Indigenous Mapping Insights and Cybercartography

In a world dominated by an exploding diversified population approaching 8 billion, the voices of Indigenous Peoples assume a disquieting, challenging and critical place – and insight for the future.
Indigenous Peoples of North America call this land Turtle Island; this image from the Circle of All Nations archives has been used to illustrate conceptual, motional and transitional mapping themes over the past two decades.

In the time/space conflation of geography and humanity, this is a particularly significant moment to reflect on Indigenous mapping. Year 1492 ushered in an explosion in spatial exploration beyond Europe: a “New World” was revealed, and the age of colonization of the Americas began. The Papal Bulls of Pope Alexander VI, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the notion of Terra Nullius set the stage for dispossession and subjugation. Today, Pope Francis re-presents Indigenous Peoples to the global stage, with his historical apology to the delegation of First Peoples from Canada.

Late Algonquin activist, political and spiritual leader, William Commanda, founder of the Circle of All Nations reflected on the critical elements of this 500 plus years history in the book Learning From a Kindergarten Dropout (Thumbadoo, 2005), and in words later set to Indigenous drumsong.

The geospatial world that evolved from the priorities of the early European Geography Societies may have lost sight of this painful history, but unmarked graves of children housed in Indigenous Residential Schools in Canada have obliged a reckoning this past year. This has implications for land issues and mapping. As noted in the OECDiLibrary link regarding land and development, inclusive of referencing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015 [3], Canada is called upon to Reconcile Aboriginal and Crown constitutional and legal orders to ensure that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in Confederation, including the recognition and integration of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in negotiation and implementation processes involving Treaties, land claims, and other constructive agreements.

Indigenous Elder William Commanda presents Dr D.R. Fraser Taylor with his book, Learning from a Kindergarten Dropout (Thumbadoo), 2007

Challenging the status quo

Indigenous notions of mapping today challenge many schools of thought on mapping. One is motional and emphasizes cognitive cartography. Another fundamentally important mapping theme that links Indigenous Peoples across the globe is the indelible awareness and assertion of relationship with the Earth, a living, evolving Gaia. In 1987, during what is known as the Harmonic Convergence, the cognition and voice of Indigenous Peoples suddenly reached global consciousness. Note for example the following:

And finally, decades after formal interventions by the North American Indian Nations Government initiated at the United Nations (UN) in the mid-forties, the UN hosted the first international conference of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and they, in profound awareness and concern over the accelerating environmental crisis, extinction of species and looming climate change, called their conference the Cry of the Earth. One can see for example their environmental priorities in Cry of the Earth – Part 2 of 12 – Algonquin Delegation.

In 2012, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, stated that securing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands is of central importance to their socioeconomic development, self-determination, and cultural integrity (Anaya, 2012[12]); thus, the political implications of Indigenous mapping are also profound. Today, many researchers and environmentalists also believe that the foundational Indigenous understanding of sustainable relationships can be of deep value to the world now and can contribute to new mapping approaches.

In these times of global pandemic, environmental disaster and human crisis, it is becoming apparent how critical it is to really listen to the Indigenous Peoples of the world.

Giving voice to the communities

In 1997, Dr. D. R. Fraser Taylor, Director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre introduced a new approach to mapping which gives voice to communities. His research led to the creation and establishment of the domain of Cybercartography. In short, Cybercartography is an interactive, multimedia, and multi-sensory online mapping format that uses location as its organizing principle and integrates cultural, historical, linguistic, economic, and social data with cartographic information. In 2007, William Commanda saw the benefits of this innovative platform to map his own story.

Dr. Taylor notes that “The creation of cybercartographic atlases on the GCRC’s Nunaliit digital atlas framework has been of great interest to Indigenous communities, in part because it is grounded in principles of development that I first noted in my work in East Africa. This early research demonstrated the importance of the holistic approach to knowledge retention and generation of the Kikuyu Peoples of Kenya, and to innovative mapping of diverse cultural, social and economic variables, while contributing to respect for inter-relationships between different knowledge systems”.

In 1977, Ella-Han’sa articulated The Circle of Life concept at the first Circumpolar Conference. This elevated the Inuit voice and inspired connection and partnership with northern communities. With respect to Cybercartography, closer engagement with Inuit and First Nations communities facilitated the introduction of new functionalities into the Nunaliit atlas creation platform; and in fact, the name Nunaliit, (or “community” in Inuktituut), reflects the dynamic nature of the partnership with Inuit colleagues. Many Inuit communities, inclusive of elders and youth, engaged in map creation and storytelling in cybercartographic atlas creation. Cybercartographic Atlasses 2021 examines some of this important mapping which incorporates environmental knowledge, land and water routes, language and cultural heritage.

Dr Taylor states today, “I am more than ever convinced that Inuit knowledge is an independent knowledge system of equal importance as Western systems”. This body of knowledge that is now emerging in the academic world is in part articulated by Indigenous peoples in publications on Cybercartography.

Dr. Taylor adds that “Indigenous mapping must first and foremost be for the benefit of Indigenous communities. This means that they must have control of what is mapped and how that knowledge is mapped and shared. Existing approaches such as FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) principles even when modified by CARE (Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, Ethics) principles do not fully meet these requirements. In Canada OCAP (Ownership Control Access and Possession) principles are an improvement but there are still important legal, ethical and social issues to be resolved. For example, Indigenous knowledge is not protected by copyright law in Canada. Copyright on Indigenous maps lies with those who produce then and in many instances this is Google or ESRI not the Indigenous communities”.

In a globally connected world, new opportunities to support relationships and UN sustainable development goals are emerging in the area of Indigenous mapping, consistent with William Commanda’s philosophy that Everything is Interrelated across both time and space. In these times of global pandemic, environmental disaster and human crisis, it is becoming apparent to many how critical it is to really listen to the small, persistent voices of connection and warning that are the Indigenous Peoples of the world.


Romola V. Thumbadoo,

PhD Geography, SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow ([email protected])

CEO and Coordinator, Circle of All Nations, Legacy Work of Indigenous Elder William Commanda, OC, PhD, ([email protected])

 (Romola V. Thumbadoo has supported the work of Indigenous Elder William Commanda since 1997 Her doctoral and postdoctoral research of the past decade has focused on his thinking and legacy, under the guidance of Dr. D. R. Fraser Taylor, Director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University)

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