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Indigenous Geography as Discipline Arrives

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There is an Indigenous Geography in the making - a new approach to land consciousness involving map reading and map-making that is leading to the establishment of an encompassing, innovative and pragmatic new discipline.

Arguably, the genius of American Indians and of indigenous peoples generally is their intense attachment to and study of their places of origin and occupancy - the homelands. Among study areas of interest, Native land researchers, scholars and activists are finding a compatible, productive and useful discipline in geography, in the study of their lands with all the new tools available to modern science - but with the clear intention of generating models that emerge from their own traditional knowledge branches. Numerous efforts and initiatives activated throughout the Americas reveal that the Indigenous Geography movement is well under way.

In mid-March, the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping gathered nearly 200 indigenous community experts from dozens of Native nations in 26 countries. Meeting in Vancouver, Canada, they compared notes on some fascinating projects, networked their organizations and shared their range of productions.

We were privileged to listen in on some of the most crisp, practical and solution-oriented presentations regarding Native homelands we have heard in a long time. Native community intelligence of great depth and honesty have coupled affirmatively and confidently to complex and sophisticated scientific tools and computer modeling programs. Surfing on the winds of the remarkably adaptable discipline of geography, the emergent Native projects base themselves on ancient oral traditional knowledge yet incorporate, as resources allow, modern cartographic technology to define and articulate their own perception of their own lands and territories. It is a terrifically inspirational, not to mention useful, combination.

Map-making seems uniquely suited to the needs and perspectives of indigenous peoples. In the hands of indigenous community planners and resource managers, it becomes an Indigenous Geography that joins leadership, educators, legal experts, and tribal members young and old in exploring traditional culture, indigenous language, and working toward the gathering of knowledge on their homeland watersheds and river systems, coasts and plains, ocean sites, etc., to create user-friendly knowledge bases.

Indigenous peoples are reluctant to forget, despite the many horrible attempts to separate the peoples from their own cultures, their homelands and customary resources. By and large, they take heart in the memory of their origin places, whether still held in the tribal territory or long lost to encroachment, removal, or perhaps outright decimation as populations. We are pleased to note that all indigenous mapping practitioners who presented expressed their respect and enthusiasm for the cultural-spiritual elements in the attachment to their lands. In the practice and in the culling of the living culture, indigenous sensibility to the natural gifts of their environs is front and center.

This was the major theme in Vancouver: the consciousness of place, the indigenous love and identity of place as being the fuel of defense, sustenance and identity of tribal peoples.

"We are our lands," said Alvin Warren, lead coordinator for the conference from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, in his opening remarks. "We are intent in finding our places. This is a unity of purpose that we share. As we learn about our lands, we learn about ourselves."

Another major theme of Indigenous Geography is the love and conscious revitalization of the Native languages. This task and duty was endorsed universally: to capture and incorporate the traditional indigenous language as it describes place, explains natural and human phenomena and describes spiritual concepts emerging from Creation stories and other formative narratives of Native peoples.

The Indigenous Geography genesis also finds its roots in other forums. Consultations in the late 1990s among indigenous community educators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian led to the initiation of an Indigenous Geography research emphasis (also translated into Geografia Indigena for Spanish speaking regions of the Western Hemisphere). Recognizing the essential link between Native communities and their environments, this project studied the integrative approach of an innovative Indigenous Geography - combining environment, society, economy and culture - to produce community focused products, including Web sites, with content derived almost entirely from local informants.

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The proposed program offered clear and comprehensive portrayals of contemporary Indian life and land, focused on cultural values as lived within Native communities, and provided an invaluable resource for the production of Indigenous Geography education materials tailored to the needs of Indian students - but that would also seamlessly provide an exciting pathway for all students to learn more about Native community cultures, histories, philosophies and environments. This project included the sustained study of languages and their cultural contexts through basic vocabulary, place names and stories. Understanding of contemporary indigenous issues and questions of human existence that transcended cultural and geographic boundaries was also to have been fostered. That the program was designed to be consistent with all standards and guidelines for national geographic education made it all the more impressive.

This project had the larger goal of re-creating geography education for Indian America, providing a rich introduction to the comparative study of indigenous cultures that would have assisted teachers in facilitating critical thinking among students. A similar program for indigenous Pacific Island cultures, "Pacific Worlds," is already well under way, with six community Web sites, free curricular materials, and workshops being hosted for island teachers to foster indigenous understandings of space and place.

