Alaska Natives have at least eight different names for the highest mountain peak in North America.
Before it was Mount McKinley, the 20,000-foot snow-capped pinnacle was called Deenaalee, Denaze, Denadhe, Dengadhly, Deenadhee, Dghilika’a, Dghelayka’a and Dghelaayce’e—all Athabaskan names meaning “big mountain” or “the high one.” In 1896, the mountain was officially named to honor U.S. President William McKinley, who never visited Alaska or saw the mountain that bears his name.
This practice of claiming places by naming them is a way of “colonization by map,” said Jordan Engel, a 23-year-old urban farmer and the architect behind a new project called Decolonial Atlas.
“There is no truth in cartography,” Engel said. “Colonial powers, without the consent of indigenous people, drew up imaginary political borders, which, more often than not, don’t reflect any real natural or cultural boundaries.”
Indigenous names, on the other hand, describe the landscape, animal life or cultural events, he said.
Engel, who grew up near the Seneca Nation of New York, started working on the atlas two years ago after doing an internship on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. While there, he learned all the places had Lakota names, a discovery that prompted him to research traditional Seneca names.
“When I got home, I started researching, asking around,” he said. “It was surprisingly difficult. The names weren’t commonly known.”
Engel launched Decolonial Atlas in November as a way to collect indigenous maps and change the way people think about land. His approach is based, at least partly, on the words of cultural geographer Bernard Nietschmann, who in 1995 described the loss of indigenous lands by mapping:
“More indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns,” he said. “This assertion has its corollary: more indigenous territory can be defended and reclaimed by maps than by guns.”
Engel collaborates with researchers, academics and indigenous people from all over the world to produce original maps. He also links to existing maps as he generates an online database of “alternative cartographies” with the goal of “reimagining the land and our relationship with it.”
To start, Engel challenged the notion that maps should be oriented to the north. Most Native cultures orient themselves toward the rising sun.
“It’s amazing how a slight change of perspective can make the land we thought we knew unrecognizable,” he said. “If we take away the political borders, turn the map so that north is no longer on top, and re-label every place in its original indigenous language, we come to realize that not only has the land been colonized, but all the people living on it as well.”
So far, the Decolonial Atlas has published maps in Ojibwe, Mohawk, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, Arapaho and Lakota. For the Mohawk map, Engel collaborated with Karonhí:io Delaronde, a 27-year-old Mohawk man who speaks his language fluently.
Delaronde helped Engel identify and fact-check the Mohawk names for towns, rivers and other landmarks near the U.S.-Canada border in modern-day New York. The area is called Ganienkeh, a word that means “place of the flint,” Delaronde said.
Many of the traditional names still summon images of natural connections to the land, Delaronde said. For example, Ahkwesasne, a community along the St. Lawrence River, means “where the partridge drums,” he said.
“A long time ago, there were partridges everywhere, and every time the people went there, they heard the partridges drumming,” he said. “It feels really good to know there’s a map out there in Mohawk with all the cities and rivers and areas written in Mohawk.”
Time may be of the essence with this project, said Robert Leavitt, professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick. Leavitt, who also co-authored a Passamaquoddy dictionary, collaborated with Engel on a map of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet territory in Maine.
Leavitt relied heavily on Native speakers to contribute names of geographic features—names in danger of being lost to time, he said.
“For a lot of these places, it’s just the oldest people who have used the traditional place names exclusively,” he said. “These people still see the land in terms of waterways instead of roads. They have names for all the little places, place names that are descriptive.”
For example, Meqtoqek means “where the river is red,” Kepcicuwok means “at the narrows,” Kapskuk means “at the waterfall,” and Qonasqamkuk means “at the sandy point.”
Indigenous names do more than identify locations, Leavitt said. They express a relationship with the land.
“English users like street addresses, or latitude and longitude, or borders,” he said. “Native people describe them from the perspective of a person moving around in the environment, so you don’t get this idea of the land being subject to people or controlled by people or under the dominion of people. It’s really much more participatory.”