Mapping Roots
Perspectives of Land and Water in Ontario


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“Do the rocks here know us, do the trees, do the waters of the lakes? Not unless they are addressed by the names they themselves told us to call them in our dreams. Every feature of the land around us spoke its name to an ancestor. Perhaps, in the end, that is all that we are. We Anishinaabeg are the keepers of the names of the earth. And unless the earth is called by the names it gave us humans, won’t it cease to love us? And isn’t it true that if the earth stops loving us, everyone, not just the Anishinaabeg, will cease to exist? That is why we all must speak our language, nindinawemagonidok, and call everything we see by the name of its spirit. Even the chimoolzomanag, who are trying to destroy us, are depending upon us to remember. Mi’sago’i.”1

—Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe

Mapping Roots: Perspectives of Land & Water in Ontario is a series of paintings that explore Métis and Anishnaabe perspectives of land and water.  The paintings meld together current day road maps with research into original native place names along with other motifs in an attempt to express an Aboriginal worldview and try to show what cannot be found on today’s maps.  Other paintings within the series explore water as a sacred element and also as a vital link to the history of the Anishnaabeg, the Métis and later to Canada.  Featured prominently within the paintings are various renditions of water that were crucial to the survival of the Anishnaabeg and the Métis.  In all, the pieces provide a perspective of Ontario’s history that is rarely acknowledged.

In the mid 1990’s I was working on a contract for Poirier Communications, an Aboriginal owned communications company based in Ottawa.  As part of my contract I had to travel across Canada visiting different Aboriginal communities.  The work we were doing is now long forgotten and irrelevant in many ways.  But what has stuck with me, aside from the positive experience of visiting all of the various communities and meeting some great people, was the process itself of traveling to these communities.  Many times it involved pulling out the road maps to find out what route to take.  I was appalled, as my traveling partners were also, to find that in many cases the communities we were looking for were simply not put on the maps.  We found cases where the name of the First Nation was omitted entirely and only the name of the “white” town or community adjacent to it had the ‘honour’ of being included on the map – even when the native community had a larger population than the nearest non-native town!  In other cases a simple “I.R” in a gray box was used to indicate (we supposed)  “Indian Reserve.” 

According to Roger Bird, “maps give some idea about what’s important – and what isn’t – in our country, at least according to map makers.”2  If this is true, then the omissions on present day road maps when it come to Aboriginal communities is revealing a truth that Aboriginal people have long known – we are literally not on the map when it comes to how non-native Canadians view Canada and what level of importance they place on our very existence and by extension, to what extent they afford us our rights. 

Maps can be beautiful works of art and many people have an affinity towards them.  But maps are not just geographical representations, they have for a long time been used by governments, corporations and private citizens to claim property, assert legal rights, and to further economic interests.3  For Indigenous peoples, maps were tools used in the wholesale theft of North America.  As famed University of California geographer Bernard Nietschmann put it, “More Indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns, and more Indigenous territory can be reclaimed and defended by maps than by guns."4

Renaming and Loss of Indigenous Lands

Historical maps reveal a great deal about how Europeans and their descendants viewed and continue to view the land – as a property to be owned and exploited.5  As the colonization of land and people became solidified, as Indigenous lands were ceded, and as the burgeoning population of European descendants began to outnumber Aboriginal people, exploration maps gave way to surveys.  Text appeared on the maps indicating “good land” or “land unfit for human civilization.”  Text also indicated what type of trees and minerals were in certain areas. 6 Without detailing here in a chronological order a list of maps, name registrations and treaties: it remains true that the renaming of North America coincided with the takeover of Indigenous territories. 

When Europeans first began mapping North America, they believed the land was a series of vast, empty and nameless territories, save for a few small pockets of people who dotted the land here and there.  One of the very first maps done of this part of the world with the name “Canada” printed on it was done around 1550 and credited to Pierre Desceliers.  Laughably, it includes illustrations of ostrich-like birds, turbaned human figures, and unicorns.  The accuracy of the map itself was rudimentary to say the least, but it was part of an important beginning in what became a long history of map-making in this part of the world depicting the explorations and ‘discoveries’ of the Europeans.  Many maps for years following served as “imperial gestures of conquest of land and a record of political domination.”7 

Slowly over the centuries, as the English and French pushed further inward and developed initially positive relationships with Aboriginal people through trade, the maps became increasingly detailed.  Unlike the initial maps of the 1600’s, which placed French, Spanish, or English names on both land and water, many of these ‘newer’ maps included the native names of places as they were told to the mapmakers by Aboriginal people living in or familiar with those areas – indicating, importantly, that the land was familiar and used by Aboriginal people.  The land had existing names.  It was not as they had assumed “empty.” 

