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Where Am I?

Ben Johnson and wife Amanda Gardener
Ben Johnson and wife Amanda Gardener

A recent episode of Underground History (a regular segment of The Jefferson Exchange on JPR’s News & Information Service) featured a conversation about decolonizing Oregon maps with David Harrelson and Natchee Barnd. Harrelson heads the Cultural Resources Department at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde while Barnd is with the Ethnic Studies department at Oregon State University. Their work reimagining maps is creating important new cartographic documents that expand our understanding of the history of Oregon.

Maps are powerful tools that humans use to frame the world around them. Many folks using maps today might assume these are neutral documents, helpful in getting us from point A to point B. But all maps have an agenda and are biased in what they depict and omit. These choices can be aesthetic, made to streamline data, or based on the desire to present information in a deliberately cultivated way. Political boundaries placed on landscapes can present physical spaces in ways that people, places, and even ideas, are erased.

Most are not inherently nefarious, but by and large, the Western cartographic legacy is built on colonial foundations that can continue to marginalize people and places.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have used anti-colonial mapping techniques to correct mistakes or misrepresentations on existing maps. This award-winning work can be seen in their mapping of tribal treaty areas in Western Oregon. The tribe is also using decolonial methods that can express relationships to space and place in ways outside of Western mapping practices. These Indigenized maps can take many forms and convey important and sophisticated geographical information.

Toponyms, or place names, can also provide important clues to the history of places. In my work, I have often scoured old maps looking for references such as “China Gulch” or “Kanaka Flat” in order to identify locations where minority populations were working or living. Indigenous place names can also provide information about resources and geographic features. These days the Oregon Geographic Names Board is tasked with naming or reconsidering existing place names. There are also ongoing efforts to address racist and offensive names on public lands that might alienate those who would otherwise use them. Recently, a local Applegate landmark was renamed Ben Johnson Mountain. The mountain has long been associated with the African American blacksmith that lived there in the 19th century, and its moniker is now updated to reflect his full name. This is an important step to ensure that African American Heritage is visible in southwestern Oregon and that Mr. Johnson’s local legacy is presented with respect and can be shared with modern residents.

As we move around in the place we now call Oregon, take a moment to think about the ways in which we define the space around us. Recent memes on social media “map” new COVID-era commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen, all of us have access to sophisticated geospatial technology on our phones and computers, and zoom meetings have redefined many barriers of place and time. While maps and mapping can provide new and creative opportunities to frame and understand the world surrounding us—as well as our place in it—it is important to remember that these documents all have biases and agendas built in. Most are not inherently nefarious, but by and large, the Western cartographic legacy is built on colonial foundations that can continue to marginalize people and places. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to view the place you are in through an Indigenized or decolonial map, you should certainly take it.

Chelsea Rose is the director of the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and host of the Underground History podcast, which airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR's News & Information service and can be found on all major podcast platforms.