Critical Cartographies of Intimacy

Essay by Lindsay Nixon

How do we take for granted the ways we account for place and space? What about the maps we continually reference through technologies such as Google Maps that track our every movement for the corporate Silicon Valley money machine. Many of the tools I have used to come to know my Cree, Métis, and Saulteaux ancestors have been made possible through the collection of knowledge from Indigenous peoples by early explorers, colonists, and settlers in what would become known as Canada, often in journals, drawings, and rudimentary maps. These early etchings in the journals of explorer men, some of whom are also my ancestors and the fathers of the Métis nation, were part of the first colonial cartographies that sought to exploit Indigenous kinships and trade networks for colonial control under the guise of terra nullius.

I have used maps to learn about my Red River ancestors, but only a small portion of such documented knowledge is accessible. The Rare Books and Special Collections section at the McGill Library in Montreal has in its holdings a map published in 1708 entitled Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France, McGill librarian Jennifer Garland tells me. The map depicts the Baron de Lahontan’s knowledge of what he called New France (the areas in what would become Canada that explorers from France sought to colonize). Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France is not listed on the searchable online archive for McGill, according to Garland. Though the library staff in Special Collections are ambitiously attempting to digitize their holdings, many of its most valuable objects have not yet been made available online. The difference between the digital maps we use continually, daily, and the technologies and data that early settlers used to collect knowledge from Indigenous communities is that, given how commonplace it is to use digital maps today, we have begun taking for granted the forms and measurements our maps use to describe place and space in the territories we reside in. Whereas, when you are holding a map based on settler cartographies, you are face to face with Indigenous knowledge systems that have structured our understanding of place and space as people living in a British colony and under the rule of a nation state.

Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France was reprinted from the original maps the Baron de Lahontan drew when he was travelling. In his correspondence, the Baron described his allies as the Gnacsitares from Michillimackinac—territories known today as Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan. The publisher writes that the defined points on the map, particularly the “long river” or the “dead river,” were “discovered” by the Baron de Lahontan, who apparently copied them from a deerskin given to him by the “savages” from the nation “Gnacsitares.” I’m going to place aside my skepticism that deerskin would have been used to record any form of written knowledge and venture that this is one of those colonist half-truths, like the lie John Smith told about Pocahontas saving his life. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Given that the Indigenous peoples who resided in the territories that the Baron de Lahontan depicted were, and remain, Ojibwa, the Baron was likely allied with Ojibwa peoples or, to be sure, a community that was part of the Algonquin collective of peoples in the area, considering his rivalry with Iroquois communities.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida would likely call the ethnographic lens the Baron evokes a facet of the death drive. Ethnographers, who were at the time traders and explorers who happened to chronicle their experiences, would collect and catalogue images of Indigenous peoples to preserve their cultures into the proposed colonial future. However, willing a person, a people, to be preserved into the future is also an admission that you are willing that thing to die. In his correspondence, the Baron de Lahontan wrote about the Indigenous peoples he allied with, cataloguing in painstaking detail their movements on the land, their interactions with plants and animals, and other depictions of their everyday life.

The Baron de Lahontan map and its reprinting make several subtle and overt, perhaps contradictory, references to Indigenous people, one being its orientalist allegorical heading that depicts “savage” and untrue representations of Indigenous peoples, plant life, and animals. But, in the Baron’s sketch, he also references Indigenous place names (such as an area he calls Moozemlek, where the Indigenous peoples were “very polite”). In other places, he would reference information about land, rivers, and bodies of water that Indigenous peoples’ had shared with him. Ergo, referencing Indigenous knowledges about land became an early cartographic method. For instance, the Baron marks on the map a lake with about one hundred villages living on its shoreland, which the Indigenous peoples said was two leagues in width. He wasn’t depicting land surveyance or even a rough topography of mountains, ground, and hills. The Baron was attempting to depict, and see the territories he sought to represent, through the point of view of the Indigenous peoples he was allied with.

Métis scholar Sherry Farrell Racette has called the river networks between Montreal and what would become the Red River “overlapping circles of interaction or complex river systems with many tributaries, quiet pools and swirling movement.” Given that their main form of transportation was the canoe and other boat structures, my Cree, Métis, and Anishinabe ancestors considered the rivers and bodies of water their main routes of transportation—water highways that linked them with their kin and trade partners in the western reaches of Turtle Island. So when the Baron de Lahontan drew his cartographies around bodies of water, he was mapping some of the earliest settler knowledge of what would become Canada through Indigenous knowledges and networks. The aforementioned orientalist tropes encoded in the cartographies used for western exploration and settler-colonialism ironically existed alongside Indigenous knowledge systems about the land that carved out how settlers and Indigenous peoples alike relate to the land we now call Canada.

The Indigenous histories of the land that inform place and space that are now taken for granted are exactly what artist Lisa Myers seeks to expose with her Blueprints series. Myers writes,

Since 2010 I’ve been using anthocyanin pigment from blueberries for screen-printing to create maps from family stories. I call these maps Blueprints as I believe that stories and the things we witness are like blueprints as they inform how we locate ourselves and retain a sense of belonging…. Through straining the berries and encouraging absorption into wood and paper materials the pigment maps its own forms, and the metaphor of straining and absorbing recalls ways to survive through trauma, displacement and oppression.

Blueprints: Garden River Water (2015) is intimate cartography of the railroad crossing at Garden River First Nation. Using Google Maps, one of those digital cartographies marking settler spatiality made from Indigenous knowledge that I so often take for granted, I can search “Garden River First Nation” and see the bodies of water around the Garden Nation that Myers depicts, including Garden River running off of St. Marys River, which itself runs off Lake Superior and Lake Huron. In a different blueberry-ink screen print, Blueprints: Garden River Land (2015), Myers depicts the form of the land itself: its elevation and natural design. In another—Blueprints: Garden River Traintracks (2015)—Myers subtracts the land and water completely from the composition and depicts the railroad tracks in movement across the empty territory.

Lake Huron and Lake Superior were both bodies of water the Baron de Lahontan and Lisa Myers tried to map using Indigenous knowledge and relying upon their relationships to Indigenous communities. The Baron sought to depict the land using the Indigenous knowledges of the peoples he allied with, in the same areas Myers now tries to depict Indigenous sovereignty over land through family stories. But the Baron de Lahontan sought to exploit and catalogue the knowledge of the Indigenous people who afforded him intimacy, kindness, and kinship, while Myers wants to remind her viewers that Indigenous peoples have always existed in these territories; she does this by drawing on family stories to give her own account of Indigenous resistance and defiant continuance in the face of the colonial death machine.

Myers depicts the railroad crossing at Garden River First Nation because she has always understood that there are inherent Indigenous cartographies of the land that Canadians now take for granted. Indigenous peoples have informed settler knowledge about place and space in so-called Canada, but that knowledge is often invisibilized. While the railroad was a source of dislocation, dispossession, and death for Indigenous peoples, the Garden River bridge is now a powerful, visible space of Indigenous sovereignty because the words “This Is Indian Land” have famously been painted across it. Using ceremonial methods such as blueberry screen-printing techniques, Myers seeks to heal all of our relationships to the land. Yes, part of this story is the relationship of Indigenous people to settlers, who then exploited those forms of intimacy for colonial domination. But the other part of this story is Indigenous kinship and Indigenous relationships to all Creation, including the land.

Blueprints is as much a remembrance as it is a call for the future: let us remember who truly shaped and framed how we relate to our non-human relations, such as land, so they may usher us into a more sustainable futurity for all land and life.