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  • Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas by Joe Bryan and Denis Wood
  • Sarah Montoya
Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas. By Joe Bryan and Denis Wood. New York: Guilford Press, 2015. vii + 260 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 paper.

Joe Bryan and Denis Wood explore the limitations of participatory mapping projects in the Americas and their impact on indigenous communities. The authors critique the Bowman Expedition's México Indígena project (2005–2008), led by Peter Herlihy (University of Kansas) and funded by institutions such as the Foreign Military Studies Office of the US Department of Defense, the American Geographical Society (AGS), the University of Kansas's Center of Latin American Studies, and Mexico's Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. Eventually, the project was accused of geopiracy by indigenous communities who were not informed that the data supplied would be made available to the government. The communities involved issued public statements indicting all associated parties, including Herlihy and the AGS. The México Indígena project serves as a valuable case study in the exploitation of indigenous communities by academic and governmental agencies who gain access to vulnerable populations under the guise of "participatory mapping."

Bryan and Wood also discuss the difficulties faced by indigenous communities utilizing maps to make legally legible land claims. Their work in this area largely focuses on the Miskito communities in Nicaragua. In order for indigenous maps to successfully negotiate land claims, the maps must reflect a (neo)colonial geographic and cartographic regime. This socio-spatial organization fails to recognize a communal relationship to territory and instead favors state-sanctioned individual ownership of property. In lieu of the recognition of indigenous sovereignty, the state offers incorporation into its dominant political project and provides recognition of indigenous relationships to land only as it relates to conservation efforts.

Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counter-insurgency in the Americas is bookended by an account of the World Human Geographic Conference held at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, in September 2011. The authors recall the horror and history of colonial violence within a space that then functions as a backdrop to a government-funded geography conference on ethics. At the start of the text, it seems like a strange juxtaposition. By the end of the text, it registers as a desperate attempt to address the outcry caused the Bowman Expedition without meaningfully challenging the politics, ethics, or methodologies of those involved.

At times refreshingly polemical and unapologetically critical, Bryan and Wood provide valuable historical sketches that link the ideological and material ramifications of maps on indigenous communities and trace the development of property-based cartographic and geographic logics during wartime. Though the México Indígena project serves as a focal point, the authors deftly weave together the development of the American Geographical Society, the rise of indigenous mapping projects in the 1990s and their subsequent limitations, and the relationship between dominant geographic practices and the academic-military-industrial complex.

Sarah Montoya
Gender Studies
University of California, Los Angeles


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