"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, February 7, 2011

Strange Tan Blotches in South Dakota: Indian Reservations in Online Maps

As we live our lives increasingly in the digital realm, the sights, sounds, and moving images of the Internet impact our conception of the world around us more than ever.

Case in point are the myriad of online web mapping services.  What began as simple tools to find directions in the age before Garmins and smartphones have evolved into advanced applications that map multiple layers of data into user-friendly 2D and 3D environments.

But who decides what we see?

As a fan of Google Maps, I became accustomed to one set of data and a visual style that favors brevity and aesthetics over sheer volumes of information.  A few days ago, I happened to click on a link that took me to the Bing Maps website to find a location.  As is usually the case, I ended up scrolling around and exploring the United States.

But something was different...

Here is your standard view in Google Maps:

View Larger Map
Google Maps

And here is that same view in Bing Maps:

Bing Maps

What were just discolored tan geometric blobs* in the first map actually have names in the second map!

Normally, I wouldn't make such a big deal out of mere labels but when you combine the appalling state of America's geographic knowledge with American Indians' long fought battle to reassert their tribal rights and sovereignty, this is a big deal.

Google Maps is the clear market leader among web mapping services but Bing Maps, Yahoo! Maps, MapQuest, and even open collaborative websites like OpenStreetMap are competing for a piece of the pie.  The influence of Google Maps and its visual aesthetic becomes clear however, when you consider it has even garnered its own parody:

Even when you zoom into Google Maps, you never see a single label that identifies those strange tan blotches in South Dakota.  Among the other map services, Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest do label Indian reservations while OpenStreetMap does not.

Thankfully, the Internet has come to the rescue and some enterprising Google Earth enthusiasts asked this very same question.  Independent modders have since created several unique layers that identify and outline Indian reservations throughout the United States.

I can only wonder though, how many people see these very same tan blotches but never bother to answer the simple question- what are they?

National Parks?  Military bases?  Oil fields?

While these mapping tools certainly empower the individual, never forget it is the designers and the developers behind them who hold the real power.  I can only speculate as to why they did not include these labels, but I can be sure of one thing- their decision has impacted millions of Americans and they way understand (or don't understand) the geographic and social reality of this country.

For a great comparison of the overall design of Google Maps, Bing Maps, and Yahoo! Maps check out this informative blog post:


*Update:  Google has dropped Indian reservations altogether from Google Maps.  Read about it here:  The Case of the Missing Indian Reservations


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