- "Drawing a Line from their Institution":One Origin Story of Indigenous GIS Design
the land-grab universities (lgu) article and accompanying methodology mark a significant chapter in the forward movement of Indigenous mapping and geographic information systems (GIS). GIS is a combined database and mapping software that allows users to digitize, collect, store, manipulate, and analyze spatial phenomena. The High Country News LGU articles are timely as America reboots and acknowledges multiple injustices committed against peoples of color since the country's inception.
Beyond the articles' factual evidence and social commentary, the technical aspects of the project's spatial database development and mapping are remarkably transparent and accessible. Historical geographic information systems, like the LGU project, are an amalgamation of humanities scholarship, science, and technicality that contributes significantly to the field of geographic information science (GIScience) by producing novel approaches to digitizing previously unavailable archival data for use in GIS. GIScience has a poor record regarding reproducible studies and lacks transparency regarding detailed methods of reproduction. One recent study noted that "the lack of reproducibility in scientific studies [including GIScience] stems from researchers facing challenges in understanding and re-creating others' results, a situation that is common in data-driven and algorithm-based research" (Nüst et al. 2018). Spatial databases and maps created by the LGU research team provide a stellar example of how to publish and work toward reproducibility and replication in historical GIS, adding to a lineage of previous Indigenous methodologies that are philosophically collective in approach. I will briefly comment on the LGU spatial database and mapping processes.
LGU spatial databases and maps represent one of many cycles of accumulating geographic information on Indian Country and then producing scientific representations (Latour 1987). Unlike past cycles—such as European exploration, the Great Surveys of the West, public land surveys, and topographic mapping—the LGU project is anticolonial. However, I would argue that it is not correct to label the maps as a form of countermapping. LGU maps are more revealing, larger in scope, and more imaginative than countermaps. Dr. Robert Lee documented the data collection and spatial database [End Page 106] preprocesses in "Land-Grab Universities: Methodology and Sources" in High Country News. Lee (2020b) details the research team's efforts to combine and stitch together plat maps, land tenure records, land patents, documents produced by Congress, bulletins located at the National Archives, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) General Land Office (GLO) data. Filtering through mounds of records state by state and deciphering nineteenth-century handwriting was not an easy task. According to Lee, the "data was extracted both programmatically from digitized material at the GLO and transcribed (about 10 percent of the parcels) by hand from various archival sources" for 79,461 parcels of land.1 Anyone who has worked with spatial databases will understand the sheer breadth of Lee's undertaking. Thankfully, much of the spatial information is kept by the BLM. The BLM's website contains a robust land database, the Public Land Survey data, that includes data about ownership, surveyors' notes, legal descriptions, and plat maps (among other products). However, for scholars wishing to create a spatial database supported by GIS, locational information is paramount. The database must have a geographic component. The archival sources provide no longitude and latitude coordinates for georeferencing land parcels. Instead, the BLM uses a township and range system to identify land parcels and reproduces them using the Cadastral National Spatial Database Infrastructure dataset (Lee 2020b).
Intensive labor goes into the creation of a functioning and standardized GIS database. This is especially true when the end goal is to create robust networks for connecting academic research, teaching curriculum, licenses as creative commons, and publications (Lee 2020b). Lee needed a scholar experienced in cartographic design and knowledge of Indigenous issues to jumpstart the mapping process. Enter Dr. Margaret Pearce, a seasoned academic, cartographic designer, and artist currently living in New England. She noted that the project was challenging because initially the data were not quite ready to be incorporated into ArcGIS Pro software.2 One of the challenges of working with historical documents is getting the data to fit within the system. This is no...