Holes in the Map

Recently, the ever-enlightening Sociological Images has had a couple great posts on the erasure of Native Americans from both history and cartography. Now, I’m a map geek, and when people start talking about the social effects of cartography I tend to sit up and pay attention. And it turns out that Google Maps and Google Earth do not display Indian reservations—despite the fact that these locations are at least as socially, geographically, and legally significant as, say, national parks and forests, which are depicted as happy green pixels.

For instance, here is a Google Maps view of northeastern Washington State.

And if you scroll down to the second map, here is that same territory mapped (blurrily, sorry) on the home page for the Colville Indian Reservation. The difference is dramatic—a whole sovereign nation has been made to disappear.

This has happened before.

In 1831 a case was brought to the Supreme Court: Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia. (Link goes to the Wikipedia article, because it’s pretty accurate in this case.) The state had passed laws intended to remove the Cherokee from the lands granted to them in federal treaty; the Cherokee objected to this and sought an injunction on the justification that they were by law a sovereign nation. They had a Constitution modeled explicitly on the American model—and they had a map of their land within the state of Georgia’s borders.

It didn’t help: the Supreme Court declined the case on the basis that the Cherokee were a “denominated domestic dependent nation.” (The alliteration just makes that all the more patronizing, if you ask me.) Judge John Marshall’s ruling stated: “Indian territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” (Emphrasis mine.) The Cherokee attempt at placing themselves on the “official” maps of the young United States had failed.

And despite the advance and ubiquity of digital maps, we’re still failing at this today.