Maps document tribes before settlers’ arrival
BEMIDJI, Minn. – America. Land of the free and the home of the brave. But brave people already called this land home before Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” before Europeans declared their freedom from Great Britain on land already occupied by other nations native to North America.
Those nations are being reanimated through a self-taught mapmaker’s vision. Aaron Carapella, a self-described “mixed-blood Cherokee” from Oklahoma, has created pre-European settler maps of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Carapella’s work was recognized by the Navajo Times in 2013 and picked up national attention through Minnesota Public Radio News this year.
Carapella describes his maps as documenting known American Indian tribes that were on this land in pre-contact time, before the arrival of Europeans. He said the maps are circa 1480 and use the original names of tribes along with their more socially accepted names.
“Most Americans have disconnected from their motherland and their mother tongue,” said Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University. “I think it’s kind of strange that we’ve engineered an education system and a society that the British brought here and we’re still living with the same curriculums and teaching. People learn more about the Roman Empire than they do about this place, and names of places across the ocean than they do of places like – Bemidji.”
On Carapella’s map, the word Anishinabeg is placed over Minnesota, as is Dakota. Lakota and Dakota hover over North and South Dakota. Bemidji’s name comes from an Anishinaabe word, Bemijigamaag, meaning where the current cuts across. Treuer explained that in Ojibwe, the smaller roots of words are more apparent in everyday speech.
Treuer first learned of Carapella’s map project about a year ago. He said it’s hard to imagine a hypothetical vision of what the nation would look like today had settlers from other countries not “discovered” the Americas because of the timing of events that affected American Indians in this area. About 95 percent of Native Americans were killed by disease during the colonial period, Treuer said.
Treuer, an award-winning author, has been working on a book that includes 100 maps of the U.S. and Canada. “Atlas of Indian Nations” is a National Geographic book that tells the story of North American Indian tribes; it is due to be released in October.
“Although that project is not comprehensive,” Treuer said of Carapella’s map, “I like the way it pays homage to indigenous understandings of place. Doing a project like this is difficult because the landscape changes. Even a place like Bemidji, it’s changed a lot over time. Geologically, it’s changed and the human landscape has changed.”
Treuer said there are 10,000 years of human history in Bemidji before European settlers’ arrival.
About 25 percent of Bemidji and 50 percent of the regional population around Bemidji is Native American, yet many people don’t know much about the people who were here first.
“We’ve engineered a system that disconnects people from place and each other,” Treuer said.
Carapella told MPR his continental U.S. map depicts more than 600 tribes. Treuer said Carapella has created a welcome tool to help put a voice to indigenous nations and may create a pebble-in-the-pond effect.
“That map is kind of designed as a bird’s-eye view,” Treuer said. “If Carapella is looking at 1480, there were more than 500 distinct native nations in the U.S. and Canada. You can’t even fit them all on a map.”
There are currently 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. occupying about 275 American Indian land areas. The largest reservation is the Navajo, which is 16 million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Smaller reservations consist of 1,000 acres, with the smallest being about 100 acres in Connecticut. Native Americans once had 2.3 billion acres of land before it became the United States of America.
So, how is the Fourth of July holiday perceived by Native Americans in and around Bemidji, given the closeness of the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth American Indian reservations?
“It’s complicated,” Treuer said. “There’s a lot of honor for Native veterans. So when there’s an event where you’re going to be honoring the American nation and honoring service people, Native people are happy to see themselves and their members honored, even though they might feel a little conflicted about elevating America’s nationhood over their own.”
Treuer said American Indians have disproportionately served in the U.S. armed forces above any other racial group in the country, even before they were citizens. He explained that returning Indian U.S. servicemen were respected as carrying on a warrior tradition.
Treuer said a lot of American Indians celebrate the national holiday for social as well as political reasons. For example, Leech Lake hosts a Fourth of July Powwow each year. Treuer said it’s more a celebration of a continuation of their nation rather than an annihilation.
Carapella’s work, “Native American Nations: Our Own Names and Locations,” can be found on www.tribalnationsmaps.com.