David Bernstein

My current research examines the interaction of American Indians and Euro-Americans in the trans-Mississippi West by exploring the process by which maps of the region came to have the cartographic elements they did. By layering methodologies from the history of science, history of cartography, ethnohistory, and environmental history onto an analysis of American state-building, it demonstrates how place-making was a negotiated and contingent process.

The story of how America was mapped epitomizes the problem of how to narrate the territorial expansion of the United States. How do we include meaningful stories of colonized or otherwise marginalized peoples’ participation in the creation of the American state without minimizing the violence its creation perpetuated? For an answer, my work looks to the words of anthropologist David Scott. Instead of an attitude of "anti-colonial longing" Scott writes, scholars must "think of different historical conjunctions as constituting different conceptual-ideological problem spaces, and to think of the[m] less as generators of new propositions than as generators of new questions." The mapping of America gives us just such a problem space. Rather than simply accepting the process as one of "hemispheric hegemony," we can unpack this seemingly monolithic and progressive enterprise to reveal a complex web negotiations and contestations, broadening our understanding of its Native and Euro-American participants.

One of the fundamental premises of my work is that there is nothing inherent in the process of mapping the American state that excludes Native spatial constructs. As Matthew Edney writes, "the construction, normalization, and naturalization of "states" and "empires" depend neither on the content of the maps nor on cartographic technologies but rather how they are deployed within spatial discourses." Scholars must be careful not to confuse the discourse historical actors used with actual epistemological difference. Such a view both simplifies our past and dehumanizes historical actors, reducing complex interactions to ahistorical clashes of culture.

"Notchininga’s Map," is an untitled manuscript map on parchment (1837). Cartographic Branch, National Archives, College Park, Maryland (RG75, map 821, tube 520).