Putting them on the map
Native cartographer offers a different picture of America
By Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, January 17, 2013
F ollowing a map can certainly lead to adventure. But a young Native living in Flagstaff found creating a map can be an even bigger adventure.
Aaron Carapella, Cherokee/Anglo, thought he knew something about Native American history.
"I've studied it all my life, and listened to all my grandparents' stories," said the 33-year-old Oklahoma native.
And, as a powwow aficionado, "I've probably been to several hundred reservations."
But when he embarked on what turned out to be a 14-year research project to draw a map of pre-Columbian America, he was surprised by what he didn't know.
"There were tribes I had never even heard of," he said. "It blew me away, the diversity. Florida alone had 35 to 40 different tribes."
Carapella recently released "Map of our Tribal Nations: Our Own Names and Original Locations," which shows 584 North American tribes and roughly where they were located (since most tribes were nomadic, and there weren't any boundaries to speak of, Carapella has placed the name of the tribe over the area where its people originally lived before being displaced by European settlers).
Carapella is pretty well convinced it's the first map of its kind.
"I've never seen anything like it before," he said. "I can definitely say it's the first time anyone has copyrighted this."
Clarenda Begay, exhibit curator at the Navajo Nation Museum, agrees.
"This is the first time I have seen this," she emailed after being directed to Carapella's Web site. "What an informative map!"
Carapella made it precisely because other maps he looked at were so uninformative.
"You can get maps of what our reservations look like now," he noted. "And you can get maps that have, like, the 50 main tribes. But I was interested in what our land really looked like circa 1490, before Columbus got here."
To get that picture, Carapella spent thousands of hours poring through books, traveling the country and making countless phone calls to the tribes that still exist.
Carapella varies the size of the typeface to denote the relative land area and population of the tribes at the time. He's also included fascinating historical photos of Native Americans and their dwellings.
"I wanted to get away from the stereotypical images of Indians, with all the feathers," he said. "I wanted to show the diversity of our clothing, our homes."
The young mapmaker was also careful to list the tribes by the names they call themselves, rather than the names given to them by Europeans or other tribes.
For example, you won't find "Comanche" on the map, but you will find "Numinu." No "Navajo," but a large-font "Diné."
Finding the original names of all the nations proved one of the biggest challenges for Carapella.
"I was amazed how many times I would call a tribe and they would say, 'I don't really know what we called ourselves. You're going to have to ask an elder,'" Carapella recalled. "That made me feel sad, because once we don't even have our own names for ourselves, once we adopt the names someone else called us, we've lost something really fundamental to our identity."
So unknown are some of the original names that Carapella is currently printing another version of the map that has both the original names and the commonly known ones, "just so people have a reference point."
While some tribal names may have gone extinct, Carapella was encouraged to discover that the tribes themselves have not.
"My original idea was to use different colors to indicate the tribes that have disappeared," he said. "But the more research I did, the more I became convinced that all these tribes are still alive in their descendants."
When a tribe was driven out of its homeland, Carapella explained, the survivors usually were taken in by a larger, stronger tribe and intermarried with them.
"If you're a member of the Creek tribe, for example," Carapella said, "you probably have the blood of 15 to 20 former tribal nations."
Although it was only released last fall, the Map of Tribal Nations is already ready for some revisions.
"I've had some tribal members call me and say, 'Hey, why is our name so small? We had an entire state!'" Carapella said. "If anyone thinks that, I'm ready to do some more research.
"I'm really trying to be as fair as possible and not upset any tribe," he added. "Of course, there are always differences of opinion as far as which tribe had which territory. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies, and I hope people will bring them to my attention."
The 35-by-54-inch map is available in several versions, ranging from a standard print on bond paper for $89 to a deluxe canvas version for $349.
Carapella, who does marketing for an online bookseller for his day job, said he has tried to keep the price affordable while still recouping his investment.
"I'm not doing this to make money," he said. "It's my way of honoring Native nations."