Mapping with Indigenous Peoples in Canada

D. R. Fraser Taylor


The Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC) at Carleton University in Ottawa has been creating cybercartographic atlases with Indigenous communities in Canada for almost two decades. The initial approach, as outlined in Cybercartography: Theory and Practicedescribed the theory and practice of cybercartography and how the concept originated, but at that time there were few examples of cybercartography being used in relationship to Indigenous mapping. Since that initial development phase, the GCRC has steadily increased the Indigenous mapping element of its work, and in 2014 published Developments in the Theory and Practice of Cybercartography: Applications and Indigenous Mapping.2 In that volume, detailed descriptions of a number of Indigenous atlases were given. In 2019, a study entitled Further Developments in the Theory and Practice of Cybercartography: International Dimensions and Language Mapping'" was released and again Indigenous mapping was a central element of the book. In addition to examples from Canada’s North, examples of Indigenous mapping in Mexico, Brazil and Kyrgyzstan were described. The year 2019 also saw the publication of a description of some of GCRC’s work on the topic of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples—Cybercartography in a Reconciliation Community: Engaging Intersecting Perspectives.4

This chapter will outline some of the lessons learned from this ongoing process as well as describe the development of the innovative mapping and data management framework, Nunaliit, used to create the cybercartographic atlases. A cybercartographic atlas is quite different from a conventional atlas, and is a metaphor for all kinds of qualitative and quantitative information linked by location. These are interactive, multimedia, and multisensory online products. Over the years, the atlases have become increasingly community controlled and community generated, and telling stories from a community perspective is one of their central features. Storytelling is a key aspect of all Indigenous societies, and cybercartography’s ability to tell these stories using sound and videos is one of the reasons it is so useful in Indigenous mapping, and why it has been so enthusiastically adopted by Indigenous peoples. Nunaliit means community in Inuktitut, and has been designed so that communities can produce their own atlases. It is an open source framework freely available to all users and can be learned by individuals with limited computer expertise in a matter of hours. Community ownership and control is of great importance, and creating the atlases often requires a decentralized and distributed data management approach. The process by which atlases are produced by Indigenous communities is equally if not more important than the atlases themselves, especially in relation to inter-generational interactions created in the communities.

Cybercartography and Cybercartographic Atlases

Cybercartography was first introduced as a concept in 1997."’ Since that time, both the theory and practice has evolved substantially, and much of this evolution has been the result of interactions with Indigenous communities.6 In 2019, Cybercartography was redefined as

... a complex, holistic, user centred process which applies location-based technologies to the analysis of all types of topics of interest to society and the presentation of the results in innovative ways through cybercartographic atlases. A cybercartographic atlas is a metaphor for all kinds of qualitative and quantitative information linked by location and displayed in innovative, interactive multimodal and multisensory formats.7

Atlases empower Indigenous communities to tell their own stories. Both mapping and storytelling are basic human instincts and are a central part of the holistic nature of Cybercartography.

Although the formal definition of cybercartography has changed, the six central ideas which underpin it are still relevant. These are:

  • • Individuals use all of their senses when observing what is around them. Cybercartography explores the use of all five senses, and is now moving into affective issues to include emotion. In Indigenous mapping where storytelling is of central importance, sound, especially narration, is being widely used, as well as is music.
  • • Individuals have different learning preferences and prefer teaching and learning materials in different formats. Cybercartographic atlases provide the same information in multiple formats. For Indigenous mapping, narration has proved to be the format best suited to the informal learning process of transmission of information from the elders, which is of central importance. For formal education in a school setting, vision and text are more popular, although selective use of narration is still important.
  • • Educational theory suggests that individuals learn best when they are actively rather than passively involved. Cybercartography engages and facilitates interaction. Cybercartographic atlases include a wide variety of representations of Indigenous community life, including art, music, place names, photographs, videos, ceremony, and socioeconomic and cultural activities, both past and present. Special attention is given to the design of user interfaces to facilitate interaction.
  • • The social media revolution has given people the power to create their own maps and narratives. The Nunaliit cybercartographic atlas framework is a data management framework that allows Indigenous communities to enter the information they consider important from a community perspective, which is often quite different from that which outsiders would consider important. The framework is open source, provides a built-in meta data structure for the information, and does not require special knowledge to enter the information. After a few hours training, community members can learn. Mastering Nunaliit is no more difficult than using the ubiquitous smart phones now common in Indigenous communities, especially with young people.
  • • Many topics of interest to society are complex, and the same set of “facts” on issues of interest to Indigenous communities, such as environmental change and the health of species such as fish or caribou, are open to a number of interpretations. Cybercartography allows the presentation of different ontologies and narratives on the same topics without privileging one over the other. Indigenous communities want their knowledge and experiences to be treated as equally important to that of Western science, and cybercartography allows this to happen. Traditionally, the map was an authoritative source of information, and what was mapped and how that was represented lay in the hands of those producing the maps who were almost without exception from outside the community.
  • • As the earlier comment suggests, traditional cartography was supply driven. National mapping agencies supplied definitive and authoritative maps which decision makers and others used. Technological change has more recently allowed a demand approach. Cybercartography takes this one step further and empowers individuals and communities to create their own maps, including the choice of what to map or not map. Cybercartography democratizes mapping in new ways. Indigenous peoples, until recently, have often been largely “invisible” on maps or have been represented by others. Cybercartography gives voice to Indigenous peoples and other community groups both literally and metaphorically.
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