- Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas by Joe Bryan and Denis Wood
In the book Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas, Joe Bryan and Denis Wood present a critique of indigenous mapping projects in the Americas. The authors add to studies that expose the difficulties of simplifying indigenous lands into territories with fixed boundaries adapted to spatial planning. Bryan and Wood suggest that instituting such spatial representations may have unsettling consequences, even when these efforts are intended to establish or strengthen indigenous rights. As the book’s title suggests, the authors contribute to a growing literature of critical geography underscoring the militarization of mapping projects in developing areas.
The book’s critique revolves around research led by geography scholar Peter Herlihy and his associates, who have developed and applied participatory research mapping methods during extensive work with traditional peoples in Latin America. Bryan and Wood focus on how some projects involving Herlihy have connected indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America to U.S. military funding through the American Geographical Society (AGS). To establish this connection, the authors summarize the history of the AGS, including its relationship with imperial forms of geography since its origin in the 1850s and its alleged decline over the last few decades. More recently, the U.S. Defense Department has helped fund AGS’s Bowman Expeditions, which are participatory research projects that collect georeferenced human geography data, with the purported aim of augmenting geographic literacy to promote a better understanding of the world.
Herlihy was a key researcher in the inaugural Bowman Expedition, the México Indígena project (2005-2008), which sought to evaluate the impacts of new land-tenure policies on traditional communities in Mexico. The project was controversial; it raised questions of ethics in geographic research linked to informed consent, the supposed ambiguity of the project’s objectives, and the significance of the project’s connection with the U.S. military. Indigenous leaders from Oaxaca, Mexico, who initially collaborated with the project, claimed they were unaware México Indígena was being financed by the U.S. Defense Department and declared themselves victims of geopiracy, fearing information about their communities had been gathered in part to feed intelligence to the U.S. government. Bryan and Wood contextualize the Oaxaca accounts with discussions of how the U.S. military has increasingly injected–albeit clumsily–anthropologic and human-geographic frameworks into its counterinsurgency and Small Wars guidelines, including [End Page 151] the moribund Human Terrain System program. In this manner, the authors link the U.S. government’s funding of AGS’s Bowman Expeditions to the Army’s efforts to collect data for the “applied human geography” components of counterinsurgency programs.
The authors discuss some key efforts in securing indigenous rights in the Americas, particularly through territorialization processes. Bryan and Wood start by reviewing how native peoples in Canada pioneered in achieving a level of self-governance. These and other similar efforts involved mapping indigenous lands in order to gain official recognition. Initial indigenous mapping efforts seemed preoccupied with representing aspects of the landscape considered unique and relevant to indigenous peoples. Bryan and Wood argue that the fight for indigenous self-governance has seen a shift that now places more importance on land demarcation and the cartographic principles employed to establish precise boundaries, including GIS and GPS applications. This focus parallels the need—during colonial times in the Americas and in Western culture—to stratify the landscape into fixed categories of land tenure that may not reflect the spatial-temporal and historical complexities of indigenous lives and how they intersect with other geographies. This discussion, in particular, is connected to how a conservative framework of property rights has been used in counterinsurgency discourses to further push the supposed need to formalize land tenure and modernize the landscape.
Although the authors engage often in critical thinking, the text is easy to follow, with relatively little jargon, and the story becomes increasingly engrossing as links among different accounts...