Mapping Indigenous Autonyms Coast to Coast

On Monday the 27th, (Memorial Day), I returned home from Georgetown for the last time—a new graduate ready to began something new, back in the town where I grew up. In past years, I always thought I was coming back to Ketchikan, Alaska. This time, though, after a year spent exploring the history of the Tlingit and their homeland, I felt much more that I was returning to Kichx̱áan, Lingít Aaní.

Kichx̱áan is the Tlingit name for the site that the city of Ketchikan was built on. Clearly, the Tlingit name was adapted by the Euroamerican settlers, but it was also changed—anglicized—and turned into something different. Using indigenous place names, rather than ones created or changed by colonizers, restores to a place some of historical meaning. Even more essential, perhaps, is the acceptance and use of indigenous autonyms—Native peoples' names for themselves. A new map of the contiguous United States provides an impressive, near-comprehensive display of such autonyms and is very much worth a look.

Called "Map of Our Tribal Nations," this project by Aaron Carapella displays the names of 595 nations who inhabited North America from coast to coast. As reported in this article, about 150 of those nations are "without descendants" today—another measure of the disastrous toll wrought by epidemic disease, warfare, and colonization in North America after the 15th century.

Here is the link for looking at the whole map in PDF form, and it's zoomable as well. Note the high concentrations of diverse peoples in certain areas, like the Northwest Coast, Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound. Also note how many groups have names for themselves far different from the ones they are known by: Just look at the Diné (Navajo), Ndeh (Apache), Numunu (Comanche), or Ani'yunwi'ya (Cherokee). Those groups that have managed to be known today by their autonyms seem to be a clear minority.

Lakota are shown further west than they should be.
The blogger Catholicgauze pointed out an important inaccuracy in this map: It claims to show indigenous peoples in the places they inhabited before the arrival of Europeans, but places the Lakota (Sioux) in the same area they occupy today. Five hundred years ago, the Lakota were located farther east, near the Great Lakes, and only moved west later while fighting against the Sahnish (Arikara). Interestingly, Lakota and Sahnish each worked with the U.S. military at different points during the 19th century to fight against each other. The Sahnish are a much less numerous nation today, it seems, and so show up in a smaller font on Aaron Carapella's map.

In any case, while this mistake should be corrected and there may be others still unnoticed, I believe this map is an impressive achievement. Mapping Native peoples from coast to coast in this way—showing all of their autonyms—seems to have never been done before. It's better late than never. This is a highly useful project for furthering knowledge of North America's indigenous peoples, and I hope it will continue to grow and reach more people eager to learn.

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