'Maps are stories made visual': Indigenous mapping in Sask. part of international virtual workshop

A virtual workshop featuring more than 40 speakers and hundreds of participants from around the world will include a presentation on Indigenous mapping in Saskatchewan.

Workshop emhpasizes using technology to create maps from an Indigenous perspective

A massive floor map of Indigenous traditional territories and treaties mirrors maps in the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. (Tanara McLean/CBC News)

A virtual workshop featuring more than 40 speakers and hundreds of participants from around the world will include a presentation on Indigenous mapping in Saskatchewan.

The Indigenous Mapping Workshop is taking place online from Nov. 16 to 18. It's being hosted by the Vancouver-based Firelight Group, along with the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) and other Indigenous organizations, who are "committed to the development and advancement of culturally appropriate and inclusive geospatial technologies for Indigenous Peoples," according to the Firelight's website.

The annual workshop helps participants map out landscapes using high-end technology and understand the significance they have to Indigenous history, knowledge and culture.

Andy Miller, an associate professor at FNUniv in Regina and a co-organizer of the workshop, is giving a presentation at the event. 

"Maps are stories made visual," he said.

"They can very quickly convey information that spans large regions of space and can reach back in time." 

Miller said maps are reflective of the people who make them.

"Many, many of our maps today are dominated by place names that were created by settler society," said Miller.

"It was important for settler society to assert ownership of land by naming it, and maps are one of the ways that sort of social arrangement is conveyed."

Miller said Indigenous mapping is a bit different.

"Indigenous maps, Indigenous use of space, goes back hundreds, thousands of years and they can be reflected in stories, they can be reflected in family lineages, they can reflect practices of hunting, gathering berries, trapping furs," he said.

'Maps are the space where that reconciliation needs to take place'

Miller said Indigenous mapping can also shed light on Indigenous history and stories that have been overlooked.

"Indigenous people have a history that I think is underappreciated in its depth, in its complexity and what it says today about the potential for sharing of land," he said.

"We talk often [and] loudly about reconciliation, but maps are the space where that reconciliation needs to take place."

Miller said it can be especially hard to "see the footsteps" of Indigenous people and understand their stories in rural Saskatchewan.

"You have to really look past the power lines, the grid roads, the grain silos," he said.

"Elders carry that knowledge. We have the potential to remember if we ask the questions about what this place means … maps are one way to tell those stories."

Miller said mapping can also allow people to take control of their own space based on their values and history.

'It's really grown to a size that we never imagined'

Steve Deroy, director with The Firelight Group, said the organization started hosting these workshops in 2014 and they have been growing ever since.

Deroy said the workshops are meant to start dialogues between Indigenous mappers and provide hands-on training for people who want to incorporate technology in their mapping.

Deroy said more then 900 people from 35 different countries have registered this year, more than they would have expected when the event was first launched years ago.

"More people are seeing the utility of [geographic information system] technologies to be able to tell stories of space and place from an indigenous perspective," he said.

"Staying current with that changing trend of technology is really paramount to Indigenous communities to be able to tell their stories from an Indigenous perspective."

Deroy said the group has partnered with technology providers including Google, NASA, Esri Canada, Mapbox and Digital Democracy.

He said the workshop will also include presentations from communities using mapping technology to better understand the implications of large-scale energy developments like pipelines and mines.

"Communities are being able to leverage this technology to be able to tell that different perspective of space and place and be able to articulate Indigenous rights and interests in relation to those proposed projects and how those projects may or may not have an impact on those local indigenous communities."

With files from Julia Peterson