Resistance Mapping

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Critical GIS Workshop at McGill University held in concert with NACIS on October 13, 2017. I will likely try to publish it in modified form, but didn’t want to hold off giving it a little exposure in the mean time or in case it never gets into print. I would appreciate any constructive feedback via the comments section. -C

Since the early 1990s, critical GIS has engaged with efforts to support oppressed and Indigenous communities through map-based empowerment—what Denis Wood (2003: 7) might call “offer[ing] professional assistance, on bended knee if necessary, to all the people trying to ameliorate their situation by mapping it.” This combined ethic and process has gone by many names indicating variants on the general theme: participatory mapping (Chambers, 2006; Corbett, 2009), public participation GIS (Elwood, 2002; Sieber, 2006), critical cartography (Crampton, 2010), feminist GIS (Elwood, 2002; Seiber, 2006), Indigenous mapping (Poole, 1995; Chapin, Lamb, and Threlkeld, 2005), and counter-mapping (Peluso, 1995). While all of these variants stimulate productive relationships between researchers and underserved communities, there seems to be a growing need for a new, more confrontational version of critical GIS praxis.

There has been a recent upsurge in place-based Indigenous resistance movements in the U.S. and Canada, exemplified by the Idle No More movement and more recent water protector struggles against oil pipelines, such as Dakota Access last year. These efforts contain a cry for radically-minded GIS practitioners and cartographers to assist. I suggest that resistance mapping can offer a more useful framework for such praxis than other existing terms. The concept of resistance mapping builds on ethical principles established to ensure productive cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners, while challenging extractive capitalist and police state power structures more directly than other critical GIS practices.

Let’s briefly travel back to this time last year, to the water protector camps near Standing Rock, North Dakota. The Dakota Access Oil Pipeline was planned to carry 470,000 barrels per day of fracked crude oil from the Bakken fields of western North Dakota to southern Illinois. Its route passed within ½-mile (0.8 km) of the Standing Rock Reservation and within ten miles of the Tribe’s water intake pipes (USACE, 2016). Having exhausted the state and Federal environmental review process with inadequate tribal consultation, Standing Rock tribal members decided to engage in direct actions challenging the pipeline (Meyer, 2016). Their resistance took the form of both legal protest and prayer, and direct actions deemed illegal by the state, such as blockades and lockdowns to construction equipment (Carlin, 2016) They were met with private security attack dogs, the intentional bulldozing of sacred archaeological sites, and massive police state repression with footage reminiscent of the civil rights-era Deep South.

By August, the water protectors’ struggle had become an international cause célèbre, with thousands of people from around the world—mostly Indigenous, some non-Indigenous—descending on the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps to assist. But despite the international outpouring of attention and news headlines, initially there were few publicly available maps to locate the site of the struggle, much less the pipeline route or the locations of critical events (Sack, 2016).

In response to this absence, I created a map entitled “The Black Snake in Sioux Country,” which located the site of the protest camps and the pipeline route. It also showed an alternative route initially proposed by Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline company, but rejected by regulators for reasons that included protection of the Bismarck-Mandan water supply (USACE, 2016). The map included a red outline over the area where the pipeline company had skipped its construction forward 20 miles in order to bulldoze archaeological sites. And it depicted both the border of the Standing Rock Reservation and historic Sioux territory under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie through which the pipeline passed, something I only learned of when I spoke with Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff at Standing Rock.

After I published my map on my blog and social media, thanks to a bit of good timing, it quickly went viral. Many people who commented on the blog post interpreted the visual contrast between the rejected route and the chosen route as evidence of environmental racism in regulatory decision-making. Others reacted strongly to the inclusion of the 1851 Sioux territory, of which legal U.S. ownership remains contested by many Sioux people (Ostler and Estes, 2017). Clearly, maps have power; resistance maps have the power to alter public perceptions in support of Indigenous-led environmental and treaty rights struggles. Resistance maps aim to tell the story of such struggles from an alternative point of view not beholden to dominant capital or state interests.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to call this form of critical cartography Indigenous mapping. Although I traveled to Standing Rock, stayed at Oceti Sakowin camp, participated in a protest march, and met productively with Tribal staff, I was only present in the area for four days, much of which I spent holed up in the casino keeping up with my teaching load online. The entire process was far too rapid and discounted to stand as a model of Indigenous cartographic participation. The final map was heavily influenced by what I learned at Standing Rock, but was ultimately my creation and distributed widely under a Creative Commons license to the public, rather than the tribe or a representative group maintaining ownership over it. Nor can I accurately call this counter-mapping, as it was not led by the Indigenous frontline community, nor a direct attempt to reclaim resources or sovereignty (Peluso, 1995). This map, and others made in direct response to resource colonialism and/or structural violence, are acts of resistance against capitalist and state forces that threaten the lives and livelihoods of frontline communities.

