GIS: Just another means of colonization?

Rundstrom’s 1995 article “GIS, Indigenous Peoples and Epistemological Diversity” is an insightful critique of how geospatial technologies and Western science are fundamentally incompatible, exclusive and oppressive to indigenous epistemologies. For me, this has been the most thought-provoking topic yet. It made me reflect on just how pervasive and deeply-rooted colonialism is, how indigenous epistemologies have survived, and how that implicates me as a student of GIScience.

Rundstrom states that he understands GIS as a “technoscience,” which “modify and transform the worlds which are revealed through them” (46). Rundstrom actually highlights the division between GIS as a science and a tool. As a science, GIScience is fundamentally incompatible with indigenous worldviews. For centuries, Western science has actively invalidated indigenous ways of knowing. The legacy of colonization lives on through our settler society, which continues to inhabit stolen indigenous land. Western science’s desire to know more, to represent more, to describe more of our world is the means to exploit more, expand more and take more. As a tool, GIS is a technology, which have historically been used for assimilation and continue colonization. The technical capability, language (jargon) and education required to participate in the use of technologies also exclude indigenous people and their ways of knowing. Undeniably, our tools hold power over other people.

Where does this leave GIS, and indigenous ways of knowing and describing geography? I think Rundstrom would argue that indigenous knowledge should not be incorporated into GIS for the sake of taking what is “useful” to us and leaving the rest – which is historically what has been done, again and again, to indigenous groups through colonialism. Instead, indigenous groups could use it for their own aims, because GIS is likely to be believed by empirically-minded policymakers. For example, Operation Thunderbird uses crowdsourced mapping to display information on missing and murdered indigenous women: Although GIS still has a long way to go before it can be at all compatible with indigenous epistemologies, it has potential to be an advantageous political tool.



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