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Cherokee Makes A Living Map Showing Pre-Contact Native America

Aaron Carapella

When Aaron Carapella (Cherokee) contacted the U.S. Copyright office about his concept for a map that showed Native America pre-contact, he was told it had never been done before on such a grand scale.

This news seemed to validate his hours of long work, traveling and contacting more than 250 reservations and tribal communities. It had all started when he was an adolescent growing up in southern California.

He is Cherokee on his mother’s side and when his maternal grandparents would come to visit, they made him more interested in finding out about his heritage.

He began connecting with other Indians in southern California and attending powwows.  As he put it, he wanted a “cool poster” with all the tribes on it to put on his wall, but couldn’t find one. So he began at the age of 14 to make his own.

He bought four poster boards and set up a display in his bedroom becoming a self-taught map maker or cartographer. He said it was connecting with some of the unrecognized tribes in California that gave him an appreciation of what that meant.

“I started to understand their struggle to gain federal recognition. At the same time I got involved with the American Indian Movement,” Carapella said. “I started meeting people from all kinds of different tribes.”

Carapella asked native acquaintances if they had ever seen a map with accurate information on their tribes. He said that question would kind of stun people, and they would say “no.”

Carapella, a self-described “voracious” reader, started reading Indian history books and contemporary native books.

“I was discovering just how many nations there were and then juxtaposing that with looking at these cheesy maps that would have like 50 to 100 tribes on them,” Carapella said. “I just felt like there wasn't really justice being done.”

Carapella did a free-hand a drawing of the United States and Canada and started writing in tribal names as he learned them. Thus began a nearly 15 year project.

“To my best ability I have put up every tribe that you see on the map is in its original location and this sometimes confuses people or even has upset a few people because they don't really understand the concept behind the map,” Carapella said.

What was confusing some people was that Carapella was using traditional names, i.e. what tribes call themselves. Then he would place them on the map pre-contact.

“This is what I've been told is called a living map. It’s not set in a static year,” Carapella said.

“Tribes on the east coast, they met the white man in the early 1600's, maybe late 1500's and at the tribe is placed where they were at that time,” Carapella said.

“Now as you move out west in the year 1600, some of the plains tribes weren't in the exact locations you find them on my map because they moved of their own accord or because they had disagreements with others tribes,” Carapella said.

Carapella said his map has been described as pre-Columbian, but he said that’s not quite accurate.

“I stick to pre-contact. For most of the tribes it would be pre-Columbian but in the year when Columbus came, 1492 or whatever, some of the tribes that are on the map were in different locations, so that's why I just call it pre-contact,” Carapella said.

Carapella used many different avenues to find all those tribal names.

“I also made a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails. I try to get cultural directors or elders that people point me to for direction,” Carapella said.

“I also have used missionary records; different settlers wrote accounts of what they came across, Army records, treaty records,” Carapella said. “I have tried to make this from a native perspective, though, so I always defer to the tribe itself to ask them their name and their location, where they are from.”

The travel and years he has spent on this living map seems like a full time job. Carapella says this has become his job and has many different projects that stem from his original idea.

Carapella is at work now on an interactive CD for teachers where they can load this it their computer and hover over each name and bring up a little bio of each tribe.

“I have maps of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and I did Alaska separately. I'm working on one that goes, I guess like a Turtle Island map, or a North American map that goes from Alaska down to Mexico,” Carapella said.

Carapella said due to modern day boundaries tribes have been placed on both sides of the U.S. border with Mexico so he hopes to clear that up and have the map available soon on his website tribalnationsmaps.com.

Carapella credits the cultural people and elders that were willing to share their stories and information for helping him to work on this task he started as an inquiring teenager.


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