In this chapter so far, I’ve touched on a number of key theoretical or practical issues in doing mapping on the site. In this section, I wanted to explore the impact of the site itself on users based on more of that feedback. Hopefully, this will also help you in your own projects; to handle your feedback in a way that strengthens you, but also engages the hard questions about your work.
Thank-Yous and Positive Feedback
Some of the emails I’ve received are a great help in giving inspiration and validation in continuing the project. These range from simple “Thank you for making this site” emails, to emails from Indigenous people who express that this is the first time they have ever seen their own ancestral territory mapped. Teachers may email to thank us for providing a resource for them and their students, or others for giving them a way to discuss these issues with friends and family.
One email in this category that sticks in my mind was received in the first year of the site’s existence. The site went down due to high bandwidth around Thanksgiving (a popular time of year for the site, due to its implications for Indigenous relations and history). A person emailed me to ask when the site would be back online, because he was planning to present it to his family at Thanksgiving that year and start a conversation about Indigenous history and the history of settling on the land.
This email made a big impact on me. It made me realize that the site had effects far beyond what I could have imagined, and it inspired me that people were taking this on and using it in their own ways to discuss these issues with friends and family. It gave me, like many of these positive emails, the inspiration to keep working despite the complications of the project.
In general, it’s important to remember that we tend to discount positive feedback in favor of negative comments. So savor the good ones when they come, and allow them to strengthen you.
Suggestions (and critiques) fall into a few categories. The most common would be emails that suggest a new nation that I had missed, or provide a resource for mapping a new area of the world that I was not yet able to tackle, such as northern Europe or Taiwan. I couldn’t always follow some of these (due to workload), but they are important because they tell me what people are expecting to see and what they want to see mapped in the future.
Suggestion emails are crucial for the functioning and improvement of the site: without user input, the crowdsourcing model crumbles and the site would stagnate. People often dig up better resources, whether from their own community knowledge or from a part of the internet I missed. Some examples might be: an email from a band office with the latest updated shapefile of their territory; an anonymous message telling me that I am using an incorrect name for a nation; or an email from someone expressing confusion about why a certain nation is not included. I filed these emails away and slowly worked at them over time, adding the shapes, doing additional research, or asking for clarification from the user.
Other suggestions can include things like improving the map design, removing settler state boundaries, or adding new features such as the territory acknowledgment section. Inviting and responding thoughtfully to this feedback—even if I ultimately turn down the new ideas—is crucial in having a site that is collaborative. This takes time and energy away from the technological improvements or new map fixes, but it’s important to building a community and a sense that people are involved. We now have a Slack channel populated with numerous volunteers who have helped us immensely over the years in many areas, and more importantly, they are able to connect with each other and discuss ideas together.
It is important, in my opinion, to make giving input extremely easy for users. This means no big complex user forms: just a place for people to put an email and a message. If you create barriers or try to make people fill in too much information, you will lose people along the way. Make it easy, and make sure you follow up with those who make suggestions, even if they don’t provide quite enough information for what you need.
Critical and Difficult Feedback
Finally, we come to critical emails. These have often made me feel panicked and turn my attention very quickly to areas of the site that are lacking and potential harm being done by the site. I must note here that I am not concerned at all with emails that are racist or destructive: that is, emails that say that I am doing this out of white guilt, slam me as stupid, or insist that Indigenous people don’t deserve to be mapped, etc. These emails (or Facebook conversations), in my opinion, are already generating dialogue, and I do not need to change anything to modify the site for them. They are hardly worth the time.
The critical emails that do matter the most tend to come from Indigenous people whose nations have been left off the map. Sometimes people feel erased, removed from history, left out of a broader narrative—which feels like a replication of the entire history of settler colonialism. I invite and embrace these emails and apologize as well as I can, and attempt to rectify the issue as soon as possible, with the help of the person who emailed, if they wish to be part. Sometimes they do not. They do not owe me their time or knowledge, especially after the hurt inflicted, and I do my best to repair things regardless. Of course, I never intend to make such errors of omission or of naming, but nevertheless I do make such mistakes and they have to be taken seriously.
These emails are an opportunity, actually, to realize how important the site is and what an impact it makes. The project is important because it actually affects people—good and bad—and that meant I had to work hard to try to get things right. While I had limitations due to lack of funding, personnel, and expertise, I did try to do my best while also getting a broad swathe of territories, languages, and treaties. I tried not to give excuses, but rather aim to help people understand why I might have missed their nation and that it was not from malice (if that matters to them at all, which it may not). At the end of the day, though, I want to fix the issue, not argue about whether I was right or wrong or malicious or ignorant.
Other critiques that are more difficult to handle or respond to may touch on my place as a settler running the site, or on theoretical problems, such as the site’s very existence replicating “government sanctioned” ideas of tribal history and nationhood, or the inclusion of groups that some feel are questionable in terms of being defined as Indigenous. Because of the complex history of colonialism, many nations are seen as having been “created” by governments, and not as “original” inhabitants.
Overall, these critical and intelligent emails made me question whether the site should exist at all. A number of times I nearly took it down in response, but I had to admit that it is also important to take on board the positive feedback. After engaging with many of these hard critiques, it grew increasingly clear to me that I could not really be running this big and this impactful of a site all by myself, without help from people beyond the occasional email.
I alone could not responsibly be in charge of this site. I needed help. I needed more voices to be included in positions of power in the project. I needed a board of directors.