Lives Reclaimed Through Maps

Supreme Court ruling in late June is a recent example of a growing divide between the Supreme Court and Congress over federal Indian law. The ruling highlights the relevance of one man’s decades-long cartography effort to document thousands of Native American Tribes.

Elizabeth Bellizzi
11 min readJul 25, 2022
Native American Nations map created by Tribal Nations Maps on display at Casa Blanca Community School in Arizona.

With the diligence of a seasoned collector, Aaron Carapella was always searching. At the library, he scoured books. He hoped to find it at museum gift shops. He combed the shelves and perused the display cases filled with heishi necklaces, kiva step pots, storyteller dolls, and framed sand paintings but came up empty. Despite his age, he knew what he was looking for didn’t exist, which made him mad. “It started out as being a little ticked off as an 8- or 9-year-old that I couldn’t find a good map that was complete.”

By his late teens, he was ready to move from idea to action. He started with a rudimentary material not mentioned in the seminal work of the University of Wisconsin-Madison History of Cartography Project: poster board. He adhered four of them to a wall in his home and sketched North America. He marked the tribes he knew, many of which were never part of any cartographic works. He began with California, where he grew up. Being of Oklahoma Cherokee descent, Carapella knew that many regional Native American tribes, known as Mission Indians, remained federally unrecognized. Although handwritten by a teen map maker, tribes such as the Payomkowishum and Ajachamen finally had a place that noted, “we were here.”

His research took him to the pages of the 1968 book, The Indian Heritage of America, by historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. A map of 150 Tribes in the book was a solid starting point. Carapella’s wall map absorbed Josephy’s findings.

Off and on through college, he kept at it. “After about five or six years of work, I had a lot of knowledge from books, places I traveled, going to museums, historic places, massacre sites,” Carapella said.

Sixteen years after he began sketching Tribal lands, Carapella was ready to make his work official. In 2012, the U.S. Copyright Office approved a broad copyright for his work. He has produced approximately 200 different printed maps of Indigenous Tribes. Carapella estimates that he has sold “a couple hundred thousand” maps to schools, Tribes, museum gift shops, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Indian Health Services and other Tribal agencies under the Interior Department, and the Library of Congress.

Carapella has documented about “4,200 bands, tribes, nations across the Western Hemisphere, and there are always more to find,” he said. His map of the lower 48 contiguous United States documents 1,100 Tribes. Carapella said this map reflects, “for the most part what homelands Tribes claimed right before they were forced to disperse. On the East Coast, we’re probably talking between 1590 and 1600, and in the middle of the plains were talking late 1700s to 1800.” His work is the first to document this volume of Native American history in cartography. It comes with a perspective on the lack of awareness about Native and Indigenous people.

“The main response I get from a non-Native person, or just someone who is not aware of this history is ‘I had no idea there were this many people here and that the land was filled in with all these tribes. I thought there were pockets of areas where no people lived.’ In reality, you could walk from seacoast to seacoast, and you would run into village after village of tribes.” A point echoed by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, “By the time of the European invasions, Indigenous peoples had occupied and shaped every part of the Americas…”

In 2018, the First Nations Development Institute’s Reclaiming Native Truth project released a comprehensive research report. One finding points to the relevance of Carapella’s map effort: “Participants largely believe the Native population is declining. The problem of “invisibility” is a constant theme, and the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies here as participants admitted that Native issues are not something they ever think about.”

The Reclaiming Native Truth report also stated, “Presenting accurate history opens a conversation about current reality.” In that regard, Carapella has the benefit of starting from a foundation of first-hand knowledge. He traveled to “a few hundred” Native communities when he was an activist with national Native organizations. Much of what was told to him was from Tribal elders. “I’ve had to interview one of the last five speakers or last two speakers of a language. I would ask them, ‘What does your Tribal name mean?’”

“There are some cases, too, when I’ve talked to elders, and they say ‘I don’t want my name out there. I’m talking about a sacred name of our people,’ said Carapella. They asked that he use a distinct name that doesn’t have a sacred connotation. “So, I have to be really particular about protecting information that’s put on the maps, especially if elders ask me not to do something. To try and uphold every name on my maps to academic standards is kind of dicey sometimes.”

Aside from direct reporting, Carapella consulted obscure books, Tribal websites, essays, dissertation thesis, and library archives. To document this volume of work, Carapella created a bibliography. His goal, which is an ongoing process, is to have three citations for each Tribe on his maps.

