About the Project

Maps have long been used as a tool of colonialism, dividing up the world and demarcating arbitrary borders. Maps have also been used by the colonial apparatus in the process of sustaining settler colonial geographies in North America. This can be seen for example in the mid-seventeenth century map of Massachusetts (on the right) that uses cartography to justify the new colonial borders. In this context, maps have been used as evidence of the ‘firsting’ and ‘lasting’ processes described by Jean O’Brien. Maps can demonstrate the apparent ‘lack’ of Indigenous people left, in what has been wielded as ‘proof’ that there are no longer any ‘real’ Indigenous people left. 1 Much like the local literature explored by Jean M. O’Brien, maps were used in the process of removing Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. 2 Maps have been used, alongside narratives, to demonstrate the ‘truth’ of the myth of the vanishing/disappeared Native. Cartography can be used to write Indigenous communities out of existence, in the sense that their absence from dominant mapping regimes constitutes an erasure. 3

A 1665 map commissioned by the government of Massachusetts to justify the colony’s northern and southern boundaries.

Cartographies of empire have been instrumental in the dispossession of Indigenous people. Truly decolonial mapping must go beyond anti-colonial mapping in seeking to reclaim plant-based, ancestral, Indigenous knowledge while also enacting the contemporary world-making practices of Indigenous and colonized people in the present. 4 In fact, some of the most effective forms of decolonial mapping entails the creation of maps that are only intended to be seen by Indigenous people. 5 A decolonial geography focuses on the reclamation of Indigenous ontologies of place that predate the colonial cartographic framing of Indigenous lands. Even some maps projects that strive to contest dominant understandings can end up reproducing the settler colonial project. This can be seen in projects that adhere to the official borders of the United States government, which ends up normalizing the colonial boundaries of space. 6 This project seeks to consider the complications inherent in making maps, and to provide maps that better reveal the Indigeneity of the landscape of Massachusetts.

“In non-native communities, the production of Indian-themed spatial markers expresses a colonial ideology and physically marks out the consequences and legacies of anti-Indian spatial practices.” 7

Natchee Blu Barnd

In particular, this project seeks to explore the process of ‘inhabiting Indian-ness’ described by Natchee Blu Barnd in his book Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism. Barnd characterizes settler colonialism as “fundamentally defined by its spatial organization and outcomes,”8 making maps an important tool in contesting ongoing settler colonialism. He sees ‘inhabiting’ as one of the powerful and mundane ways that spaces are enacted, justified, and sustained; inhabiting is rooted in possession of both land and of Indian-ness. Within the framework of settler colonialism, inhabiting is tied to the legal construct that justified initial European presence in North America. In particular, the use of Indigenous place names for predominantly white areas represents an ongoing method for sustaining settler geographies and for ‘proving’ the myth of the disappearing/vanished native. This is not to say that Indigenous communities are not themselves interested in the construction of Indian-ness for spatial markers. However, Indigenous communities imbue spatial markers with Indian-ness as a means of asserting their identity and their relationship to place.

Gay Head Cliffs in Martha’s Vineyard. Ancestral lands of the Aquinnah-Wampanoag Tribe.

For the purposes of this project, I am interested in comparing locations on the island of Martha’s Vineyard that all inhabit Indian-ness but for differing purposes. Specifically, I am interested in the cases of Chappaquiddick Island (ancestral home of the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag who have been striving to get their land back since the mid-nineteenth century) and Aquinnah (the ancestral home of the Aquinnah Wampanoag who maintain some of their ancestral lands and are one of two federally recognized branches of the Wampanoag Nation). I also include a map of the entire state of Massachusetts with place names that are Indigenous in origin to demonstrate the frequency of these place names in predominantly white spaces, however this is intended to be more exploratory than the case study of Martha’s Vineyard.


  1. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. “All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
  2. O’Brien, Jean M. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2010.
  3. Leonard, Kelsey. “Putting Indigenous Place-Names and Languages Back on Maps.” ARC News, Winter 2021.
  4. Rose-Redwood, Reuben, Natchee Blu Barnd, Annita Hetoevėhotohke’e Lucchesi, Sharon Diaz, Wil Patrick. “Decolonizing the Map: Recentering Indigenous Mappings.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 55, no. 3 (2020): 151-162.
  5. Leonard, Kelsey. “Putting Indigenous Place-Names and Languages Back on Maps.” ARC News, Winter 2021.
  6. Hunt, Dallas. “Every Bus Stop a Tomb: Decolonial Cartographic Readings against Literary, Visual, and Virtual Colonial Claims to Space.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 55, no. 3 (2020): 199-206.
  7. Barnd, Native Space, 24.
  8. Barnd, Natchee Blu. Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University, 2017, 3.