them together.

Regardless, there are now some excellent mapping efforts that seek to identify traditional indigenous lands, however imperfectly. Most recent is, an interactive geographic database created by Victor from the Okanagan region. He describes his interactive map as “a work in progress” and invites public comment and participation.  He states, “I feel that maps are inherently colonial, in that they delegate power according to imposed borders that don’t really exist in many nations throughout history.” Maybe, but often rivers and other geographic features did provide well-defined borders. Landmarks like the Ohio River or the Red Pole (“Baton Rouge”) in Louisiana were honored border checkpoints for centuries.

maps1 provides an interactive and searchable map.

Another recent cartographic effort are the beautiful maps created by Aaron Carapella, who lives in current Cherokee (and former Osage) lands in Oklahoma.  Eschewing borders and their inherent uncertainty, Carapella’s map provides original tribal names, with the anglicized versions underneath  (such as “Dakota” over “Sioux”).  While large printed versions are available for purchase, a full pdf version is available here.  He has expanded his original effort to include maps of Mexico, Canada, Alaska, and South America. His maps have been covered by NPR; also see his Facebook page.


One of Aaron Carapella’s artistic maps.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some confusion on-line. Some maps have made well-intentioned rounds on Facebook and other social media. These are mostly innacurate, merging different periods in history and implying artificially hard boundaries across the continent. Most notable is the “America before colonization” map. Snopes did some investigation of this one. It turns out it’s a hypothetical map prepared for a fiction novel. Snopes concludes, “Rather than showing the state of America prior to European colonization, this image is one author’s idea of what America might look like today if Europeans had never colonized it.”


A fictional map prepared for a novel that has fooled many on Facebook. 






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