Moving from collected research to map development is not a solitary effort. Carapella works with a fellow Cherokee who is a graphic designer and owns a print shop. Sitting side by side, “We’ll try to centralize that name in approximately the center of their historic territory. And most people understand when they see these maps, wherever the name is, the Tribe lived in every direction from that point,” said Carapella.

Josephy’s research supports Carapella’s design process. His book addresses this lack of geographic concentration in references such as, “The Illinois Hopewellians were more expansionist; they spread their culture, both by migrations and influence, into many Midwestern regions,” and “The Ottawas were noted wanderers who traveled long distances to hunt, trade, and make war.”

Despite his first-person investigation and in-depth research, Carapella’s work has not been immune to critics. Some scholars have attacked him personally, made assumptions, and didn’t understand the intention behind the project. Nevertheless, most academic critiques have been supportive. “As I’ve been vetted, I’ve tried to improve upon the maps,” Carapella said. “I take suggestions and make changes where need be.” Recently, it was legal advice that has prompted Carapella to make a change. In 2020, the Supreme Court McGirt ruling held that the state does not have jurisdiction to prosecute major crimes involving Native Americans in a large portion of eastern Oklahoma. Native legal scholars advised Carapella to reflect this ruling. “I’m going to update my Reservation map. We’re talking about millions of acres that have essentially been legally awarded back to the Tribes.”

After a Tribe has been in one location for hundreds of years, an assumption takes hold. Thus, Carapella’s work has been eye-opening for some Natives Americans. The expectation is to find their Tribe on his maps in the area where they live. He reminds them of the Trail of Tears. “This is the relocation area, where your Tribe is now,” he tells them. The stunned reply, “We’ve been here for 200 years. I didn’t even think to look there.”

In addition to credible historic locations, Carapella’s maps are significant for their orthological value. They reveal the ancestral names to tribes, much of which was told to him by tribal elders. According to Carapella, “About 97 percent of the common names for Tribes were given to them by outsiders.” He notes Tribal names are tied to locations where the name originated. “Part of the reason they did this is because so many Tribes have been moved from their original location. A lot of time, their elders will have to explain: We’re called this in our language, or we use these words to express certain concepts in our language because we used to live 1,500 miles away from here.”

Carapella acknowledges that many Tribes have regional maps of their historical homelands in their language. “Those I would consider much more important than my map,” he said. “Those are documenting regional, local Tribal perspectives of how they view their homeland. My maps are broad.”

Despite his modest assessment, his work has had a significant impact in one setting that often lacks a complete and accurate history of Native people: the classroom.

A 2015 study of presentations of Indigenous peoples in K-12 U.S. history curriculum standards found that they “overwhelmingly present Indigenous Peoples in a pre-1900 context and relegate the importance and presence of Indigenous Peoples to the distant past.” For schools that have incorporated them into their instruction, Carapella’s maps offer a counterbalance.

One such school is the Casa Blanca Community School. It is a Tribal school on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Bapchule, Arizona, about 40 minutes south of Phoenix. It instructs over 300 kindergarten through fifth-grade students and has five different Carapella Tribal maps.

Dr. Raetava Godinez, of Navajo descent, is the Assistant Principal. She speaks in a gentle manner but with a passion for the intersection between education and cultural knowledge. “A lot of the curriculum is geography-based,” said Godinez. “So, when we would talk about different stories, for example, one of them was the American Revolution, we talked about a book that says, “Indian,” and I asked, ‘What should they have said?’ They go up to the map and say, ‘Oh, these were the people who were here at that time.”

Pre-pandemic, Godinez worked with the fourth-grade Casa Blanca students (the school is preparing to move from virtual learning to in-person this fall). The maps were a starting point to more significant discussions about self-identity, community identity, and external identity. Godinez recalled watching the response when students found their Tribe, Akimel O’odham, on the map, “That’s me!” they exclaimed.

That awareness strikes a chord even at this young age. For them, this is not a generic passage in time. “They are learning about themselves, about what their people have gone through and how that trickles down to them,” said Godinez.

Godinez previously worked at a school in Phoenix in which she had non-Indigenous students. She found a way for Carapella’s maps to make an impact on these students as well. “If the student said, ‘My ancestors are Italian, and when they came over, they were here.’ I would tell them your ancestors might have been in contact with these people.” That awareness would make the map personal for her students. “So, everyone can connect to these maps,” she said.

