Where Land and Language Meet: An Exploration of Indigenous Geography and Controlled Vocabularies

By Lauren Haberstock
Twitter: @la_ma_ha


Author statement:

I am a non-indigenous scholar and approach this post with great humility and the desire to create a space for conversation, critique, and feedback that might further the discussion of decolonization in the field of Library and Information Science. My background is that of a Masters student, currently studying in the field of Library and Information Science, trained in a Western paradigm and to whom Indigenous methodologies are relatively new. I remain open and flexible in my approach and seek to engage with other researchers, scholars, and individuals both from within my field and from other fields who may be interested in my work.

Working against unilateral cultural appropriation and toward an indigenous telling of indigenous experience, indigenous geography has emerged over the past few decades as a movement driven by a critical outlook and re-envisioning of the future within academic and Native communities. In the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, Drew Hayden Taylor writes, “By letting settlers tell our stories, they control how the public views us. The Native experience is filtered through a non-Native consciousness, and therefore inaccurate and flawed” (Taylor, n.d.). Stories told by indigenous voices are integral to truth and reconciliation work. Karyn Pugliese writes, “Reconciliation means putting our truths in the same story. Stories built on half-history lead to tropes not truths” (Pugliese, n.d.). Restoring relationships built on mutual respect between people, land, language, and ways of knowing are essential for this healing journey (“Redress and Healing,” n.d.; “The Road to Reconciliation,” n.d).

As with any field of research, it is vital to recognize the importance of community ownership and self-determination in research. Research often plays an integral role in social and economic equity. In 2018, the National Inuit Strategy on Research (NISR) was published in order to, “advance Inuit governance in research, to enhance the ethical conduct of research, to align funding with Inuit research priorities, to ensure Inuit access, ownership and control over data and information, to build capacity in Inuit Nunangat research” (Research, n.d.). Indigenous methodologies reconceptualize the research process, the search for knowledge, as a spiritual journey that is circular and cyclical and work to ensure that, “research on Indigenous issues is accomplished in a more sympathetic, respectful, and ethically correct fashion from an Indigenous perspective” (Louis, 2007, p. 133). Indigenous methodologies include the following four aspects identified by Louis (2007): relational accountability, respectful representation, reciprocal appropriation, and rights and regulations. The research process from an indigenous perspective also relies upon, “storytelling as a means of thinking through the complexity, contingency, and plurality of co-creating knowledges” (Wright, et al., 2012, p. 41).

Names have power and are a way to exert control. The work of decolonization must necessarily include the decolonization of geographic place names. Already, this work has begun across Canada. Dan David writes, “Nearly 30,000 official place names across Canada are of Indigenous origin and provinces now have groups dedicated to changing place names and maps back to the original Indigenous name” (David, n.d.). Specifically, in 2015, the Northwest Territories approved five names for the Mackenzie River in the languages of those who live along the river system, which are “Deho” in North Slavey, “Dehcho” in South Slavey, “Grande Riviére” in Michif, “Kuukpak” in Inuvialuktun, and “Nagwichoonjik” in Gwich’in (Natural Resources Canada, 2017).  The work of indigenous place names research culminating in these names being made official, according to Lynn Peplinski, “is essential to preserving this tangible source of traditional knowledge for tomorrow’s generations” (Peplinski, n.d.). In many indigenous cultures, place names are descriptive, reflecting intimate and experiential knowledge of the land (Peplinski, n.d.).

Peplinksi works with the Inuit Heritage Trust on their Place Names Program, which seeks to record Elders’ knowledge of place names and share this information (Inuit Heritage Trust, 2013). Digging deeper into the depths of this relationship between people and land, Michael Kusugak notes the naming of place based upon character in the Inuit community, writing, “I have always had an aversion to English place names. They mean nothing to the people who live there. Why anybody would name the place where I grew up, Repulse Bay, I have never known. It is not repulsive in any way; it is a very beautiful place. We call it Naujaat. Nauja means “seagull,” and Naujaat refers to the cliffs there where seagulls nest in summer. It is a much more fitting name than Repulse Bay” (Kusugak, n.d.). Since January 2006, 400 new names and name changes have been added to Canada’s official maps in Nunavut alone, in some cases replacing well-known historical names (Inuit Heritage Trust, 2016).

Additionally, the work of decolonization is exemplified in the work of projects like Native Land Digital’s interactive mapping website. This indigenous-led mapping project seeks to involve indigenous communities in the mapping process and build interest in indigenous lands. The maps are a constant work in progress, evolving and refining with continuous user input.

Screenshot of the interactive mapping website Native Land zoomed in on North America. Used with permission.

Providing an additional example of decolonizing work in the digital humanities, the Diné Peoples’ 3D Portal is a digital archive of Diné knowledge and language currently supported by collections from the Michigan State University Museum. In its current iteration, the archive holds digital versions of stereographs and Navajo textiles, which are given contextualization within the indigenous experience through links to additional records and media.

dine peoples stereograph
Santa Fe Train Crossing over Canyon Diablo, Arizona, stereograph in the Diné Peoples’ 3D Portal. From the Collection of Michigan State University Museum. Used with permission.

