Native Americans Want Their Place Names on Digital Maps

Adding to the record

Key Takeaways

  • Digital mapping efforts are underway to show the original Native American names of locations in the U.S. 
  • Advocates say that maps with Native American names can educate people about a history of repression and dispossession that is often overlooked. 
  • One company recently began using the Native American place names to show its customers the original names of the places they pick as camping spots.
A Grandmother, Grandson and Granddaughter in Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona.
grandriver / Getty Images

Native Americans are working on adding the place names of their ancestral homes to the digital maps of the U.S. 

Some companies are signing onto this idea of using Native American names on maps. The maps are intended to supplement and give context to digital maps like Google Maps and Apple Maps. Advocates say that the effort is long overdue as part of a larger reckoning about the appropriation of Native American terms, including those of sports teams.

"Native American place names remind us of the human practices that took place, in the past, in the territories that are controlled by present-day states," Gustavo Verdesio, an associate professor of Native American Studies at the University of Michigan, said in an email interview. 

"This is relevant because the history of the states that developed on formerly indigenous lands has replaced, erasing it, the previous human histories that took place on the same territory."

Native Land is one interactive digital map that shows which tribes resided in a given area centuries ago and in present times. It shows that San Francisco sits on Ramaytush, Ohlone, and Muwekma lands, and that Washington, D.C., is on territory once owned by the Nacotchtank and Piscataway tribes.

"These are our ancestral territories that helped shape who we are," Christine McRae, executive director of the educational nonprofit that runs the map, told Bloomberg.

"That is the same for Indigenous groups across the world: You’re connected to the land, and the land is your source of knowledge, language, relationships, and responsibilities." 

Two Teenage Native American Indian Navajo Sister in Traditional Clothing Enjoying the Vast Desert and Red Rock Landscape in the Famous Navajo Tribal Park in Monument Valley Arizona at Dawn
grandriver / Getty Images

High Country News recently created a digital map for an article showing how universities profit from land that formerly belonged to Native Americans. "We reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions, a legal term for the giving up of territory," according to the article.

Mapping Projects

Companies are beginning to take notice of these mapping projects. Hipcamp, which matches would-be campers with owners of private campgrounds, recently began using data from Native Land to mark its own maps. When searching for a campsite on the Hipcamp map, users can click into More filters, then Layers to view Indigenous territory titles.

"To acknowledge, share, and learn about the native communities and cultures that preceded public and private lands as we know them today, you can now see Indigenous territory names when searching Hipcamp for places to spend time outdoors," the company wrote in an email to customers. 

Other map projects also are working to provide context for those who rely on Google and Apple to get from place to place. For example, Native American attorney Brett Chapman produced a map of Native Nations of North America before contact, with remnants remaining. But such work is complicated by missing data and population swings.

"Even this map is a snapshot of shifting settings, and many of the current 500+ Native Nations of what is now the U.S. are the results of regroupings after contact, which brought not only loss of land to settlements but also pandemics that killed large majorities in most communities (so much worse than the current COVID-19)," Paul J. Croce, a history professor and director of American studies at Stetson University, said in an email interview.

"For example, where I live in central Florida, we could call this Seminole land; but this nation is a regrouping from displaced natives of Alabama and Georgia escaping the expanding U.S. and finding some reprieve in Spanish Florida (a snapshot from the 18th-19th centuries, with Seminoles again displaced to South Florida from then to today)."

Some observers compare the movement to recognize Native American place names to the Black Lives Matter movement. "Using historic Native American place names shows respect," Croce said.

"Black Lives Matter is a welcome reminder that after slavery, segregation, and persistent discrimination, African American lives really do matter. Many non-Blacks have responded to that wake-up call. But there is little attention to Native American lives mattering after their devastations followed by cultural losses with children reeducated and detribalization." 

Increasing Scrutiny of a Brutal Past

The use of Native American terminology has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. In July, the Washington NFL team bowed to years of pressure by dropping the name "Redskins," playing this seasons as simply the Washington Football Team, and the Cleveland baseball team followed suit earlier this month by announcing plans to drop its century-old "Indians" name, as soon as a new name is selected.

"Hearing firsthand the stories and experiences of Native American people, we gained a deep understanding of how tribal communities feel about the team name and the detrimental effects it has on them," Cleveland owner Paul Dolan said.

"You’re connected to the land, and the land is your source of knowledge, language, relationships, and responsibilities."

There’s also a movement to rename places whose monikers belittle Native Americans. In Utah, a bill was recently proposed to let tribes change offensive names, such as Squaw Valley.

"I’ve heard it all my life growing up, especially when I was a younger person in school. And people used to refer to our Native women as 'squaws,'" Ed Naranjo, a member of the Goshute Reservation on the border of Utah and Nevada, told the Deseret News. "And it seemed to be, the way they were saying it, was derogatory and insensitive and belittling our Native women.”

Courts are also beginning to remap the past. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision found that large parts of Tulsa and eastern Oklahoma were once a reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The court’s decision could prevent state or local authorities from prosecuting Indigenous people who commit crimes on reservation land.

What to Map?

There’s some debate among experts about which Native American places should be mapped. "Viewed with a long-view lens, all spaces on the map of North America are 'Indigenous,'" Stephen Aron, a professor at UCLA specializing in the American West, said in an email interview.

A Navajo husband and wife encourage one another because of the Coronavirus curfew by the Tribal Council in Arizona
grandriver / Getty Images

"I suppose for contemporary mapping purposes, most important would be to mark the locations of Indian villages and sacred and ceremonial sites," he said.

But some experts say that when mapping Native American lands, not everything should be revealed, so as to preserve their sanctity.

"The last thing Indigenous people need is a mapping of sacred spaces with indigenous names on them," Kathryn Shanley, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, said in an email interview. "The Confederated Salish and Kootenai people on the Flathead Reservation take great care before releasing the names of places on their homelands." 

A reckoning of how land was taken from Native Americans is long overdue. Digital maps showing original place names is one way we can reexamine U.S. history and its debt to the first settlers.

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