“An Indian Map of the Upper Missouri, 1801” derived from an original sketch by Ackomak-Ki, with later contributors Peter Fidler and J.G. Kohl (c.1850). To engage with the scale, see the LoC website.

Earlier this week I came across an unusual map in the Library of Congress’ digitized collections. Part of what made this map such a fascinating find was the addendum of metadata about the map’s creation. In 1801, a Blackfoot man referred to as “Ackomak-Ki” or “The Feathers” sketched this birds-eye view of the upper Missouri River and its adjoining tributaries. A single trading post appears in the illustration, labeled as “Chesterfield House,” the southernmost outlet of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and also in Blackfoot territory. To determine scale, a single notation at the bottom of the sketch reads, “From Devils head to Owls head is 33 days travel.” Blackfoot place names and their English translations specify certain mountain peaks, hills, and watersheds.

When Ackomak-Ki gave this knowledge to an explorer named Peter Fidler, it was evident to both parties that this was Blackfoot space. In the late 18th century, explorers and fur traders who entered these lands with business prospects knew the importance of learning Native languages, cultural customs, and understanding the power of kinship to facilitate trade. Over the next fifty years, the map passed through hands until its final resting place in the HBC archive in London. To prospective fur companies like the HBC, the significance of Ackomak-Ki’s sketch can be summed best by the final notation accompanying the map: “His knowledge of the Missouri sources was greater than the information of our geographers at that time.”[1].

However, more than a geographic snapshot of the upper Missouri, Ackomak-Ki’s map details Blackfoot ways of endowing land with special meaning rooted in local knowledge, myth, and history. In this sketch, the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains cuts through the center of the page, known in the Blackfoot language as Miistakis or “backbone.” Consistent with many Indigenous cultures, Blackfoot geography is constructed based on an inseparable understanding of space and time. Land is fundamental to human experiences and interactions, what anthropologist Keith Basso explains as “that close companion of heart and mind” which connects landscape to identity. [2] 

The Geospatial West

When we consider the West as a space, a series of questions arise: is the concept of the “American West” a useful category for analysis? How do we define the boundaries of the West? How can we better demonstrate the relationship between space and time? And lastly, how does regionalism influence the cultural and political context of producing “meaningful” space?[3]

Each of these questions then faces a fundamental issue: when we discuss the “West” as a distinctive region, it often reaffirms and legitimizes the space in a colonial framework. Historical maps are not generally conducive to Indigenous interpretations and representations, despite the frequent reliance on Indigenous knowledge to produce them in the first place. Reconsidering the production and meaning of Native American geographies, spaces, and landscapes can initiate positive change in how the “West” is conceptualized in both research and teaching.

Such avenues have been recently explored using digital humanities methods, but the extent to which digital tools and skills are employed can either transform or reinforce these traditional perceptions just the same. However, if used responsibly, digital geospatial analysis can prove immensely beneficial. Web mapping, GIS, and georectification offer possibilities to represent geographic data both visually and interactively. Developing one’s geospatial skills contributes to work exploring the fundamental relationship between human behavior and space, but in new digital realms.

Georectifying Ackomak-Ki’s Map

Georectifying process using Mapwarper.net

For any project engaging in historical digitized maps, one useful tool is a georectification program, like mapwarper.net, which “pins” a historical map to a base layer map (e.g. OpenStreetMap). In the past, I have georectified maps that always contained neat state boundaries, county lines, and even street intersections. Although these elements change over time, they are typically recent enough to align without too many issues. When I attempted to georectify Ackomak-Ki’s map, I encountered a few (but important) challenges. First, 220 year-old rivers are the prominent features of reference in this map, which make it nearly impossible to align with contemporary rivers whose shapes are erratic and drastically change over time. Secondly, it is difficult (and discouraged) to chart the labeled “sea coast” to the Pacific without stretching the map beyond recognition. Third, although this map is immensely accurate, pinning it “exactly” to a base layer map of a different scale will also manipulate the map with some damage. The most successful outcome required estimating the general spatial coverage of the map, which was based on the two largest rivers (the South Saskatchewan and the Missouri River headwaters) and also replicating the spacing of the control points between the historical and base layer maps.  Doing so georectified Ackomak-Ki’s sketch as accurately as possible without sacrificing the overall integrity of the historical map.

Completed Georectification of Ackomak-Ki’s map

In the process of georectifying, it was striking to see just how much space was captured within Ackomak-Ki’s sketch. In the historical rendition, the space between the South Saskatchewan River and the upper Missouri River does not look like much, but in reality it is a distance of at least 375 miles depending on the points of reference. From this perspective, the space that Ackomak-Ki rendered impressively revealed the expanse of Blackfoot territory in 1801. Through the process of georectification, this map and other digitized Indigenous-produced maps can be used to challenge our contemporary understanding of space, boundaries, and borders. Additionally, they offer a new perspective on Western geospatial construction which can transform our understanding of spatial history and the relationship between space and time. In many ways, georectifying Ackomak-Ki’s map is a digital reclamation of Blackfoot space and draws attention to the exchange of knowledge, negotiations, and theft of land that occurred on the ground. To invoke Patrick Wolfe’s notion that settler colonialism is a “structure not an event,” the historical understanding of this space has a much deeper story to tell.[4]

[1] Ackomak-Ki, Peter Fidler, and J.G. Kohl. “An Indian Map of the Upper-Missouri, 1801,” 1801 (notation added ca. 1850), https://www.loc.gov/item/00556405/.

[2] Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 106.

[3] For a useful introduction into digital spatial history , see Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Working Paper (Spatial History Lab, February 1, 2010).  http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29

[4] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (London and New York City: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998), 2.