“I am calling in from Lenapehoking, the occupied ancestral lands of the Lenape upon which I am a settler. I invite you to learn more about the lands you are on using the link I am posting in the chat…”
I have heard, and recited, variations of this message countless times over the past 18 months, followed by a link to native-land.ca (Native Land). It has been ever present in Zoom conferences, webinars, and other remote events. I’m even guilty of using a screenshot of the map as a slide background (Fig. 1). Native Land feels to be of this moment, even though it was not created for this moment.1
Native Land is a map that depicts the traditional and ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples across the world, though it is based out of what is now known as Canada. It was first created in 2015 by Victor Temprano, a settler, but since 2018 it has been managed by Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led organization. One of the goals of the map is to create “spaces where non-Indigenous people can be invited and challenged to learn more about the lands they inhabit, the history of those lands, and how to actively be part of a better future going forward together” (“NativeLand.ca – Why It Matters” n.d.). This map helps engage those listening to land acknowledgments in virtual environments to think about their own homes and educate themselves, an important first step in decolonization only if it is followed up with further action.2
Even though it was created years ago with different goals in mind, Native Land’s adoption in this remote environment addresses the conflicting desires of speaking to a local place-based reality while we are sharing a digital space. Land acknowledgements over Zoom cannot speak to the experience of every attendee the way a land acknowledgement at an in-person conference can. We are not sharing the same physical space. We may not even be on the same continent. By sharing a link to Native Land, it has become a tool to help connect attendees in that moment, giving space for us all to think about our individual relationships to the land we are occupying.
So far I have been talking about the map without discussing the actual map. When the map is first opened the user is greeted with an almost stained glass version of the world. Rather than viewing land divided by modern political boundaries, which even when the boundaries are contested are presented as static permanent lines, the land is covered with colorful overlapping shapes (Fig. 2). These overlaps are made visible, and highlighted, because the shapes are semi transparent and create new colors as they intersect. This contests western ideas of ownership, where land belongs to one party or another. Instead we can see the multilevel, and shifting, relationships a variety of Indigenous nations have to the land.
Users can navigate the map by searching using an address or by zooming in and out on portions of the map. While the user can add a layer of the map showing the modern political boundaries and names recognized by governments (by toggling “labels”), these are off by default. This can make it surprisingly difficult to find a specific location without using the search function, as our familiar landmarks and ways of understanding land have been removed. Just as the iconic photo “Earthrise” introduced many people to a new way of looking at our planet, this map helps encourage users to question their relationship to a physical space. Where am I from? A country? State? County?
Additionally, users can overlay layers that show language ranges and treaty agreements. The language feature is one in particular I would like to focus on, as I am more interested in centering the Indigenous histories of the land than those of the dominant governments although the two are inextricably intertwined. The map of languages presents another level of relationships between the Indigenous nations. While the map of territories shows lots of overlapping and densely populated entities, the map of languages is simpler. The overlapping regions are smaller, and there appear to be fewer, but larger, entities (Fig. 3). This seems to suggest how multiple nations used related languages and perhaps the relationships between local nations. It also could have to do with a lack of data as native languages are disappearing, and much of that knowledge has already been lost. To me though this serves as a reminder that these nations were not just in relationship with the physical land, but one another as well.
My own research interests have been understanding how digital humanities methods can strengthen environmental humanities topics. As I see it, environmental humanities studies relationships with Land, not just the physical land but all of its human and non-human residents (for more on these relationships see: Liboiron 2021, 6-7). Native Land helps reinforce that in order to be in good relationship with the Land you also have to be in good relationship with its original caretakers. I am drawn to critical settler cartography (Fujikane 2021) and how I can use maps to develop those relationships, in particular between human and the non-human inhabitants that are often overlooked, like plants (Parsley 2020). While Native Land does not explicitly address the non-human inhabitants of the places it maps, it lays the foundation to think about how we are all in relation with one another, the Land, and everything else we share space with.
1: As a settler, I am writing this from the perspective of non-native users of this map. I have a unique relationship to the map and the topics it raises which is informed by my relation to the land. I can only speak from the relationship as settler-scholar, and I acknowledge that those who have a different relationship to the land will have a different experience using this map.
2: As land acknowledgements become more common, they provide what could be the start of “real decolonizing opportunities” but they are also worryingly moving towards performative allyship without any real action or commitment behind them (Stewart Ambo and Yang 2021). When including land acknowledgements it is also important to think about what actions can be taken by organizations and individuals (“Beyond Land Acknowledgment: A Guide” 2021).
“Beyond Land Acknowledgment: A Guide.” 2021. Native Governance Center (blog). September 8, 2021. https://nativegov.org/beyond-land-acknowledgment-a-guide/.
Fujikane, Candace. 2021. Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future: Kanaka Maoli and Critical Settler Cartographies in Hawai’i. Duke University Press Books.
Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press.
“NativeLand.ca – Why It Matters.” n.d. Native-Land.ca – Our Home on Native Land. Accessed August 27, 2021. https://native-land.ca/about/why-it-matters/.
Parsley, Kathryn M. 2020. “Plant Awareness Disparity: A Case for Renaming Plant Blindness.” PLANTS, PEOPLE, PLANET 2 (6): 598–601. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153.
Stewart-Ambo, Theresa, and K. Yang. 2021. “Beyond Land Acknowledgment in Settler Institutions.” Social Text 39 (March): 21–46. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-8750076.