Articles

What Would It Look Like to Decolonize Cartography? A Volunteer Group Has Ideas

Founded by Jordan Engel in 2014, Decolonial Atlas is working to undo settler colonialism, one map at a time.

“The Spread of Christianity throughout Europe” by Jordan Engel (all images courtesy Decolonial Atlas)

European colonizers first imposed borders on the Americas by drafting maps. Arbitrary lines, written to justify genocide, became symbols of private prosperity in the so-called “New World.” Indigenous cultures were supplanted by the Western canon, which developed an alternative history of the lands to vindicate itself. Settler colonialism continues to inflect mainstream media, rationalizing housing segregation and police violence as byproducts of law and order. One volunteer group is working against this narrative, decolonizing cartography in an effort to envision the world before and after capitalist exploitation.

Since 2014, the Decolonial Atlas has restored Indigenous maps of the US and Canada in Native languages; questioned how Africa and Asia might look without borders; and charted environmental impacts of global pollution, deforestation, and warfare. Its founder, Jordan Engel, first started the project to conceive a full map of Turtle Island. It has since grown into a virtual collaboration with Indigenous tribes and First Nations to accomplish this goal.

151 People Killed by Police in June 2020 by Jordan Engel, data from Fatal Encounters

“I’ve consulted with elders and language keepers from almost every tribe on the continent, many of whom then took time to research and consult with others,” Engel told Hyperallergic. “Along the way, I was introduced to some great folks who collaborated on a series of decolonized maps from Indigenous perspectives, which have become great resources for language revitalization.”

While European settlers named states and cities after themselves, Indigenous communities often chose names with the land in mind, describing a specific feature, local species, or important cultural event. Decolonial Atlas demonstrates that these traditions are still prevalent among Mohawk, Ojibwe, and Lakota peoples. Maps created in collaboration with Karonhí:io Delaronde — a member of the Mohawk Nation and the Turtle Clan — show Mohawk variations of Montreal, Haudenosaunee Country, and Northeast Turtle Island that are completely borderless and annotated in the Kanien’kéha language. Below each map, a key translates the names of towns, cities, and bodies of water alongside their English colonial names.

“Haudenosaunee Country in Mohawk” by Karonhí:io Delaronde and Jordan Engel

“Many cartographers from earlier times named most if not all mountains, rivers, and lakes by their local Native name,” Delaronde explained. “I came across many papers, books, atlases, and maps either readable online or through an eBay purchase. Through them, I expanded my knowledge of our names for regions in the traditional homeland and beyond in eastern, central, and even western North America. It amazed me, and showed that [the Mohawk people] traveled all over North America prior to European contact, and had extensive networks with other cultures and nations.”

Decolonial Atlas also helps track the influence of global capitalism on other forms of racial disenfranchisement. For the Racially Segregated US Coastline, Engel created demographic maps of several coastal cities and towns using 2010 census data from National Geographic; in every case, beachfront property is predominantly white-owned, while Black and Hispanic communities are clustered together in centralized locations — perhaps most obviously in Los Angeles. Another map of Gulfport, Mississippi shows a small population of white homeowners literally encompassing Black neighborhoods along the beach, with a thin blue line creating a property border at the Gulf of Mexico. A map of Cape Kumukahi in Hawaii likewise shows that the majority of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live the furthest inland, far away from the urban center.

“The Racially Segregated US Coastline, Los Angeles” by Jordan Engel

In one unsettling map of the world, Engel pinpoints the locations of the top 50 companies that control the global economy. Unsurprisingly, most of them are based in the US and Europe. This map strips away all geographical elements from the seven white continents, placing red dots over the headquarters of banks, financial service firms, and corporations. Seeing power concentrated in this way, it becomes ever-easier to gaze at the borderless lands and imagine the possibilities.

comments (0)