preserving North American indigenous cultures with GIS

Thanks, NM for this post…

GIS is the branch of geography that generates the most interest from the wider public these days, with geographic apps ranging from Google Maps to trip advisor. Yet when it comes to talk up about its integration in indigenous communities, this optimism suddenly turns into mistrust because of the history of Western imposition of culture (including technology!) on traditional cultures. Nevertheless, it has been proved in many of those same communities that it can constitute an effective tool for perpetuating their cultures.

The idea is fairly simple. By going into North American Native communities, researchers have been able to collect certain types of information on the environment and pinpoint it in GISs, which can then be used to educate the community. This information includes photographs, videos, stories and other traditional knowledge elements in both English and the local language. An example of this is the Names-Places Project, which has been active in Idaho with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for more than fifteen years and for which Elders have shared their knowledge about the environment.

According to senior archeologist Ben Hjermstad, who works with Saskatchewan’s First Nations, it is a good way to contribute to youth education. “It is showing them how people have used the land for hundreds of generations” as he says, while also creating “a link between the Elders of the nation and the youth”. GIS also can be a useful tool for land management for indigenous peoples as it displays both scientific and cultural information about the landscape, thereby giving them greater ability to negotiate when a development project is proposed to the community. For instance, if a project of forestry activity comes up in the nation, they will know whether or not the area is already reserved for gathering traditional medicinal plants or if it contains burial grounds.

It is clear that such a body of cultural information might end up in the hands of malicious people if it were to be available to everyone. This is why a confidentiality agreement, which stipulates that the information displayed on the maps is the local communities’ property, exists between First Nations and the people who help create the maps, and why indigenous communities are glad that they can password-protect those maps.

Many indigenous peoples like the idea that there is a way to digitally take stock of their environment, but their satisfaction lies in the fact that this information can also be cultural. Indeed, this method may enable them to perpetuate a rich culture that is intertwined with a deep respect for nature. “The land is our heaven and our wealth” says Innovative GIS Solutions president Jhon Goes In Center, a Lakota Indian in Fort Collins, Colorado. Moreover, the fact that such work can be made available in both English and indigenous languages, that is in the languages the people who both study and live the effects of land exploitation, might also show an open-mindedness that will prove increasingly fruitful as issues such as climate change must be addressed.


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