“Native Places: An Indigenous Atlas of Utah and the Intermountain West” is a digital humanities project that restores Indigenous place names to the features of Utah and the Intermountain West. Native Places uses GIS, digital media, historical research, and tribal consultation to create an interactive map that prioritizes the Indigenous names of geographic features and cultural sites that settler-colonialism has erased. By using publicly available data from the USGS, Native Places works against a colonial framework to create a decolonized map of place names in the Intermountain West.
Just as people have done for generations, the Indigenous peoples of Utah have assigned place names to geographical landmarks and features as a means of marking their presence throughout Utah and the Intermountain West. As Euro Americans settled in the American West during the 19th and 20th century, cartography became an integral component of settler-colonialism. Place names in the United States are officially kept by the US Board on Geographic Names, which was first created in 1890 to address conflicting names and spellings that faced mapmakers in the American West. The place names that appeared on the first maps of the West derived from Euro American explorers, surveyors, and settlers. Native presence became “under-mapped” as the cartographic tools of settler-colonialism reconstructed the imagined landscape through place naming.
Out of respect for tribal knowledge and to safeguard against non-Native trespass, the map will not name or show the location of sacred sites. The data, currently containing nearly 600 place names, is also stored on Mukurtu, an open-source management platform built with Indigenous communities and designed to manage, protect, and share digital representations of cultural knowledge. Mukurtu allows prioritized levels of access depending on group affiliation. This means that tribes can maintain ownership over cultural heritage, deciding how and with whom information is shared.
Unlike drawings of territorial tribal boundaries, which are static and limiting due to the changing nature of these lines throughout history, Native Places allows viewers to see the spread of Native homelands through their linguistic presence. Since each place name is based on USGS coordinates, the map also maintains a precision that territorial boundaries cannot. Moreover, since many features have a name from various groups, the overlap of place names tells a nuanced story of territory and presence.
The map itself uses a topographic base that illustrates the geographical features of the Intermountain West. Certain modern political boundaries and cities are present to orient users, but the spread of colorful data points move well beyond the arbitrary rigidity of state lines. Users may explore place names by clicking on the various markers or opt to filter through points based on categories. Points on the map will also contain a popup with more textual information, including the dialect, the Native place name and its English translation, the official USGS name, and the feature type. Native Places aims to serve as a tool for cultural heritage preservation and language learning. But the map can also help to reshape contemporary understandings of the land of the Intermountain West, because the map uses linguistic data points rather than the arbitrary shapes created by state, territory, and tribal boundaries, we can learn a more nuanced and complex Native history.