In the field of library and information science, controlled vocabularies have a complicated history that includes furthering a dominant narrative, which has excluded and marginalized indigenous populations. The ideals of free and open access to all information have long been embedded in the professional practices of this field. However, these ideals do not take into account the protocols in indigenous cultures that may limit information sharing. Unfortunately, researchers and practitioners have often not respected the sacred and cultural importance of some information, leading to breaches in confidence with indigenous peoples in the name of advancing knowledge (Becvar and Srinivasan, 2009; Parent 2015).

Controlled vocabularies, as a form of standardization and control, must engage in decolonizing work. Coates writes, “Decolonization, the process of identifying and destabilizing colonial structures, creates space for Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing” (Coates, n.d.). The inclusion of expert peoples who represent originating communities for materials must be an important aspect of any collaborative movement (Enote, 2015). Controlled vocabularies do not need to be limited by their colonial heritage, but can grow and revise to better reflect the multiplicity that exists in ways of organizing knowledge. For example the Brian Deer classification scheme emphasizes the relationality between terms by “placing Haisla, Comox, and Squamish groups in proximity to show that they are geographically close” (Parent, 2015, p. 704). The current information ecosystem is one that is multicultural and multilingual. The terms used to describe and provide access to materials reflect the values, ethics, and beliefs of those describing. Mindfulness of access points, cultural differences, and the appropriateness of terminology is a key step in the process of organizing information in a way that acknowledges and embraces all ways of knowing (Baca & Gill, 2015; Parent, 2015).

Do you know of other digital projects working towards decolonization and reconciliation? Have you been involved in similar projects? Let us know in the comments.

Further reading:

Bone, C. & Lougheed, B. (2018). Library of Congress Subject Headings related to Indigenous peoples: Changing LCSH for use in a Canadian archival context. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 56(1), 83-95. DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2017.1382641

Bryan, J. (2009). Where would we be without them? Knowledge, space and power in indigenous politics. Futures, 41, 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2008.07.005

Hajibayova, L. & Buente, W. (2017). Representation of indigenous cultures: Considering the Hawaiian hula. Journal of Documentation, 73(6): 1137-1148. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-01-2017-0010

Larsen, S. C. & Johnson, J. T. (2012). In between worlds: Place, experience, and research in Indigenous geography. Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(1), 1-13. DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2012.646887

Littletree, S. & Metoyer, C. A. (2015). Knowledge organization from an Indigenous perspective: The Mashantucket Pequot Thesaurus of American Indian Terminology Project. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5-6), 640-657. DOI:10.1080/01639374.2015.1010113

Martens, M. (2006). Creating a supplemental thesaurus to LCSH for a specialized collection: The experience of the National Indian Law Library. Law Library Journal, 98(2), 287-297.

Natural Resources Canada (2017). Indigenous place names [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/geography/place-names/indigenous/19739

United Nations. (March 2008). United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf



Baca, M. & Gill, M. (2015). Encoding multilingual knowledge systems in the digital age: The Getty vocabularies. Knowledge Organization, 42(4), 232-243. DOI: 10.5771/0943-7444-2015-4-232

Becvar, K. & Srinivasan, R. (2009). Indigenous knowledge and culturally responsive methods in information research. Library Quarterly, 74(6), 421-441. https://doi.org/10.1086/605382

Coates, T. (n.d.). Education. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (First Nations). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/education-2/

David, D. (n.d.). Traditional land use. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (First Nations). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/traditional-land-use/

Enote, J. (2015). Museum collaboration manifesto [Webpage]. Retrieved from http://ashiwi-museum.org/collaborations/museum-collaboration-manifesto/

Inuit Heritage Trust. (2013). Staff in our Iqaluit office [Webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.ihti.ca/eng/iht-staf.html

Inuit Heritage Trust. (2016). Introduction: Place names in Nunavut [Webpage]. Retrieved from http://ihti.ca/eng/place-names/pn-index.html?agree=0

Kusugak, M. (n.d.). Nunannguaq. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Forewords). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/forewords/nunannguaq/

Louis, R. P. (2007). Can you hear us now? Voices from the margin: Using Indigenous methodologies in geographic research. Geographical Research, 45(2), 130-139. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-5871.2007.00443.x

Parent, I. (2015). Knowledge systems for all. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5-6), 703-706. DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2015.1027985

Peplinski, L. (n.d.). Place names. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Inuit). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/place-names/

Pugliese, K. (n.d.). Reconciliation. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (First Nations). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/reconciliation/

Redress and healing. (n.d.). In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Truth and Reconciliation). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/redress-and-healing/

Research. In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Inuit). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/research-priorities/

The road to reconciliation. (n.d.). In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (Truth and Reconciliation). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/the-road-to-reconciliation/

Taylor, D. H. (n.d.). What is indigenous? In Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada (First Nations). Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/what-is-indigenous/

Wright, S., Lloyd, K., Suchet-Pearson, S., Burarrwanga, L., Tofa, M., & Bawaka Country. (2012). Telling stories in, through and with Country: Engaging with Indigenous and more-than-human methodologies at Bawaka, NE Australia. Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(1), 39-60. DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2012.646890