Counter Mapping and Cultural Preservation

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When we think of a map, we often picture a globe or a road map in our heads. We see roads, borders, and maybe big geographical features that impact the landscape. We see lines drawn as borders, making political, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. If we use a satellite map, we can even picture our own houses.

Modern maps, although certainly helpful, leave out a lot of information. We aren’t able to see the people who live there or the stories they have of the land around them. Local place names are often ignored. As the world has grown increasingly connected, we have become disconnected from the history and traditions surrounding the locations where we live, work, and move. 

Zuni Counter Maps

A group of A:shiwi elders and artists are working to change how maps are drawn of their ancestral lands. The A:shiwi, who were given the name Zuni by the American government, traditionally reside in the modern Southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico. Many of their stories and prayers are directly linked to physical locations in these places, like the Grand Canyon.


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“K’yawakwayina:we (Waterways),” by Edward Wemytewa (2006). Image from UCLA Fowler Museum
“K’yawakwayina:we (Waterways),” by Edward Wemytewa (2006). Image from UCLA Fowler Museum

Jim Enote, an A:shiwi farmer and director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, wanted to create a way to promote local artists and give the A:shiwi people a way to visualize many of the stories, prayers, and traditions that they grew up with. Enote gathered a group of elders who took submissions from A:shiwi artists to create counter maps of important locations for the tribe. 

These maps contained the place memories that have been largely erased by modern society. Present day highways are built over A:shiwi foot paths, and reservation boundaries are both physically and psychologically restricting for many tribal members. The counter maps take the modern landscape and intertwine it with the stories, prayers, and cultural traditions of the A:shiwi people to give people a sense of the physical places that the A:shiwi have lived in since time immemorial. 

For individuals who don’t speak the A:shiwi language fluently, the maps are a way of visualizing the stories that many members grew up with their elders telling them. With more people leaving the Zuni reservation to seek work and family on the outside, many of these traditions risk becoming lost. 

Creating New Ways of Seeing the Old World

Enote hopes that the Zuni counter maps will not only be valuable for the A:shiwi, but for others as well. Modern society has us treating maps as a concrete way of viewing the world around us, and yet we lack many of the sense memories that indigenous tribes around the world have kept intact.

Rather than seeing a road as a way of leading somewhere else, we can consider the human history, the artwork, the prayers, the legends, the plants, the animals, and the things we continue to not know about the world around us. 

Read more about counter mapping and watch the videos:

Loften, Adam, and Vaughan-Lee, Emmanuel. Counter Mapping. Accessed February 1, 2020. Retrieved from https://emergencemagazine.org/story/counter-mapping/

PBS Documentary on Zumi maps

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