I’ve always loved the maps in the front matter of fantasy novels. They are stylized, filled with evocative names that ask you to imagine the stories taking place within them. In a way though, all maps are fantasy. They all tell a story about the world, burying some truths and elevating others. In the case of United States and its territories, maps and the borders they display are political and colonial, as much agents of history as accidents of it. Rivers, townships, mountains, and cities all bear the names of the indigenous peoples who once filled the continent. More than half of the fifty states trace their names to tribal nations or languages. Yet the history and continuing existence of these peoples are buried, erased by the confident lines of our maps. This erasure is not accidental, just as maps colonial powers created to lay claim to “virgin lands” never reflected neutral and objective truth.
Examining the historical narratives we are taught is important because it isn’t just about the past. Narratives that restrict critical thinking about the past affect how we see the present and the future. Limiting our historical imagination of the United States to the post-colonial period supports a world view that limits possibilities, constructs a reality in which there is only one way to do things, in which ‘progress’ inevitably has human costs, and in the process, excuses oppressive policies, past and present.
I draw the states and territories as fantasy maps so that imagining alternate realities can be a catalyst for thinking about the ways in which histories in the real world can sometimes be fantastical. In the process, I hope we are able to imagine a world which better honors those who have come before us and better respects those who will live past us.
To aid in this, I accompany each of the maps with a brief history. The histories are brief by design, written to be bite-sized and to give you enough information to do research on your own. For the most part, I stuck to pre-colonial history because while whole books can and have been written about the violence of the colonial period, I wanted to reinforce that indigenous peoples are more than victims of imperialism. Their story is ongoing, is wider and deeper than contact with colonists and the events of the last half millennium form but a fraction of thousands of years of history.
Because of the length of this history and the conscious efforts to suppress it, I have probably made many mistakes. For transparency, my process was as follows: I used old maps and Wikipedia to identify tribal nations whose ancestral lands overlapped with each territory and then tried to rely upon the official histories on tribal websites. On each state page, I offer links to those websites.
Native Land Map – this website shows the territories of tribal nations and peoples throughout the world. Very useful for land acknowledgements.
Native Languages – One of the more comprehensive sites detailing native languages and history throughout the Americas
I live in what is now Arlington, VA, on land that is home to the Piscataway people.