Of course, it is still vital to first understand the needs and wishes of frontline communities regarding their struggles’ spatial representation. Mapping in the heat of a tense and quickly evolving situation like Standing Rock does not excuse the need for free, prior, and informed consent. Quite the contrary. Free, prior, and informed consent in resistance mapping requires the cartographer to dialogue directly with authorized representatives of the communities leading the struggle, and to respect their authority over what should and should not be mapped (Corbett, 2009). Special care must be taken to avoid exposing sensitive local knowledge. Standing Rock provides an unfortunate example of what’s at stake here, as an archaeological survey map that the Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Office provided to the court at the judge’s request was used by Energy Transfer Partners to locate where to preemptively bulldoze before a stop work injunction could be issued.

Tense situations like the Standing Rock struggle demand all due haste in getting a map out there, but remote sensing and remote communication cannot be ethically used as shortcuts to producing a resistance map. Face-to-face conversation is vital for trust-building, and rural areas such as most Indian reservations often have poor phone and internet reliability. Both Indigenous culture and the struggles themselves are typically centered in place, so ‘getting the lay of the land’ in person is important to accurately represent locations, events, and the viewpoints surrounding them. For a cartographer, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a direct confrontation with the police state poses a danger of overlooking the personal, the community, and the grounded; but these elements in fact are vital components that lend strength to any resistance struggle, and they must be reflected in the final map.

Gift giving is also an historic and culturally recognized practice that demonstrates a desire to satisfy the needs of others (Kuokkanen, 2006). A recognition of gift culture, without stereotyping or trivializing it, goes a long way toward making friends and building trust, especially when the gifts you give are useful to the struggle you’re trying to support. In my case, these gifts included a donation of time and expertise on an easy GIS project that the Standing Rock THPO staff simply needed someone to sit down and do. I also gave the Tribal staff large mosaics of USGS topo maps covering the vicinity that I had printed back at the lab in advance. In turn, THPO staff were willing to share some GIS data and spend some time cluing me in on important spatial components of the struggle, such as the 1851 and 1868 treaty territories. Critically, we discussed and came to agreement on would and would not be represented on the map. These interactions took less than a day, but proved vital to the efficacy of the final product. Back at home, I ran a rough draft of the map by THPO staff over email, and got the OK from them before posting it publicly.

A final component of resistance mapping that shouldn’t be overlooked is how the final product is distributed. As critical cartographers, it’s nice to spend time debating how computers and the internet are changing map use and our perception of the planet, and whether they can adequately represent traditional Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies. But one key fact is that the internet and social media provide a huge amount of power to amplify one’s visual message, if you have the technical knowledge and bandwidth to exploit them. After returning from Standing Rock, my goal was to get my map out there to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Blog and social media platforms were key to this. But while you can post anything you want on a WordPress blog, getting people to actually read it is a matter of paying attention to some established best practices. These include adding SEO metadata, Tweeting and posting it to Facebook several times, and coordinating your release with widely publicized events to boost your signal.

In my case, I had the good fortune of being almost done with my Black Snake map when the largest online protest in history broke. On October 31, 2016, a million people “checked in” at Standing Rock on Facebook, after a rumor was put out that local law enforcement were using Facebook’s location-based services to track who was at the water protector camps. (As an aside, this was a fascinating moment for geographers, and I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen any papers published about it yet). Now, you don’t have to know much about social media algorithms to know that when you post something on Facebook, it tells Facebook’s algorithm that you’re interested in that thing, and Facebook thus shows you more things like the thing you posted. So this check-in phenomenon was a precious moment when the AI-driven virtual gaze of a million Facebook users was affixed to DAPL. I was able to rush my map to completion and post it a day later. The magic sauce worked; my blog post got picked up right away by The Huffington Post, a source widely read by the quasi-Left whose profit model operates less like a traditional newsmedia outlet and more like a megaphone for unpaid content producers. So, in my case, a mix of a hot topic, good timing, and a cursory understanding of how to milk the online medium synthesized into a viral resistance map.

To sum up, there is nothing new about critical GIS praxis aimed at empowering underserved and Indigenous communities. However, the set of procedures I’ve described here is significantly unlike most Indigenous mapping or counter-mapping processes. It characterizes an expedited approach that can be used in response to fast-moving, Indigenous-led resistance struggles. Such struggles are growing increasingly common and increasingly confrontational across North America, particularly around new petroleum infrastructure designed to serve climate-threatening tar sands and fracking operations. The Dakota Access struggle was ultimately lost due to winter weather and the change of Federal administration—sometimes the side with the best maps doesn’t win, but it never hurts to try. But the DAPL fight has spurred on many other Indigenous-led struggles against other pipeline projects in at least a dozen states and multiple Canadian provinces (Water Is Life Movement, 2017). Resistance mapping can give a powerful boost to Indigenous-led struggles through linking critical GIS scholar-practitioners to frontline communities who would benefit from telling their story with a map.


Carlin, Charles. 2016. “The Ethics of Ceremony at Standing Rock. Edge Effects (blog). October 6. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Chambers, Robert. 2006. “Participatory Mapping and Geographic Information Systems: Whose Map? Who Is Empowered and Who Disempowered? Who Gains and Who Loses?” Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 25(2): 1-11.