Indigenous Geography is also gaining prominence within the discipline of Geography at the national level. A growing number of Native and non-Native scholars forming the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers, have been organizing conference sessions at the American Association of Geographers' annual meetings. For the past four years, these sessions have pushed harder on the acceptance of indigenous understandings, posing Western geographic approaches as but one colonially inspired way of viewing the world. Indian Country Today's own Dr. Jose Barreiro served as a plenary speaker at this year's AAG conference, and a top-ranked disciplinary journal out of Sweden, "Geografiska Annaler: Series B - Human Geography," has commissioned a special issue on Indigenous Geography. This momentum is expected to continue at next year's meeting in Denver, and beyond.

Elsewhere courses and exhibits in Indigenous Geography are offering viewers and participants a new way of understanding the world in which they live. Universal Press Syndicate columnists and UCLA Cesar Chavez Distinguished Community scholars Roberto Rodriguez and Patrisia Gonzales offered a course in Indigenous Geography at UCLA this past spring and will teach it again at the University of Wisconsin at Madison this summer.

This course includes an examination of maps and chronicles from the 1500s - 1800s that reveal "Mesoamerican" roots in what is today the United States. It is part of a larger collaborative and ongoing research effort that examines oral traditions from throughout the continent regarding ancient connections between peoples of North and South America and the Caribbean. Many of the maps point to several sites, purportedly associated with Aztec/Mexica peoples and their migrations, but also with older ancient Mexican, Chichimeca and Toltec migrations and that of Central and South American peoples as well. It challenges the popular belief that it was the romanticism of 19th century U.S. archaeologists that caused them to place such place names (Montezuma, Aztec, Anahuac, Tula, etc.) throughout the country. However, these maps (representative of hundreds more and found at most major libraries and research institutions around the world) clearly demonstrate that such sites were well established long before the existence of the United States.

Rodriguez and Gonzales, along with researchers Dr. Antonio Rios Bustamante, Dr. Juan Gomez Quininez, Dr. Reynaldo Macias and Dr. Irene Vasquez, plus UCLA students, Daniela Conde, Cynthia Gonzalez and Rosario Luis, have also developed an exhibit that grows from their understanding of Indigenous Geography. On April 1, the UCLA Young Research Library will introduce a special and historic exhibit of 16th - 19th century maps that indicate an ancient Mesoamerican presence and migrations within the United States. The exhibit also includes "chronicles, codices, annals and interviews regarding oral traditions that speak to ancient connections between peoples of the north and south." Part of the objective of the map exhibit examines how cartographers dealt with this subject from the 1500s through the 1800s. Much like their course their exhibit research also places an emphasis on oral traditions and introduces concepts of Indian origins and migrations that are at times both complex and philosophical.

The people in attendance at the Vancouver Mapping Forum included many dedicated and strong activists of cultural and land recovery. Elders, young activists and community practitioners, environmental professionals, academics and lawyers talked and showed the power of maps, of an Indigenous Geography that is as respectful of the internal community needs and wishes as it is charged with the incorporation of traditional knowledge of the land and environs as well as the most advanced range of geographic tools possible.

Mapping, as we know, started with hand-drawn maps, with mental maps and star maps and even song-maps. Now indigenous peoples are accessing the tools of western mapping, Global Information Systems, and Global Positioning Systems. The counter-mapping movement that dates from the 1970s intends to recreate the maps of our territories with our own knowledge. It is a powerful initiative that fits like a glove the pattern of knowledge of the land that is retained by elders and which is inherent in the ancient languages. From all indications, young people are receptive to this knowledge as curriculum method as it combines practical experience relative to land, tribal identity, culture and language, and scientific currents.

The emerging linkages across networks, definitions and methodologies now available to Indigenous Geography practitioners, as one Forum participant put it, "means we are now using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house." Warren reminded the gathering of the late, much-respected geographer, Barney Neitchman, who once said, "More Indian land was taken by maps than by guns." Indigenous Geography, which is increasingly gaining adherents across a wide spectrum, remains nonetheless a proactive and uniquely Indian led and conceptualized discipline that has grown from practical community-based needs.

The Forum concept - the common endeavor of many people and organizations, including some excellent, forward-thinking foundations - was to work with indigenous peoples around the world who are using Indigenous Geography practices to recover traditional cultural knowledge, to assert legal rights to territories and natural resources, to negotiate co-management agreements and to introduce their young people to their identity in the land. We salute them all.