Spatial Historiographies: The Decolonial Mapping Toolkit

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Much of the world’s land mass has, at this point, been mapped. Over the centuries, cartography has been a discipline applied by the corporate and government entities that have the power and technology to do so. From the economic import of European world maps of the 15th century to the racist introduction of redlining to American urban plans throughout the 20th century; to the evolution of those plans in zoning, real estate redefinitions of neighborhoods, and displacement through gentrification, maps have been used to perpetuate power or to grow it. There has historically been a politics inherent to mapping: maps are drawn from very specific viewpoints and principles, and are typically literal visualizations of the worldviews of those in power.

The colonial histories of the Americas are telling of these worldviews: from the so-called “discovery” of the so-called “New World” to the usage of cartography to plan European settlements atop forests and the communities that inhabit them, mapping since the 1400s has become a tool used by very specific entities in the process of landscape development and cultural displacement. For hundreds of years, cartography has been a literally top-down way of building the world that translates landscapes into blank slates to be built upon in the name of modernist progress. Put differently, mapping has been fundamental to the project of Western exploitation, erasure, and ownership.