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Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place and Identity in Indigenous Communities

By Gwilym Lucas Eades

April 13, 2016

Review By Daniel Clayton

In this innovative and important book, Gwilyn Eades, a geographer from Terrace, undertakes a kaleidoscopic investigation of the significance of maps, cartography, contemporary geo-coding technologies (GIS, GPS, and Google Earth), and questions of spatial cognition in understanding the challenges facing indigenous cultures in northern Canada today. The originality of the book lies in the author’s multi-faceted approach to maps and what he terms place-memes as “holistic device[s] for preserving information about place through time, and [that] may be made up of multiple representations, including maps” (xix). The concept of meme comes from anthropology and evolutionary biology, and connotes both a store of cultural information and a vehicle for transmitting cultural ideas, symbols, and practices. Eades brings a spatial dimension to the concept, and the maps he has in mind can be linguistic or spatial, drawn or spoken, textual or visual, preserved or transient, quotidian or generational, represented or performed, and disembodied or embodied. Connections between map and meme can be rendered on paper or in stories or on computer screens, involve positive and negative feedback loops or topographic (locational) and topological (relational) understandings of place and identity. Place-memes can operate as modes of capture (expression) and mimesis (copying) and inscription and wayfaring, and can be characterised as colonial or counter-colonial, traumatic or therapeutic, and identity-breaking or community-restoring.

The importance of the book lies in Eades’ sophisticated and ultimately hopeful analysis of the intersections, tensions, and dissimilarities between different Native and non-indigenous maps and memes. Maps are not simply written off as tools of colonial power and white domination in Canada. Eades shows how they can also work as weapons of resistance and as a means of cultural rejuvenation. Drawing insights from anthropology, geography, history, social psychology, and cognitive science, Maps and Memes enriches understanding of how links within indigenous cultures between place, time, community and wellbeing are created, transmitted, damaged and lost in spatial and cartographic terms.

The book is comprised of nine chapters and includes thirty black and white illustrations (maps, models and photographs). It is part conceptual rumination on the significance of land, territory, and place-names to indigenous people, part critique of cartography as a colonizing device, and part applied and participatory geography that seeks to reposition mapping as a tool of Native empowerment. Theoretical considerations and technical exegesis are prominent in Chapter 2 (“Place-Memes”), Chapter 5 (“Counter-Mapping Colonization”), Chapter 6 (“The Evolution of Critical Cartographic Inscription”), and Chapter 9 (“Towards an Indigenous Geoweb”). Critical examination of maps as tools of colonization and ways of gauging the vulnerability of Native lifeworlds comes to the fore in Chapter 3 (“Cree Ethnogeography”), and Chapter 4 (“Canada, Cartography, and Indigenous peoples”). But in all of the chapters, and particularly in Chapter 1 (“The Long Walk”), Chapter 7 (“Commemorative Toponymies of Trauma”), and Chapter 8 (“Meme Maps”), Eades also chronicles his involvement with Native mapping and naming projects in northern British Columbia and especially northern Quebec. Eades notes that the moral and political aim of his research is to boost “recognition, rights and respect for indigenous goals and aspirations” (22). This aim is expedited brilliantly in the sections of the book that are devoted to Wemindji on the eastern short of James Bay, where the author undertook fieldwork in 2008 and 2010 and immersed himself in various indigenous mapping projects and problems: landscape visualisation projects that seek to strengthen community bonds; the development of GIS and GPS initiatives that aim to preserve and rekindle indigenous relationships to land and oral tradition; and “toponymies” of Native suicide that can be correlated with “the urbanization of indigenous life-worlds… and move away from land-based life” (154).

Maps and Memes traverses issues that reach far beyond Native life in Wemindji and will interest Canadian government policy makers and indigenous community groups much farther afield. However, the book has a decidedly academic tone that will put some readers off. I found the theory dense and overly techy in places, and the analysis somewhat wandering and repetitive in places too. The different parts of the book perhaps do not add up to (or make for) a neat or entirely fluent whole. Even so, Eades’ way of “engaging subjects with their geography” (201) is stimulating throughout, and Maps and Memes is an impressive achievement that will foster debate in a range of contexts and subject areas and furnish practical tools and important questions for future research.


Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place and Identity in Indigenous Communities
Gwilym Lucas Eades
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2015. 264 p. $34.95