Pulling back from the view of a wide-eyed student to take in the entire graticule, one can understand the power of maps.

“Maps are the epitome of accuracy,” said Dr. Judith Tyner, Professor Emerita of Geography California State University, Long Beach. Tyner coined the term “persuasive cartography” and wrote her dissertation on the concept. She notes that most people do not realize that maps are not neutral.

According to Tyner, “Back in the early days (of the United States), if map makers showed an area as uninhabited — because Native Americans didn’t count — then it was uninhabited. What’s not on the map means it doesn’t exist.” The passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act transformed the work of early 19th century cartographers. For example, a map published in 1816 by John Melish, considered one of the American commercial map trade founders, still showed Cherokee settlements in present-day Georgia. By 1866, they had been moved to Indian Territory and were no longer referenced on the state map.

“This is something I’ve felt strongly about, how maps can and do mislead,” said Tyner. “All maps are in one sense persuasive, in that they say, ‘I’m accurate, I’m true. And his (Carapella) is too. You could say, is he leaving out non-Native American things that should go on? But it sounds like he is doing just what he should be doing (by establishing a bibliography), dotting his “i’s,” and crossing his “t’s”, she said.

Carapella’s work creates a tangible reference of Indigenous land. Other organizations with a similar mission take a different approach.

Native Land Digital (NDL) is an Indigenous-led, Canadian nonprofit organization. It provides an online map of Indigenous regions of the world. NDL’s focus is two-fold. It is a tool for Indigenous people to map their land with the assistance of NLD’s global network of Indigenous cartography experts. It is also an open-source map that the public may use to create an overlay on their own map work.

Another online, global platform map site is LandMark. It is a resource for customarily held land, which is unrecognized and not demarcated or titled. Users can access data such as the amount of carbon stored in a land area or the rate of deforestation. Indigenous groups and local communities may share their data with LandMark to visualize their boundaries on the platform.

Unlike LandMark and NLD, the Indigenous Mapping Workshop (IMW) focuses on teaching. IMW is organized by Indigenous-owned, Canadian-based, The Firelight Group, and its partners. The annual workshop gives people the tools and resources to create their own maps. Aside from the workshop, The Firelight Group, led by Anishinaabe cartographer Steve DeRoy, offers research, policy, mapping, and GIS resources to communities seeking to map Native land.

Interactive features, data analysis, and policy guidance are not part of Carapella’s maps. Yet, they are guided by a singular purpose. “One of the main reasons I created my maps was because everyone wants to be represented. A lot of Native people will contact me and say, ‘I’ve never seen my Tribe on a map. Ever. I always felt that we were left out.’”

It would be a lengthy cartographic journey before Carapella could address that sentiment. It began among the pages of Josephy’s book, where he found a map that propelled him forward. Years later, these two men remain intertwined, yet an unnoticed connection. After decades of advocacy for Native Americans, Josephy became the founding chairman of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) board of directors. In the NMIA Roanoke Museum Store, one of Carapella’s maps has a place among the jewelry, textiles, and other works by Native artisans. Picking up where Josephy’s map left off, Carapella has ensured that future young museum store visitors will find the complete picture of Native Americans’ history.

A 2015 article about Josephy in 1859 Oregon Magazine quoted Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute who is Cayuse and Nez Perce, as saying, “I think Alvin was a humble man…and he cared very deeply about what he was doing.” So, too, is this an apt description of Aaron Carapella.


Tribal Nations Maps:

University of Wisconsin-Madison History of Cartography Project

Alvin M. Josephy book

Reference to copyright of his work:,1&Search%5FArg=Aaron%20Carapella&Search%5FCode=FT%2A&CNT=25&PID=_rCvXgOuuM4Ql6FGIllXpU_PnSqVikIj&SEQ=20210122152942&SID=4

First Nations Development Institute’s Reclaiming Native Truth project report

The U.S. Supreme Court McGirt decision:

A 2015 study of presentations of Indigenous people in K-12 U.S. history curriculum:

Casa Blanca Community School:

Dr. Judith Tyner:

Reference to maps made by John Melish of Georgia:

Native Land Digital:


Indigenous Mapping Workshop:

Alvin M. Josephy, former Smithsonian founding chairman of the board of directors:

1859 Oregon Magazine article about Josephy w Bobbie Conner’s quote: