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Native American Spaces: Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress

This guide provides access to digitized primary sources, print bibliographies, and related online resources for the study of Indian and Alaska native people of the United States.


Land and environment are fundamental to American Indian culture and history, and also central to Indian / non-Indian relations. As the primary means of storing geographical knowledge and experience, as well as communicating locational and spatial information, maps are the links between landscape and history, and although often overlooked, they are potentially rich sources of primary historical information for Native American studies. Maps furnish us with a graphic representation of an over five-hundred year historical record of the physical and cultural landscape of North America. As such they reflect the changes set in motion by the arrival of Europeans in America and the subsequent competition for control of the land. In many cases the maps most valuable for the study of Indian history are those that are not specifically related to Indian matters but include such Indian-related geographic data as indigenous place names, settlement sites, trails, and tribal range as part of recording the known geographic landscape. In addition to their historical value, maps are tools for portraying the present-day physical environment and natural resources of Native American lands.

Pierre Jean de Smet. Map of the upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains region. 1851. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Maps are not, however, only neutral and impartial mirrors of nature. What is depicted and what is omitted from the cartographic record, either inadvertently or intentionally, reveal aspects of the cultural values and attitudes of the map-maker, and the social and political climate in which the maps were constructed. Since early maps of North America are almost exclusively European in origin, the cartographic depiction of Indian cultures and environments is primarily a reflection of the non-Indian population's perceptions of, and attitudes toward, indigenous peoples and their lands. The attitudes are also revealed in the imagery of the title cartouche and vignettes that appear on a variety of continental, national, and regional maps. The imagery may depict either noble or ignoble stereotypes, aspects of Indian culture and environment, the interaction of Indians and Whites (often depicting trade relations), and the Indian as symbolic representation for the continent of North America.

In the contest over land rights, maps and mapping can be seen as tools for defining power relationships and symbolizing authority. As a means for documenting as well as legitimizing the transfer of land rights from Indian to non-Indian control, maps were tools for promoting and promulgating the Euro-American appropriation of territory. In particular, as tools for identifying and publicizing information about the existence and location of valuable natural resources, maps had a direct effect on Indian groups' use and control of their environment. Even maps specifically of established and recognized Indian lands were often not intended to portray Indian affairs, but rather reflected the interest of others in acquiring rights to those lands.

The Library's cartographic holdings related to Native American studies are neither comprehensive nor easily identified, but the coverage is broad and embraces those aspects of Indian society and culture that have been traditionally mapped. Emphasis has been on mappable characteristics associated with the Indians' physical world and historical distribution. Little cartographic attention has been given to social or political issues affecting Indian lives.

Cartographic works, including reproductions of historical maps, are frequently illustrative supplements to textual works. Consequently, significant maps can be found in most parts of the Library's diverse collections. The majority of the Library's cartographic holdings are, however, preserved in the Geography and Map Division, and the focus of this guide is on that division's collections.