At the beginning of this journey in CHI, I had no idea how we were going to go about learning to do culture digitally. Learning some Java, building a website and watching The Matrix seemed like some likely things. But learning how to create maps for your web pages using mapbox and leaflet had not come to mind as our first significant project. As an archaeologist, I probably should have realized that mapping would a vital part of representing cultural heritage digitally. Locating the culture of interest both spatially and temporally is a big step to saying anything meaningful.
My group’s project will map significant locations in the Marvel comic and cinematic universe that are located in New York City. We all like Marvel, and we thought New York would give us the best selection of locations to map. So far, any significant location in the Marvel universe is fair game, but there is concern about what sort of narrative we’ll be mapping out. Do we want to talk about the origins of Heroes and Villains, major battle locations, or some other important aspect of Marvel? Further, how do we choose which locations represent this narrative? We can’t possibly talk about every character in the Marvel universe, so decisions have to be made about who to leave out. This process of deciding what is most important for us to map got me thinking about how I can use mapping in my future research as a Native American Archaeologist.
Determining what goes on the map is an act of power dependent on the cartographer’s own agenda and biases. Chapin et al. (2005) reminds us that the boundaries of nations are not natural features of the landscape; they are human constructs that often use mapping as a weapon to claim valuable land and resources. For instance, colonists in Canada made land claims during the late 19th century because they believed the natives were not “using” the land properly; i.e. not practicing agriculture. Indigenous mapping attempts to flip the script and make claims of their own with the use of maps.
The first instances of indigenous mapping were conducted in Canada and Alaska in the 1950s. It eventually spread out from there, and by the 1990s, Indigenous peoples from around the world were starting to use maps to their benefit. Their uses of cartography support their claims and defenses of ancestral lands and resources while also strengthening Indigenous political organization, economic planning and natural resource management. It also allows indigenous people to document their history and culture for the purposes of salvaging and reinforcing cultural identity (Chapin et al. 2005). These benefits are not to imply that Indigenous maps are better or more authentic. Rather, I believe it demonstrates that maps are not infallible pieces of information. Every mapmaker has their own agenda. Perhaps the best way to counteract this is to include as many perspectives as possible. Consequently, it is probably a good thing that our Marvel Map is a group project.
Robinson et al. (2016) describes this process of including others in what’s called participatory mapping. By including indigenous people as significant participants, researchers open up a dialogue and create maps that acknowledged Indigenous rights knowledge. In this process, Indigenous members work together to help decide which information is or is not relevant or reliable for mapping the places and environments important to them. The end result is ideally a map and relationship that’s both useful to indigenous and non-indigenous people. Of course, things don’t always go as planned, but that’s a blog post for another day.
This barely touches the surface of Indigenous mapping and especially mapping in general, but it does bring attention to the fact that our maps have power and consequences. Maps should be negotiated with these thoughts in mind. So, maybe before my group goes and makes a definitive map of the marvel characters, we should go ask some of its characters what they believe to be the most important part of their stories. More realistically, a Map of Marvel in New York would include feedback from creators or people that have dedicated themselves to that universe. Unfortunately, it may unfeasible to do this when the project is due in a couple days. Mapping is hard.
Chapin, Mac, Zachary Lamb, and Bill Threlkeld (2005) Mapping Indigenous Lands. The annual Review of Anthropology 34:619-638
Robinson, Catherine J., Kirsten Maclean, Ro Hill, Ellie Bock and Phil Rist (2016) Participatory mapping to negotiate indigenous knowledge used to assess environmental risk. Sustain Sci 11: 115-126