Native America Maps

In: History Maps

18 Jun 2012

The below map of Linguistic Groups has been making the social media rounds. When I saw it on Facebook it had the title “1491” – which I suppose means this is what North America looked like before Columbus showed up. Yet, the map has no date, and very specifically refers to linguistic groups, not tribes. The link below goes to a Tumblr version with an entertaining review:

this map is awful. it’s so fucking inaccurate and offensive.

when will cartographers (and map-readers) learn to be fucking accountable tho. like it’s just irresponsible and essentially automatically shoddy work to try to map all tribal territories in N. America on the same map, because at that scale, it’s physically impossible to represent everyone. a few months ago I was hired to make maps of historical changes in indigenous territories in eastern Guatemala (a relatively small area), and ended up having to draw maps that were 1” to 20km, and even then, it was still a logistical challenge. lol this map doesn’t even have a date on it, much less sources…again: as someone who makes a living mapping stuff like this, I can tell you: it took over 6 months to dig through archives and indigenous records just to find adequate and reliable information for less than half of Guatemala, a tiny tiny fraction of N. America.

there’s a lot at stake in mapping indigenous territories and cultural/linguistic areas, and unfortunately, usually those with the power and authority to map things like that are (a) not indigenous (b) not invested in indigenous communities (c) not knowledgeable enough on indigenous cultures and complexity therein to draw an adequate representation.



I thought it might be interesting to check out other variations on this topic. Here are two from Wikipedia which are much more detailed:



This one seems to combine tribe locations with language families, which makes sense, but is very simplified.


the National Geographic wins for overall aesthetics, while also including Latin American cultures (click to see zoomable version).


The Atlas of Extinct Nations has a small discussion of the uncertainties of creating these maps, and also included this cool animated gif timemap of the loss of Native American Lands:

loss of lands

4 Responses to Native America Maps



June 18th, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I love the tumblr-review. I just had a similar reaction when I saw Richard Florida’s maps of “the geography of abortion”

It’s not that you can’t use maps to make an ideological point. But when you use unsourced statistics (like the major linguistics groups), or you use meaningless metrics (like Florida’s “% of Counties Without Abortion Providers), you have to question the intent of the cartographer…. especially when the same point could be made with well documented, statistically valid data.



June 22nd, 2012 at 10:37 am

What the Hell language is “Aztec?” No professional could have been involved in the production of this thing.


Kim Serrahn

July 4th, 2012 at 8:03 am

You have to remember that we as the “masters” of the land we as white people thought anyone who wasn’t like us was not worth thinking about. I mean women hadn’t had the vote for that long. Latino’s and Black’s where very much second class citizens. So it no wonder that native peoples where not even given a second thought.



July 4th, 2012 at 8:43 am

You are right, RJS, it should be Nahuatl. However, I do find these maps very interesting, but am also wondering about the cartographer.

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