In this regard, historical maps can be useful in research into original place names because on many occasions, particularly in southern and eastern Ontario, the Aboriginal names included then by mapmakers have now been entirely renamed into English or French names.  Territories once indicated with markers such as “This land belongs to the Seneca” or “Six Nations Territory” are now entirely dotted with towns with such names as Caledonia, Sarnia, London, Essex, etc.

During the fur trade era, many Métis communities emerged adjacent to the Forts and Trading Posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company or North West Company.  The sites of the Forts were recorded on various maps of the day, but burgeoning Métis communities more often than not, weren’t acknowledged whatsoever.  Over the long term, excluding Métis communities on the maps in Ontario (until they became non-native dominated towns) effectively erased the existence of Métis people in the province thereby contributing to the myth that Métis people aren’t an identifiable group in Ontario.  In some cases, it is the names of places originally given by the Voyageurs themselves that pervade to this day and, I’m ashamed to say, ignored the original Ojibway names.  Blind River is a case in point.  The original name was Penebawabikong, meaning ‘sloping rock’, but the site got its name in 1837 by the Voyageurs who were unable to see the mouth of the river until they were very close to it – hence “blind” river.

In Ontario, places like Temiskaming or Batchewana for example, have remained true to their original names and are still called by them to this day.  Frequently, the original place names were mispronounced by the mapmakers and consequently may have been written down with slight mistakes thereby altering the name - such as Ontario; Michigan; Michipicoten to name a few.  Other times, the original native name was translated into English or French and those names, although in a different language, remain in use to this day such as Grande Portage.  

A quick survey of the origins of Ontario’s present day names shows us that vast majority of the towns, villages and cities we find on maps today were named in the 1800’s with the establishment of post offices in those locations.8  The renaming of our lands had the effect of erasing of our history and thereby devaluing our on-going claims to the land.  Is it any wonder then, that we continue to have so much conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples about land when with every new generation non-Aboriginal people can trace the origins of their towns to an “official” registration of the name even when our names may have existed for thousands of years prior? 

Although there are some native place names that have managed to survive to this day, the vast majority of places - the lakes, the rivers, the streams, the hills, the valleys, the mountains, the islands, the lands, the sacred sites – places that all had significance to us, became renamed into English or French names and have lost their meaning.  Places like Bauwiting became Sault Ste. Marie; Gichi Gumme became Lake Superior; etc.  To a large extent the original names have now been lost even to our own people.  This is of concern for our future generations, especially those like myself who were never taught our language – and there are a growing number of us.

Indigenous Mapmaking & Reclaiming Place

Map-making wasn’t only done historically by Europeans and non-native North Americans.  Aboriginal people made maps that expressed an innate and intimate knowledge of not only the land but also of the spirit world.  Indigenous maps were derived from experience, by tradition, or in dreams.9 Maps were made firstly as pictographs but also in sand paintings, wampum, incised on birch bark, on trees, on hides, carved in ivory, wood, or written in the ground, with ash, sand, and snow.10  A language of communicating information through maps was developed and shared between nations and peoples centuries before Europeans arrived on the continent.  The maps indicated a sophistication, in that often the person interpreting the map needed to have an understanding of what was not on the map to know how to interpret the maps meaning. 

Historically, the primary difference between Indigenous map-makers and non-Indigenous map-makers was not that Indigenous map-makers lacked the expertise in European map making methods, it was instead that Indigenous maps were always based on personal experience and knowledge of the land.  Whereas initially Eurpoean mapmakers lacked personal experience with the land and had to rely on the first-hand experience of others – making renditions of maps based entirely on Indigenous maps or first hand accounts provided to them by Indigenous people.  As Mark Warhus states in Another America “Unlike western cartography, where the “map” becomes one’s picture of the landscape, Native American maps are always secondary to the oral “picture” or experience of the landscape…Native American maps are windows on a multi-dimensional landscape.”11  He goes on to say that Native American maps were “transitory illustrations” used to support the oral document that revealed a world “perceived and experienced through one’s history, traditions, kin, in relationships with the animal and natural resources…and in union with spirits, ancestors, and religious forces with whom one shared experience.”12

In Cartographic Encounters Barbara Belyea writes that the narrative accompanying the Indigenous maps were always more important than the maps themselves, and that “translation obviates the need to recognize native maps for what they are: graphic forms which represent a worldview that is utterly different from that produced by European scientific cartography.”13

Perhaps this point, more than any other, is at the root of the differences that permeate Indigenous and non-Indigenous “views” of land.  And that is, that land is held at a different place within the mind.  For the non-Indigenous person (government) land is abstract, at a distance, the “unknown” except for what has been explored and recorded on a map.  Land is often thought of in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a vast empty wilderness whose resources can and should be exploited for the benefit of human beings – in essence it is separate from self.  For the Indigenous person (government) land is at the forefront, it is personal, it is never unknown and one may not need a map to show what is believed to be there.  Land is often thought of as being full of life, whose resources can be used for the benefit of human beings, but not dominated, subjugated, or exploited.  Philosophically land is not separate from self but “I” exist only because it exists, and “I” and the land are one. 

