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A map showing the nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina, drawn in red with circles around each territory.
Facsimile of Catawba deerskin map. 1929. Geography and Map Division.

Native American Spaces: Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress

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*The text for this blog post was adapted from the research guide created by former G&M reference specialist, Mike Klein, and from the essay by Jim Flatness, former G&M acquisitions specialist, found in the Library’s publication “Many nations : a Library of Congress resource guide for the study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States,” 

For Native American History Month, we want to highlight a research guide available from the Geography and Map Division titled Native American Spaces: Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress. Created by reference specialist, Mike Klein, this guide provides access to digitized primary sources, print bibliographies, and related online resources for the study of American Indian and Alaska native people of the United States.

Land and environment are fundamental to American Indian culture and history, and also central to Indian / non-Indian relations. As the primary means of storing geographical knowledge and experience, as well as communicating locational and spatial information, maps are the links between landscape and history, and although often overlooked, they are potentially rich sources of primary historical information for Native American studies. Maps furnish us with a graphic representation of an over five-hundred year historical record of the physical and cultural landscape of North America. As such they reflect the changes set in motion by the arrival of Europeans in America and the subsequent competition for control of the land. In many cases the maps most valuable for the study of American Indian history are those that are not specifically related to Indian matters but include such American Indian-related geographic data as indigenous place names, settlement sites, trails, and tribal range as part of recording the known geographic landscape such as the map seen below, made by the Spanish in 1769. In addition to their historical value, maps are tools for portraying the present-day physical environment and natural resources of Native American lands.

This is a well executed, detailed map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain (Northern Mexico and Southwest United States) prepared as a result of the 1766-1768 expedition to survey presidios and defenses of northern New Spain. This map includes administrative boundaries, pictorial representation of relief and selected European and Native American towns and settlements, fortifications (presidios), mines, missions, haciendas, Native American nations, rivers, streams, lakes, coastlines and coastal features. Mapa, que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominios del Rey, en la America Septentrional. 1769. Geography and Map Division.

Maps are not, however, only neutral and impartial mirrors of nature. What is depicted and what is omitted from the cartographic record, either inadvertently or intentionally, reveal aspects of the cultural values and attitudes of the map-maker, and the social and political climate in which the maps were constructed. Since early maps of North America are almost exclusively European in origin, the cartographic depiction of Indian cultures and environments is primarily a reflection of the non-Indian population’s perceptions of, and attitudes toward, indigenous peoples and their lands.

In the contest over land rights, maps and mapping can be seen as tools for defining power relationships and symbolizing authority. As a means for documenting as well as legitimizing the transfer of land rights from Indian to non-Indian control, maps were tools for promoting and promulgating the Euro-American appropriation of territory. In particular, as tools for identifying and publicizing information about the existence and location of valuable natural resources, maps had a direct effect on Indian groups’ use and control of their environment. Even maps specifically of established and recognized Indian lands were often not intended to portray Indian affairs, but rather reflected the interest of others in acquiring rights to those lands.

For example, following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, President Andrew Jackson implemented a policy of land exchanges and forced expulsion of the eastern Native Americans to regions west of the Mississippi River. Epitomized by the “Trail of Tears” followed by the Cherokee in their forced journey from their ancestral homes to lands in what is now Oklahoma, Jackson’s policy set the stage for decades of native resettlement and for the widespread establishment of reservations. This map below shows the approximate boundaries of the lands assigned to the relocated tribes in territories west of the Mississippi by 1836. Different shades of color are used to indicate the various tribes. Forced cession of land by tribes indigenous to the American West, such as the Sioux, is also shown. The number of Indians who “emigrated” is listed in the lower right margin, as well as the number of “resident” Indians already living in these regions and the number of Indian tribes remaining east of the Mississippi. Included as well is the total acreage of lands granted by the federal government to the new immigrants according to each tribe.

Map showing the lands assigned to emigrant Indians west of Arkansas and Missouri. Map by U.S. Topographical Bureau, 1836. Geography and Map Division.

The Library’s cartographic holdings related to Native American studies are neither comprehensive nor easily identified, but the coverage is broad and embraces those aspects of Indian society and culture that have been traditionally mapped. Emphasis has been on mappable characteristics associated with the Indians’ physical world and historical distribution. Little cartographic attention has been given to social or political issues affecting Indian lives.

Cartographic works, including reproductions of historical maps, are frequently illustrative supplements to textual works. Consequently, significant maps can be found in most parts of the Library’s diverse collections. The majority of the Library’s cartographic holdings are, however, preserved in the Geography and Map Division. We hope this research guide, which can be found here, is an invaluable resource to conducting research related to Native Americans and cartography.

Map of the upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains region. Map by Pierre-Jean De Smet, 1851. Geography and Map Division.

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