Native territories are essentially invisible on U.S. maps. How did we get here? How can better data help?
Shé:kon (say-go) from the Greenlink Equity Team, which means hello in Kanien'kehá, one of the languages of the Mohawks. The Mohawks live in communities across northern New York State and southeastern Canada and have called these lands home for thousands of years before colonization. They’re one of 574 federally recognized Native Nations across the U.S. striving for continued recognition of their people and safekeeping of their cultures.
Looking at a map of the United States, Native territories are essentially invisible. Yet, these nations are very much alive and present with a diversity of cultures, languages, and knowledge in spite of enduring the tyranny of genocide, cultural erasure, displacement, and forced assimilation. [Apsalooke/Crow boy riding a horse*]
As data scientists, we know that invisibility
can foster misinformation. And as environmental and equity researchers, we understand that our country’s history has harmed and muted Indigenous peoples and their narratives.
The Greenlink Equity Team believes in advancing a safer, healthier, and more just world. This starts with accurate information about all people, especially those who have been muted. That’s why we’re working to raise the visibility of Native Nations by helping fill the gaps in missing data. At this point the data has many holes.
Unfortunately, traditional methods of research have warped people’s understanding of the country’s Native cultures due to innate biases. These limitations damage the way people view and talk about Native communities, and cause harm to Native identity. These biases bleed into research today. Take for example, the census, which is extremely limiting when it comes to understanding and describing Indigenous communities.
First, remember the 574 tribes we mentioned earlier? Well, that number only includes the Federally recognized tribes. There are many more tribes across the country not included due to how the federal government “recognizes” these Nations.
Second, the census data is collected on a binary spectrum of race that erroneously limits the answer to, “Are you Native or not?” Many Native people today have a mixed heritage due to colonization and are forced to identify themselves inaccurately. Additionally, the census data is limited in how it describes Native individuals, again providing only two options to define who you are: “American Indian and Alaska Native” or “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.” There are no options for each distinct nation, whether it be Mohawk, Ho’Chunk, Pawnee, etc. That’s similar to describing the continent of Asia or Africa as one country.
Third, the degree of Native ancestry necessary for being considered Native varies from Nation to Nation. Some look at the “blood quantum” (the amount of Indian blood an individual has), while others recognize heritage through oral tradition. There’s a range depending on the Nations, especially because not all Natives live on reservations or within their native lands today.
A good narrative on this can be found in There There by Tommy Orange, where he gives readers historical context while telling stories of fictional Native characters struggling with their identity in Oakland, Ca today.
“Without accurate and current data for Native Communities, how are we going to protect our people? Our ways?” said Samantha Houck, equity assistant for Greenlink Analytics and Urban Mohawk. “We won’t be telling our stories, nor will we be guiding the funding that comes into where our communities want and need it.”
While accurate information about Native Nations is vital for better understanding the diverse voices and cultures in our country, Indigenous knowledge can also help solve some of the largest problems we face today, like climate change. Indigenous communities have maintained ancestral values and practices that we now turn to for enduring solutions. One is the practice of controlled burns to promote soil fertility for agriculture. Healthy soil stores more CO2, so it’s not only good for crops but also good for mitigating climate change.
Data in today's world is a tool for social and environmental change. There has to be accurate, accessible, and available data on Native Nations. And this data needs to be led and collaborated with Native communities. And we, Greenlink, have begun our journey towards this commitment by creating a Native Boundary mapping tool that will be released later this month. More information is coming soon.
*Photo courtesy of Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Hernandez