In the beginning, there were no lines.
Prior to 1492, North America was a vast wilderness: an expanse of rolling hills, open plains and meandering rivers. There were no state boundaries, no borders between countries and no private property.
That’s what Aaron Carapella captures in his Tribal Nations Maps, the only known maps that show what Turtle Island looked like before European contact.
“There are a lot of horrible maps out there that stereotype Native Americans or provide misinformation,” said Carapella, who lives in Stigler, Oklahoma. “We need something to combat that. We need maps that aren’t divided by modern countries and political borders, that show where tribes were and what they were called.”
The original Tribal Nations Map, released in 2012, is a poster-sized replica of the United States, minus the state lines. Roughly 590 Native nations are spread across the map, identified by their indigenous names, traditional locations and, when possible, historic images.
Carapella, who is of Cherokee descent, spent 14 years researching and creating his first map. But the project began years earlier when Carapella, now 35, was a teenager exploring his own heritage and looking for a map of tribes that he could hang on his bedroom wall.
“I never really found any good maps that were comprehensive in any way,” he said. “So I thought, why don’t I make my own? I bought four poster boards, taped them together and put on all the tribes that I knew.”
Carapella got serious about his project when he realized so many Native people had never seen themselves represented on a map. He traveled to 250 Native communities and contacted every cultural department in North America, he said.
“I’ve used books, military records, settler documentation and autobiographies,” he said. “On road trips, I get off the highway and visit tribal communities. Everywhere I go, I’m talking to people.”
The result was the map of the United States, of which Carapella has already sold 3,200 copies and given away an additional 900. The maps are in classrooms, cultural centers and museums across the country. They’re also in homes, on bedroom walls and in researches’ offices.
A documentarian is making a film about Carapella’s project, and Hayden-McNeil, a textbook publishing company, is printing two of the maps in an upcoming book.
But Carapella decided not to stop with a map of the United States. He created additional maps showing locations of tribes—along with their traditional names—in Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Central America. He also offers a map of the entire North American continent identifying more than 1,000 tribes—and without the “artificial boundaries” established later.
“My next map is of South America,” Carapella said. “I don’t think I’m going to stop until I’ve done all the maps in the Western Hemisphere.”
The maps are already changing public perception in places like Olympia, Washington, where the map of the entire North American continent hangs on a wall at the Diversity and Equity Center at South Puget Sound Community College. Program coordinator Karama Blackhorn said it serves as a conversation starter and a way to help indigenous students feel welcome.
“The biggest problem minority students find is they don’t have a sense of belonging; they don’t see themselves in faculty, staff or other students,” she said. “There’s no Native representation on campus except anthropological. This is a giant, visual art piece that reminds people to stop having that historical mentality.”
Blackhorn, a member of the Kahosadi tribe of Oregon, said she grew up with a map that had only 12 tribes on it. Carapella’s map is the most comprehensive representation of Native America she’s ever seen.
“My family is on the map now,” she said. “This is validating on so many levels.”
In a classroom on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, history teacher William Stearns uses the maps to help students make connections to their own heritage.
“When you see students see these maps you can see the pride in them,” he said. “They stand taller, they understand. I believe that they have a clearer picture of their importance in this country.”
In an age where few places on the planet remain uncharted, cartography may seem an antiquated craft. But for Carapella, the project is an exploration not of geography, but rather history. In essence, he’s going back in time to capture a view of the land in its pre-colonial state.
For some, the maps are happy reminders of forgotten cultures. For others, they bring up difficult aspects of history or conflicted emotions. Any response, Carapella said, is evidence that he’s doing his job.
“It’s weird how many emotions get stirred up,” he said. “They are factual maps of where our nations were and what they were called, but they spark questions. They make people think in a different way.”
Carapella’s maps are available in various sizes and range in price from $49 to $300. Buy them online here.