Courtesy Aaron Carapella
Aaron Carapella, a.k.a. the “map guy,” stands near some of his Indian Nations maps on display at the Kansas City Indian Center. His new map details South America's Indigenous Peoples.

New Pre-Contact Map Transforming Understanding of South America, One Tribe at a Time

Alysa Landry

A new pre-contact map by Aaron Carapella promises to be the most comprehensive snapshot of South America’s Indigenous Peoples.

Carapella, the 36-year-old architect behind a growing collection of Tribal Nations maps, in October released a map depicting 720 tribes of South America in their original locations and identified by their traditional names. Where possible, the rising cartographer also included historic photos of people or places.

“I focused on traditional homelands, or where the tribes were when the Portuguese or English or French came and took over,” Carapella said. “I tried to put the tribes where they were before they were shifted around and merged with other tribes, and I used their traditional names—the names they called themselves before European contact.”

The latest installment marks completion of Carapella’s plan to map the entire western hemisphere, a project that started about two decades ago. Carapella, who is of Cherokee descent, was a teenager exploring his own heritage in Oklahoma and wanted a map of tribes that he could hang on his bedroom wall.

RELATED: The 1491 Census: Native Creates Tribal Nations Map of Turtle Island

When he couldn’t find anything comprehensive, he decided to make his own. He spent 14 years and visited 250 tribal communities as he researched and created his first Tribal Nations map. Released in 2012, the map depicts traditional names and locations of 590 tribes in the United States.

Aaron Carapella’s maps show original locations of indigenous people throughout North America, along with tribes’ traditional names. (Courtesy Aaron Carapella)

From there, Carapella expanded beyond the “artificial borders” and mapped Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Central America. He also offers a map of the entire North American continent identifying more than 1,000 tribes and absent any lines drawn between states or countries.

RELATED: Changing Perceptions and Making Connections—One Map at a Time

His map of South America also shows tribal nations without political borders. From the Wayuu on the northern tip of the continent to the Manek’enk on the bottom of Cape Horn, Carapella mapped as many tribes as he could in their original locations.

That, in itself, proved more difficult than Carapella imagined. Some tribes have lived on the same land since time immemorial while others were relocated, confined to reservations or combined with other tribes.

“It’s hard to find a map or anything that pinpoints where these people were actually from,” Carapella said. “The Europeans didn’t stop to make maps of where people were. That wasn’t their goal.”

Carapella’s research included comparing explorers’ diaries with oral accounts from tribes, as well as discoveries from contemporary anthropologists. The project comes with the understanding that the maps may never be complete.

“There are always updates,” he said. “That’s the nature of what I’m doing. Over time, the maps change as I find more information or get more input from tribes.”

Carapella’s goal is to create a space for indigenous people—even those that no longer exist. In the late 19th century, for example, European colonists stormed into the Amazon River valley to start rubber plantations, leading to abuse, slavery and murder of the indigenous people. Another so-called “rubber boom” came during World War II when the Allied Forces tapped into the South American market to extract rubber for war equipment.

“Just in the 1940s, all these corporations and individuals moved in swiftly to the Amazon rainforest and completely disrupted all these tribes that had avoided contact with Europeans,” Carapella said. “Literally hundreds of thousands of indigenous people died of disease or death squads to clear out lands to get these rubber trees.”

Stories like the rubber boom, told from a Native perspective, are the reason René Locklear White buys and distributes Carapella’s maps. A member of North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe, White is retired from the U.S. Air Force and now does outreach through Sanctuary on the Trail, a branch of the Native American Church of Virginia.

White buys maps from Carapella by the hundreds, she said. Her goal is to get them into all Virginia schools.

“When we talk about Native Americans, we’re talking about North and South America,” she said. “These maps are helping people accept that Indian people live here now, not just in the past. What they’re doing is helping transform people’s understanding and acceptance of indigenous people.”

White distributes maps to teachers, museum curators, college students and parents. Most of her customers are astounded to see how widespread indigenous people were in the Americas before European contact. Others, she said, scan the maps anxiously until they find references of their own tribes.

“When I present this map, people come up out of their chairs,” she said. “They look for their family, where their ancestors were. They want to see that they’re on the map. And when they see it, they are moved and touched.”

To view or purchase Tribal Nations maps, visit

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