Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Fake Map of Tribal Nations Takes Social Media by Storm

In one of those strange eruptions of social media interest, a person going by the name of liminalsoup uploaded to reddit a map for an alternate history that he's planning to write, about a world in which Europeans never reached America, and a few days later someone uploaded the map to Facebook (falsely describing it as a map of where tribes had been prior to Columbus) where it proceeded to get hundreds of thousands of shares.
I had seen it going around on Facebook, where I'd noted that the Comanchees hadn't been an independent tribe in pre-Columbian times, nor had they been in the Oklahoma/Texas area in which they later became famous. Other friends pointed out other issues with the map. The actual derivation of the map, with the author trying to decide where to put various tribes in an alternative history in which American Indians continued to live on their own for another 500+ years, makes sense of a number of these oddities.

As I started to search for the map, wondering about its mistakes, I stumbled across a real attempt at a map showing tribal locations which had been publicized on NPR just a few weeks earlier. Ironically, though this map was put together by someone of Indian ancestry and was an attempt to show where tribes originally were can list them by their own names (rather than names given to them by Europeans), and it apparently didn't catch the imagination of social media the way the fictional map did. (I say ironically because the person making the mis-attributed social media posting of the fictional map captioned the image: "America before colonization.... I've never seen this map in my entire 25 years of formal education. Not in one history book or one lesson. This is not a mistake... Representation matters!!! #NativeHistory #BeforeAmerica")

[full high resolution image here] Actually, you can kind of see why the fictional map caught on in a way that the real one didn't. It's simple and easily grasped, with clear boundaries and mostly recognizable names. The real map is full of unfamiliar names, many in small type, and lacks boundaries.

Thinking of history from another perspective is difficult. It's not uncommon to see guilt-ridden modern attempts to address the European discovery, conquest and settling of America "from a Native American" perspective, but if that attempt at perspective is to show "that thing which Europeans came and messed up" you're already in some sense dealing with a perspective centered on European events.

Most of the American Indian cultures in North America were hunter gatherers, and virtually none had writing systems, so the number of written records and archaeological traces we have to work from are fairly small. Even in Mexico and South America, where there were more complex farming societies and several civilizations which left writing behind, we have less to go on than the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (which themselves are fairly alien to us.)

The native societies as they were encountered by European explorers and colonists were not necessarily in continuity with their pre-European past, because contact with Europeans had touched off massive plagues which wiped out some very large number (it underlines our ignorance of pre-Columbian America that we have no very good idea what percentage, but estimates range up to 90%) of the indigenous population. (Europeans had built up immunities to a number of diseases that were unknown in the new world until their arrival.) The tribes that we met were a sort of post-apocalyptic survival of those plagues.

I suppose someone has tackled this and I just haven't run into it, but it seems like there could be an interesting "first contact" novel for some SF writer to tackle, if you tried to re-imagine the human population experiencing the kind of things which the indigenous populations of the Americas did when they came into contact with Europeans: alien induced plagues causing massive death around the world, very small numbers of aliens with very advanced technology making small incursions in some areas but not getting to others, disruption of the world's political alliances as some countries align with the aliens in order to get help and support against others, the aliens not always having a clear idea of the disputes that they're being pulled into taking sides in.

As with the fictional map, perhaps a fictional approach like that would actually provide the best window that modern Americans could have into what that sort of disruption must have been like from the other side.


BenK said...

It would be interesting to see a probability density function depicting the space/time chance of meeting someone from a named group with which he/she would identify, and additionally, perhaps, whether he/she would indicate that the place was under the group's control. There would likely be large empty places, overlap, and other complications.

Anonymous said...

Pastwatch - by Orson Scott Card - tackles some of these themes

Darwin said...


Yeah, the idea of showing modern-state style borders for indigenous tribes is problematic to say the least. A probability scatter showing overlaps and density would be fascinating (though impossible to figure out with anything like accuracy at this point.)


Hmmm. I'd never run into that one, but I have to admit: the only OSC novel that I ever actually finished was Ender's Game. I'll have to look it up sometime.

Brian said...

To be honest, it's often to even realize what Europe really "looked" like prior to the modern notion of the nation-state. Our conception of the fixed border is part & parcel of organizing principle that deeply ingrained, not only into a post-Westphalian concept of state sovereignty (which came well into the colonial project), but into the ideas of Progressivism & Industrialization (that the same organizing principles at heart operate in science, economics, government, and society – so that the map-as-reality can be cordoned off by rational process). It's an interesting exercise to examine different contemporary maps and see the range of symbolic versus representational expression, as well as how the grammar of cartography expression the liminal natural of borders between pre-Westphalian and non-Westphalian entities.

As a descendant of 17th-century Dutch colonists who, following Dutch West India Company policy, were required to negotiate and purchase lands from natives, it's fascinating to read about the differences in how quickly Westphalian (and "Lockean" concepts on sovereignty and land fully percolated into European consciousness in comparison to Native American tribes who had completely distinct ideas – as you note – notions on central sovereignty (notions that could never be translated into quasi-Wilsonian nation-state terms as these maps posit). One would think that a decade or more's argument over Sykes-Picot would point out the even-greater fallacy here, but there's that epistematic progressivism at play that I referenced...