Lakota College teacher Jim Sanovia has proven that there is a lot
more to maps than finding your way from Point A to Point B. Sanovia
has taken the concept of mapping and used it to identify abandoned
uranium mines, sacred sites and even areas of creation stories such
as the red racetrack, which really does circle the Black Hills, and
the Salamander and Turtle.
"We always felt like we were already scientists,"
Sanovia said with obvious excitement about his finds. "Now this
stuff helps us explain things, like why the wind blows and like
oh, there is the race track, we have these satellite images!"
Sanovia marvels about his ancestors understanding
of the land. "How did they see it was a racetrack, it was so huge?
There is Pe Sla and it's round, and there is the salamander, how
did they know what the salamander looked like? It's huge! It is
probably half the size of Rapid. How do you see that from the ground?"
Pointing to photos, Sanovia shows the turtle, "Here is the head,
here are the legs, these are so big, each of these!"
As an undergraduate majoring in pre-engineering,
Jim applied for a NASA internship and was accepted in a program
for satellite mapping, arial photographs, and digital layering.
He had attended Central High School in Rapid City where he says
he graduated close to the bottom of his class, number 472 out of
"I was told by the school system that
I couldn"t do anything but be a painter or a carpenter, and I kind
of grew up thinking I was okay with that. But I went to NASA and
just learned these cool things and wondered how could I use these
for other cool things. That's when the cultural ideas started."
At the time, Jim was attending a tribal
college and was taking culture classes alongside the science classes,
and he said, "Things just started to mix."
As he learned the new software for engineering
applications that had layering and slope ability, he realized he
could use it to display Bear Butte in 3D and that these maps could
be used for a cultural speaker's presentations. "How cool is that?
I always called those projects my project converts."
While Sanovia wasn"t the first person
to hit upon the idea of mapping culture, he credits Jhon Goes In
Center, tribal advisor for the Historic Preservation Office in Pine
Ridge and a founder and former President of Innovative GIS Solutions,
Inc. of Ft. Collins, Colorado, as being too far ahead of his time.
Goes in Center said that maps are too often thought of within the
western mindset. While developing cultural mapping in Canada, he
found that the state defined maps "as a document of an area that
you consider to be yours."
But according to Goes In Center, the Native
maps offer information that portrays an indigenous world view, and
can show the relative importance of the "tenure of the land, subsistence
data that they survived with over many millennia, maps for species
of trees, the hydrology water ways, the whole medicinal plant maps,
food sources." He added, "It all overlays the data. You still have
to cordinate it with GPS units, and map around a whole area. These
maps are sophisticated, but we can use it as a communication tool,
like a book."
Goes In Center said that mapping is not
new to Native technology, and noted that Star Knowledge is a map.
In his position as Tribal Advisor for Historic Preservation, he
believes that although more people may be aware of technology, many
still fear it's cultural uses.
However, Goes In Center explained that
mapping is not new to Indigenous thinking and has long been a way
to interpret home lands. "The Inuit carve on ivory. They carve their
three dimensional maps they can hold in their hand. Great Lakes
Tribes made maps on birch bark, in a relational way, by mapping
the resources that are there."
Charmaine White Face, director of the
Defenders of the Black Hills, has used the maps to note abandoned
uranium mines. White Face said that there are 3,272 abandoned mines
within the Treaty Territory in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and
North Dakota, and in the past, she said it was difficult to describe
to uranium companies exactly where a sacred area might be. But with
Sanovia's maps, she is now able to describe the locations of burial
grounds and abandoned uranium mines to new mining companies coming
"As far as sacred sites go, in the past
we couldn"t stop them, and we are hoping with the maps, we will
be able to stop them," White Face said. "Since the 1850s, there
was a place where there are 1,400 burials in North Dakota. Without
being able to say here, here, and here, we couldn"t stop them from
mining. There are areas like that throughout the Great Plains states."
Sanovia said using the maps in this way
also helps introduce culture to engineers through the visualization.
While holding a map, Sanovia explained, "Here's our watershed. There
is all kinds of water sampling, all kinds of projects, going on
in here. We can"t just use the rez border as our research area,
it wouldn"t be scientifically correct."
Besides being able to help other scientists
and engineers understand land beyond borders, sacred sites and mines,
Sanovia says there are other uses. "The Oglala Lakota College wanted
to know how our cotton woods trees are doing. They are trying to
think of how many sun dances we have each year. If there are a couple
hundred, that's a couple hundred cottonwood trees going, so how
are they doing? We did a cotton wood tree analysis with these same
tools, and we found out they are doing okay."
Sanovia now names everything on his maps
in the Lakota language. He started yet another mapping project with
Dr. Victor Douville, Rosebud historian. Together with elders, they
worked on returning Lakota names to major creeks and stream in a
region of eight or nine states. From Northern Kansas all the way
to Eastern Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, and beyond, the
group found that many of the names originated in Lakota in the first
place. "We were just renaming them. Battle Creek, War Bonnet Creek,
Turtle Creek, all were translated directly from Lakota," Sanovia
"We made history when we made the first
map using Lakota place names," Jhon Goes In Center said. "All this
technology is a renaissance relating back to our homeland. We are
getting connected to our sacred spaces again. Right now, we are
referring to our identity through our recent history. We need to
start using our sacred sites, instead of talking about them."
(Contact Christina Rose at email@example.com)