Indigenous geography is a good approach
Among the many human traits that modern life appears set to eradicate is a
people's sense of place -- the love of the land. The history and identity,
even the names of places, are held in the perception of long-term
This is perhaps the glue of sentiment and perception that has most distinct
roots in Native or indigenous cultures and peoples.
Considering the nomadic nature of modern American life -- nearly 20
percent, or 43 million, of all Americans move within any given year -- it
is significant that Native peoples tend to maintain strong ties to their
homelands. Americans manifest as a free people who continue to freely
crisscross the hemisphere, now not only going west but north and south and
east as well -- following the weather and economic security as primary
motivations, but all too regularly unattached to place.
For Native peoples, the geography of origin, consistent with culture and
history, is always imbued with meaning and identity. Even after the many
instances of warfare and forced relocation, the love of the land is carried
and taught through the generations. To the present day, many hundreds of
Native cultures sustain substantial knowledge of their places of origin and
their places of residence. This is found in the memory of elder men and
women, families and clans; and sometimes in indigenous and Western scholars
who have retained and regained the ancient languages, the traditional
stories of creation and other cosmic eras and who value the knowledge of
place that resides in the people.
This geography of the heart, interpreted by the layering of cultural and
empirical knowledge of countless human generations living "in place," has
good applicability in the sciences and arts. Oral and ethno-historical
information, in the memory of events and in the descriptive and adaptive
nature of the Native languages, is one source of study. Geographic concepts
and methodologies provide other avenues of study.
The re-examination of historical and ancient maps, as well as the
elaboration of new maps articulated by the actual knowledge of the
geography by indigenous elders, is manifested in an exciting new movement
among Native communities. Several conferences have been held on ideas and
projects emerging in indigenous geography. The Smithsonian's National
Museum of the American Indian and the Association of American Geographers,
among others, have held seminars and initiated projects; and in mid-March
2004, the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping gathered nearly 200
indigenous community experts from dozens of Native nations in 26 countries
to share ideas and methods of incorporating tribal community knowledge in
mapmaking. This represents a remarkable accomplishment that is opening up
inspirational pathways to better understanding the Indian world.
Warm congratulations are offered this week to the student leaders of the
Native American Youth Council of North High School in Phoenix, Ariz., who
have initiated an Indigenous Peoples Geography Project on their
organization's Web site. The NAYC's innovative new project launched with an
early map of the Phoenix area depicting the ancient irrigation canals and
settlements of the Huhukam civilization that predated the city and
inhabited the territory continuously for over 1,500 years. The Huhukam are
considered ancestors of the present-day O'odham nations.
Brian Bex, Dine' student at North High School, serves as Webmaster for the
Youth Council's Web site (www.northhighnatives.com). "I believe this
project will allow more people to gain an understanding of the importance
of the land they walk upon each and every day here in the valley," Bex
Tupac Enrique, adviser to the student group, commented in the group's Web
release: "Our intent is to open the eyes of our Native students and the
community at large to the validity of the Native systems of geography and
cartography, systems of knowledge."
Again, we commend Bex, Enrique and their colleagues at North High for their
visionary leadership in an exciting project. This welcome initiative by a
club of Native high school students deserves national attention. We hope it
will stimulate similar projects by Native students in schools all
throughout Indian country.
The concept of a geographic exploration fully or principally guided by the
knowledge and linguistic interpretation of indigenous inhabitants, both
culture-bearers and intellectuals, has begun to circulate widely. Power
mapping by indigenous cartographers, using a wide range of traditional and
ultramodern techniques and equipment, is in movement. At the community
level and at the NMAI, among other institutions, a convergence of
philosophies, technical methods and pedagogical experience is coming to
bear on the subject. Indigenous geography provides the basis and many of
the tools for a deeper appreciation of the Indian Americas.
To learn, ascertain and know the truth of any thing is a good definition of
research. Places have history, and in the northern half of the American
continent -- conceived as Turtle Island by several cultures -- the
indigenous presence reveals itself with vigor. The students at North High,
for instance, chose to feature the revealing map in "honor of the ancestral
settlements in the Valley of the Sun of the O'odham Nations."
Love and appreciation of place begets intense curiosity and is a motivation
for understanding geography, history and, most intriguingly, cultural
meaning. Truthful, accurate and sincere traditional knowledge, well-shared
and well-depicted, can also be a strong source of protection over lands and
territories. Defining the knowledge of long-term inhabitation provokes
respect and consciously educates the tribal base and surrounding
Indigenous geography, as Bex reminds us, "will allow more people to gain an
understanding of the importance of the land they walk upon."