Indigenous geographies and the American state

Gouverneur Kemble Warren's 1858 "General Map"

“Maps are power,” geographer Bernard Nietschmann wrote more than a decade ago. “Either you map or you will be mapped.” According to Nietschmann, mapping was—and remains—the ultimate colonial weapon: “More indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns.” Following such an argument, nineteenth-century maps of the American state make for ready historical villains  Not only did they graphically depict the violent dispossession of Indian groups in the trans-Mississippi West, but it has become a truism that maps of the American state contained no room for “indigenous geographies.” Historian Jared Farmer writes, for example, “inescapably, the making of the National Map brought about the unmaking of indigenous geographies.”

Farmer is an excellent historian and his work on historical memory in Utah is a model in many ways.  Unfortunately, his depiction of Native spatial constructions continue to reinforce the conception that Indians could not understand any sort of geopolitical spatial constructs, only spiritual ones.  Further he simplifies complex and often competing landscapes to a unified phenomenological category of “indigenous geographies,” that were “inescapably” at odds with Euro-American constructions.

This project, which is an offshoot of the larger monograph in progress, counters this sentiment by graphically depicting the overlapping and syncretic geographies of the trans-Mississippi West in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Using oral histories, explorers, reports, manuscript maps, and printed maps, I am creating a map of the region that would become the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. It will be an interactive map that allows the viewer to compare place-names and territorial control both over time and from different linguistic groups to demonstrate the complex history of the region.

The purpose of this map is to illustrate that not only was Native place-making compatible with the cartographic creation of the American state, it was a necessary part of it. Further, while there are certainly unique aspects to the way Siouan or Caddoan peoples of the eastern plains and prairies spatially understood their world, these were not necessarily compatible, bringing into question the distinct category of “indigenous geographies.”

To demonstrate how this map might illustrate these points, lets look at two maps made in the middle of the nineteenth century: Joseph Nicollet’s Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River; and Gouveneur Kemble Warren’s seminal “Maps of the Routes for the Pacific Railraods.”  In 1839, Joseph Nicollet travelled up the Mississippi River and taking notes for what most Americans believed to be the most accurate map of the interior of the United States ever made.  He did so relying heavily on western Sioux informants. As John Frémont wrote in his journal, “We are occupied quietly among the Indians, Mr. Nicollet, as usual, surrounded by them, with the aid of the interpreter getting them to lay out the form of the lake and the course of the streams entering the river near by, and after repeating pronunciations, entering their names in his note-book.”

Such attention did not, however, insure precise translation. While Nicollet (or more likely Frémont) inscribed Mankizitka or “White Earth River”on the final map published in 1843, the explorer himself acknowledged that it should more properly be translated from the Lakota as Smoking-Earth River for the color of the sediment found in its current.  This meaning was further truncated in 1855 when Warren shortened the name simply to “White River.”

Details of Nicollet's "Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River" (1843)

Details of Warren's "General Map" (1858)

Following only the inscriptions from Nicolett’s and Warren’s maps, we are offered the following trajectory: a highly descriptive Lakota oral signifier was first transcribed, then translated and finally truncated, leaving an impotent  Euro-American version of a once culturally-rich Sioux name. Yet such an interpretation would both diminish the contribution of the Lakota and  greatly simplify a  much more complicated past; a past that my  map will attempt illustrate.

The Oglala and Brulé Sioux did not gain control of the White River region until the 1820s through an alliance with the Cheyenne. The region was in fact hotly contested by the Arapahoes, Crows, Kiowas, and Cheyenne throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.  While these groups might have used a similar descriptions of the sediment to describe the river, they certainly did not use the Lakota term “Mankizitka.

 And while the region was contested by the Arapahoes, Crows, Kiowas and Cheyenne, the term “White River” was just as likely a translation of a Mandan or Hidatsa word. Nicolas King first inscribed the words “White River” in his 1806 version of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s manuscript map, a  map they had created during their five-month stay among the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1804. As Clark wrote in his journal, while the base for his map was “complied from the Authorities of the best informed travelers,” much of the specific information he gleaned “principally from Indian information.” It would be logical to assume, therefore, that his information regarding the signifier for the waterway in question came either from Hidatsa or Mandan informants, or one of the “bands of Assinniboins” whose villages are inscribed directly on the river, not a Lakota speaker. Thus the name “Mankizitka” is  no closer to the Arapahoe, Crow, Kiowa, Hidatsa, or Mandan signifier for the region than “White River” is to “Mankizitka.”  When Jospeh Nicollet inscribed the Lakota word on his 1839 map, he was not uncovering an “authentic” Sioux landscape but helping to solidify Lakota control in a region that they had held for no more than two decades.

Section of " A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track Across Western Portions of North America From the Mississippi the Pacific Ocean (1814)

It is here we see fundamental problem with viewing the cartographic creation of the trans-Mississippi West as simply a new, spurious Euro-American landscape being drawn over a more authentic Indian one: it assumes a previous constant Native landscape existed. This was certainly not the case for the region in question, and particularly for the area between the Missouri and the Platte Rivers. While it was the Brulé who controlled the area when Warren passed through in 1858, the previous fifty years had also seen territorial control by the Ponca, Cheyenne, Omaha, and Skidi Pawnee with frequent incursions by the Sac, Mesquaqie, and Iowa as well as other tribes of Lakota. John Frémont, who wished nothing more than to erase the Native presence from the region, acknowledged that names reflected an active and changing landscape: “Throughout this region, the rivers and lakes and other noticeable features of the country, bear French and Indians names, Sioux or Chippewa and sometimes Shayan [Cheyenne]

By creating an interactive map that allows the viewer to explore this changing landscape, I hope to demonstrate the complicated place “indigenous geographies” have in the cartographic creation of the American state.


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