Belyea goes on to state, “Grid maps operate by locating positions along axes of latitude and longitude.  Amerindian maps rely not on fixed positions in space but on a pattern of interconnected lines.”14 

Mapping Roots is about more than merely the loss of what some might consider superficial place names; it is also about how we see ourselves, and our place in this land and in the universe.  To echo Belyeas interpretation of Amerindian maps, the paintings in this series are not fixed each on its own, but instead they follow a pattern of interconnected ideas to show how land is viewed from an Indigenous perspective and in this case, my own personal perspective.  

Our worldview tells us that the spirit world is present in everything we see and surrounds us in everything we don’t see.  Maps such as Mide scrolls or dream maps are considered sacred, and to this day, are not shown to the non-initiated person.  Dream maps, like dream paintings, reveal teachings and show important characteristics of land.  The spirits are accessible and can provide assistance in many forms, as evidenced by the more than 400 pictographs adorning the cliff faces of the Canadian Shield.  As Grace Rajnovich put it, “The Land is still alive today for the Indian people and is a relative – Mishakamigokwe (Earth Woman), their great grandmother – so it is easy to see how wrenching the loss of land is to the native people and why they are persistent in urging that She must not be exploited, but loved and listened to as an Elder.”15

Today Indigenous mapmakers are using maps and western techniques in mapmaking to assert rights over land by recording historic and contemporary land use patterns.  Sometimes called “counter-mapping” or “community based mapping”: projects range from micro mapping of small areas to projects like the Oxfam-supported effort to map Peru’s 1300 Native Amazonian communities.16 In Canada, Indigenous nations across the country are utilizing “western” cartographic methods in order to record Indigenous place names and map Indigenous territories as a way to reclaim land and to create documents that will be valid in courts of law and can be used in support of land claims.

Basil H. Johnston, Anishnaabe elder and author writes, “we owe the earth our all, more than we can take in, more than we can say.  We can never return anything but our respect and thanksgiving…what our ancestors found about the world was sacred; everything was sacred by virtue of its creation by Kitchi Manitou.”17

Our connection to this land cannot be severed and what the early map makers left off the maps were of vital importance to us.  What has been left off is as important to us as what has been included.  The land is only ours insomuch as it also belongs to all the creatures and plants that share it with us – but in reality the land owns itself.  Even when there is no human settlement on a section of land – that land is not ‘empty’ – it is teaming with life, with spirit and with purpose.  And that is ultimately what this series is about, it’s about what was and still is left off the maps.  Its about remembering and speaking the original names of places, and thereby reclaiming the land and restoring it, awakening it, and loving it, for its original purpose.

  1. http://www.pbs.org/circleofstories/wearehere/placenames.html - Louise Erdrich
  2. Mapping Our Identity, Roger Bird, The Ottawa Citizen, July 22, 2006.
  3. ttp://www.lva.lib.va.us/whoweare/exhibits/mapping/geography/index.htm
  4. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0GER/is_n94/ai_21260280
  5. CROWN LAND SURVEY Devine, Thomas Salter, Albert Maclear & Co. Vankoughnet, P.M., 1860, Compiled & Drawn by Thomas Devine, Head of Surveys, Upper Canada. NMC 11319
  6. CROWN LAND SURVEY Devine, Thomas Salter, Albert Maclear & Co. Vankoughnet, P.M., 1860, Compiled & Drawn by Thomas Devine, Head of Surveys, Upper Canada. NMC 11319
  7. Hayes, Derek, Historical Atlas of Canada, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2002, p.7.
  8. Scott, David E., Ontario Place Names, Despub, Allenburg, 2004.
  9. Lewis, Malcolm, Cartographic Encounters: Perspectives on Native American Mapmaking and Map Use, Chigaco, 1998. (p.14)
  10. Ibid,  (p. 58)
  11. Warhus, Mark, Another America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997. (p. 8)
  12. Ibid, (p. 3)
  13. Lewis, Malcolm, Cartographic Encounters: Perspectives on Native American Mapmaking and Map Use, Chigaco, 1998. (p.140)
  14. Ibid, (p. 141)
  15. Rajinovich, Grace, Reading rock art: Indian rock paintings of the Canadian Shield, Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., Toronto, 1994. (p. 9)
  16. Neitschmann, Bernard: Nicaragua and the Indian Revolution Centre for World Indigenous Studies, 1986. (http://www.cwis.org/fwdp/Americas/nicar-re.txt)
  17. Johnston, Basil H., Honour Earth Mother: Mino-Audjaudauh Missu-Kummik-Quae, Kegedonce Press, Wiarton, 2003. (p. v and 146)

The artist gratefully acknowledges the support from the Visual Arts Program of the:










































Christi Belcourt, P.O. Box 112, Whitefish Falls, Ontario, P0P 2H0, christi@thebreath.com