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Steve DeRoy is a car­tog­ra­ph­er and a co-founder of the Indige­nous Map­ping Col­lec­tive. Scott Neigh inter­views him about the impor­tance of map­ping and about the collective’s work to build Indige­nous peo­ples’ capac­i­ty to, as their web­site puts it, map their lands, share their sto­ries, and decol­o­nize place and space.”

Col­o­niza­tion is, to a great extent, about land. On one lev­el, it is about tak­ing con­trol of land. But is also about defin­ing land (in par­tic­u­lar, defin­ing it as prop­er­ty), about impos­ing colo­nial names on the land, and about deter­min­ing which sto­ries of the land are ele­vat­ed and which are sup­pressed. One tool which Euro­pean empires and set­tler states have his­tor­i­cal­ly employed as they have done all of these things is map­ping, or car­tog­ra­phy – the dom­i­nant mod­ern prac­tices of which emerged in con­junc­tion with col­o­niza­tion. DeRoy said, Maps are not nec­es­sar­i­ly a pas­sive tool – they’ve been used to assert pow­er over ter­ri­to­ry. … Although maps can be used as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool, the under­ly­ing notion is an exer­tion of pow­er and knowledge.”

But Indige­nous peo­ples have always had their own prac­tices of map­ping their ter­ri­to­ries – and, of course, their own names for, sto­ries of, and prac­tices of being in rela­tion with the land. Indige­nous peo­ples today are not only assert­ing that these things have sur­vived the last five cen­turies of colo­nial vio­lence, but are mak­ing very clear that, today, these must be cen­tral to what hap­pens on the land. And map­ping is one tool that they are using to do this.

Steve DeRoy is Anishi­naabe, from the Buf­fa­lo Clan, from Ebb and Flow and Lake Man­i­to­ba First Nations in Treaty Two ter­ri­to­ry in Man­i­to­ba. A sur­vivor of the Six­ties Scoop, he grew up in south­ern Ontario.

As for car­tog­ra­phy, he said, I kind of fell into it.” As a stu­dent, he loved both art and sci­ence, and when a neigh­bour who worked with it showed him the kind of map­ping soft­ware that gets described as a Geo­graph­ic Infor­ma­tion Sys­tem (GIS), he loved it for its capac­i­ty to com­bine sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis with amaz­ing aes­thet­ics. And dur­ing his time study­ing car­tog­ra­phy in col­lege, he met some­one from a north­ern First Nation who talked about the ways in which his com­mu­ni­ty was using maps to do things like doc­u­ment com­mu­ni­ty knowl­edge and com­mu­ni­ty land use activ­i­ties, as part of process­es relat­ed to forestry devel­op­ment in their territories.

DeRoy said, I just thought, wow, what a cre­ative way to use maps and tell a sto­ry. And so for the first decade of my career, I real­ly sur­round­ed myself with peo­ple that were much smarter than me, that were doing this kind of work and that were involved in using maps to com­mu­ni­cate, defend, and artic­u­late the rights of Indige­nous peo­ples through maps.”

Then in 2009, he and some friends came togeth­er to co-found the Fire­light Group, an Indige­nous-owned con­sult­ing com­pa­ny that works with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ments, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­to­ry process­es, and a range of oth­er pol­i­cy, plan­ning, and research work. Their goal is to put Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the driver’s seat” in research and plan­ning activ­i­ties – they would be the ones that would be defin­ing what the research would look like” while the Fire­light Group pro­vides sup­port. He observed, The lega­cy of research in many Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties has been some­what of an extrac­tive process. So we want­ed to change that.”

In the ear­ly 2000s, DeRoy had been part of orga­niz­ing a gath­er­ing which had brought Indige­nous peo­ple togeth­er to talk about how their com­mu­ni­ties were using and could use map­ping, and even years lat­er it still seemed like a very rel­e­vant con­ver­sa­tion. A lit­tle more than a decade after that, he was at an event host­ed by Google to help peo­ple learn how to use some of the company’s map­ping-relat­ed tools. And inspi­ra­tion hit – why not bring Indige­nous par­tic­i­pants togeth­er in an event that com­bines con­ver­sa­tion about ways that dif­fer­ent Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties make use of map­ping with hands-on oppor­tu­ni­ties for par­tic­i­pants to learn how to use the tools to do those things. The first Indige­nous Map­ping Work­shop hap­pened in Vic­to­ria in 2014. This now-annu­al event even­tu­al­ly spawned the Indige­nous Map­ping Col­lec­tive and remains a cen­tre­piece of the collective’s work.