Chapin, Mac, Zachary Lamb, and Bill Threlkeld. 2005. “Mapping Indigenous Lands.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 619-638.

Corbett, Jon. 2009. Good practices in participatory mapping: A review prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Crampton, Jeremy. 2010. Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Elwood, Sarah A. 2002. “GIS use in community planning: a multidimensional analysis of empowerment.” Environment and Planning A 34: 905-922.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2006. “The Logic of the Gift: Reclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Philosophies.” Botz-Bornstein (ed.). Re-Ethnicizing the Mind? Cultural Revival in Contemporary Thought. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi. 251-271.

Meyer, Robinson. 2016. “The Legal Case for Blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline.” The Atlantic. September 9. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Ostler, Jeffrey and Nick Estes. 2017. “‘The Supreme Law of the Land’: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Indian Country Today. January 16. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Peluso, Nancy Lee. 1995. “Whose woods are these? Counter-mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia.” Antipode 27(4): 383-406.

Poole, Peter. 1995. Indigenous peoples, mapping, and biodiversity conservation: An analysis of current activities and opportunities for applying geomatics technologies. Landover, MD: Biodiversity Support Program.

Sack, Carl. 2016. “A #NoDAPL Map.” Northlandia (blog). November 1. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Sieber, Renee. 2006. “Public Participation Geographic Information Systems: A Literature Review and Framework.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96(3): 491-507.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Omaha District (USACE). 2016. Environmental Assessment: Dakota Access Pipeline Project Crossings of Flowage Easements and Federal Lands. Omaha, NE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Omaha District. July. Online:

Water Is Life Movement. 2017. “Meet the Camps.” Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Wood, Denis. 2003. “Cartography is Dead (Thank God!).” Cartographic Perspectives 45: 4-7.


Mapping the Enbridge Midwest Octopus

If I had all the time in the world, I would turn the very basic Google My Map above into something a little more complete and polished. But sometimes quick solutions are better than nothing when the need arises. In this case, the data needed to be out there for water protectors and others to see the tar sands Ground Zero in our backyard. Now more than ever, we need to be mapping climate-changing infrastructure and sites of resistance. If you know of anything that you think should be added to the map above, please get in touch by posting a comment on this entry.

Things are heating up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Enbridge Energy is the biggest transporter of tar sands oil in the country. At a combined capacity of nearly 2.7 million barrels per day, its pipelines from northern Alberta to the Midwest, eastern Canada, and the Gulf Coast dwarf the other two tar sands pipelines, Kinder Morgan Transmountain (300,000 bpd) and TransCanada Keystone (590,000; 1.3 million if XL is built). Almost all of the crude and dilbit Enbridge transports gets routed through its main terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Here’s what Enbridge says about the termial (from the pipelines map linked above):

“With 45 storage tanks, and a shell capacity of 13 million barrels, Enbridge’s Superior Terminal, in Superior, WI, is a vital hub for safe, reliable crude oil transportation across the United States. About 20 percent of all daily U.S. crude imports pass through Superior Terminal.”

This makes the little-known Superior Terminal ground zero for climate change in North America. But groups in the Midwest are taking notice. In Wisconsin, a coalition of environmentalists, climate change activists, and landowners took on a recent tripling of capacity in Line 61, and are now fighting a possible “twin” pipeline, Line 66, along the same corridor across the state. In Michigan and northern Wisconsin, activists are standing up against the 64-year-old Line 5, which threatens the Straits of Mackinac and has been operating with expired permits in the Chequamegon National Forest and Bad River Indian Reservation. It just came out that Enbridge lied to Michigan state officials about the amount of damage to its pipelines under the Straits, and the state is now trying to mollify the increasingly noisy resistance by conducting a “risk assessment” of the line—led by a former Enbridge employee.

And in Minnesota, several water protectors have been arrested in blockade actions against Enbridge’s construction of a new Line 3 “replacement” pipeline. Enbridge wants to abandon its current pipeline in place and built a new route that threatens even more wild rice lakes and Treaty-protected lands than the old one. Two water protector camps—Camp Makwa, the frontline resistance camp, and the Ma’iingan Prayer and Culture Camp—have been set up in rural northeast Minnesota near the current pipeline. The Indigenous-led nonprofit Honor the Earth, Minnesota 350, and independent water protectors have been organizing direct actions, marches, and turnout at public hearings around the pipeline.

I will do what I can to keep putting all of this on the map.

The pipeline route data above comes from as follows: Line 61: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration via 350 Madison (downloaded before access to data was severely restricted by the Trump Administration); Line 5: OpenStreetMap, verified by cross-checking with satellite imagery and some ground truthing on the Bayfield Peninsula (for some reason this is much more accurate data than I could find from the one other available web source, linked to the National Wildlife Federation); Line 3: provided by Honor the Earth.