DeRoy said, We brought Indige­nous peo­ples togeth­er from all over Tur­tle Island to come togeth­er, to net­work, and see each oth­er, and hear each oth­er, and make those con­nec­tions, and devel­op those syn­er­gies amongst one anoth­er…. Peo­ple are work­ing in these spaces, often in iso­la­tion in their own home com­mu­ni­ties, and they come togeth­er and they real­ize they’re not the only ones out there doing this type of work and that there’s oth­er peo­ple, oth­er folks that are are deal­ing with sim­i­lar challenges.”

He is con­stant­ly impressed with the range of ways that Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties find to make use of map­ping tech­nolo­gies. Many, of course, are using them to inter­vene in process­es relat­ed to resource extrac­tion or state reg­u­la­tion on their lands. Oth­ers are using mobile map­ping tools to mon­i­tor and doc­u­ment how cli­mate change is impact­ing their ter­ri­to­ries. Some are using dig­i­tal map­ping tools as part of shar­ing knowl­edge and teach­ings across gen­er­a­tions. Some are using them to under­stand and visu­al­ize the cumu­la­tive effects of all of the many dis­parate colo­nial impacts on their ter­ri­to­ry, and the result­ing impli­ca­tions for their abil­i­ty to exer­cise their rights. And there are lots of oth­er examples

The car­tog­ra­ph­er – the ones that are hold­ing the pen – real­ly wield great pow­er to define place and space. And we’ve seen that over time here in Cana­da with col­o­niza­tion. By con­scious­ly exclud­ing Indige­nous peo­ples from the map, it rein­forced the idea that no one was here, and it could be col­o­nized by for­eign inter­ests. So a lot of our work is real­ly about how do we enable Indige­nous peo­ples to be able to use maps to decol­o­nize. And while decol­o­niz­ing the map, Indige­nous peo­ples are now in a posi­tion of Indi­g­e­niz­ing the map and telling sto­ries of their rights and inter­ests, how they might be able to pro­tect those ongo­ing Abo­rig­i­nal and treaty rights, those con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly pro­tect­ed rights. But also how do they assert and acknowl­edge those rights, and ensure those rights are being enforced.”

He said that these decol­o­nized and Indi­g­e­nized” approach­es to mak­ing and using maps are chal­leng­ing the his­tor­i­cal deval­u­a­tion of Indige­nous knowl­edge, and com­bin­ing West­ern and Indige­nous ways of under­stand­ing the world. We’re see­ing the braid­ing of these two dif­fer­ent knowl­edge sets. And giv­ing weight to each of them is equal­ly impor­tant, but also rec­og­niz­ing that there’s val­ue to that Indige­nous way of doing research.”

The col­lec­tive also hosts a month­ly speak­er series, and main­tains an online plat­form with a range of resources and tools for its near­ly 2500 mem­bers. And, cru­cial­ly, the col­lec­tive and its var­i­ous events are a way for Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties to let the com­pa­nies that make dig­i­tal map­ping tools know what they want, want they need, and what they expect as the tech­nol­o­gy evolves.

I think that there’s real val­ue in Indige­nous peo­ples lead­ing their own engage­ments and being a part of that research, and apply­ing these maps and tools,” DeRoy con­tin­ued. I think Indige­nous peo­ples are reassert­ing their voice by hold­ing the pen and being able to define their own process­es through maps. … And by hav­ing all the nec­es­sary data to weigh the pros and cons of par­tic­u­lar issues, I think it enables Indige­nous peo­ples to be the dri­vers of their own des­tinies. And so I think Indige­nous map­ping plays an impor­tant role for help­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties define what that looks like … [and] for being able to com­mu­ni­cate those inter­ests and desires, and those perspectives.”