M is for Maps

CaseyPenk, Vardion: 180 degree rotated map of the world

I posted a South-Up map of the world in my classroom last year. On this map, South America and Africa are on top, and Europe and North America are on the bottom. It is disorienting to look at this projection of Earth, accustomed as we are to the other. But it is not just the shapes in different places that is unsettling, it is the rearrangements of our metaphors. For North and South are not just geographical locators, they are moral locators as well.

Looking at the standard Mercator projection for centuries, we have come to associate North with “up” and South with “down” (Nelson & Simmons, 2009). We go “up North” or “down South” even though there is no up or down in space.

Cardinal directions do not correspond to verticality.

But we also connect these directions to value judgments: “up” is good and “down” is bad (Meier & Robinson, 2004). In the Bible, the Lord took Elijah “up” to heaven (2 Kings 2:1, King James Bible) while the sinners are cast “down” to hell (2 Peter 2:4). Good movies get a thumbs “up” and bad movies a thumbs “down”.

Our songs reinforce this narrative with “Uptown” meaning high class, as in Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”. “I’m gonna try for an uptown girl, She’s been living in her white bread world…” (Joel, 1983). Meanwhile songs cast “Downtown” as poor and degenerate like in “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce. “Well the South side of Chicago, Is the baddest part of town, And if you go down there, You better just beware” (Croce, 1973). Geography has become entwined with morality. Up is good. Up is North. Up is the rightful place of Europe and North America.

Posting a South-Up map calls all of this into question.

Land Area: Peters vs Mercator

As teachers, when we post only Mercator-style projection maps with North America on top, we contribute to this mythology of European and North American superiority. Besides the up and down, the land masses on the Mercator projection are distorted with regions in the Southern hemisphere appearing much smaller than those in the North. In fact, the entire Northern Hemisphere takes up more than half of the map, with the equator sitting significantly below the midway point (as the map is typically cropped to reduce Antarctica). By posting only this type of map, we normalize a singular, colonial worldview. We emphasize the importance of European and North American nations at the expense of our Southern counterparts.

By only posting this type of map we construe map-making as uncontested, objective and scientifically accurate. But the truth is that there is no objectively “accurate” map, there is no one way to precisely represent Earth, a sphere, on a flat paper without distortion. Maps are as “subjective as any other artistic endeavour” (De Armendi, 2009, p.5). The question thus becomes: which artistic distortion represents the world we want?

In my classroom, I have also posted a large map of Saskatchewan. For a year it stayed unadorned and unquestioned on my wall, until I began to see this too as problematic. The difficulty with maps, all maps, is that they typically only tell one side of the story; they represent only one moment in time from only one viewpoint. The usual map of Saskatchewan is an open rectangular space dotted with English place names and railroad tracks. However, Saskatchewan is much more than this. Saskatchewan is covered by six treaties: Treaty Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10. These treaty areas were not included on my map, and neither were the original Indigenous names for places. The depth and complexity of this province is noticeably absent. Instead, my map tells a simplistic story of pioneer discovery without any significant Indigenous presence.

These types of maps contribute to what Calderón (2006) has called a “flattened epistemology”, a way of knowing and understanding the world that is one-dimensional. This “flattened epistemology” promotes “routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and understanding things that preclude critical engagement with oppressive practices” (Calderon, p. 79). Mercator projections and standard political maps of Canada perpetuate colonial mindsets by flattening our understanding of place to a simple dot in an otherwise empty space. The complexity of multiple understandings of land as well as competing histories of the land are absent. Furthermore, maps affirm positions of power and hierarchical relationships. Who and what gets to be on a map and where they are put, tells us who and what are important. By disregarding Indigenous presence and by distorting the size and thereby the importance of Europe, common maps reinforce colonial frameworks in our classrooms.

This erasure of Indigenous peoples from maps began with Columbus. The Doctrine of Discovery that was issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, classified any lands not inhabited by Christians as empty, terra nullius, and therefore available for discovery and claim. Since then, the empty-land narrative has continued to be supported through maps. These tales of empty land are the origin stories we tell our children. Once upon a time your ancestors came from Europe. They came with nothing. They built this nation with their bare hands…

On my bedroom floor, I have spread out the map of this story. It is made of pastel coloured blocks and straight lines, orderly and neat. In each box there is a name. Parallel and perpendicular creases plot out the methodical clearing of Saskatchewan, in this case the rural municipality of my great grandparents’ farm near Tisdale, Saskatchewan. I’m looking at these township and range road lines and trying to make sense of my own family history.

Who’s land was this that my ancestors’ names are written down upon? Who lived there when it was spruce bluffs, wild berries and elk? Before it was all cleared away for wheat and barley?

There is no Indigenous presence on this map, nothing to provide me with any counter-narrative to the story of a peaceable settling in an empty land. There is nothing to point me in the direction of deeper historical truths.

And then suddenly I found another map, hidden deep within a community logbook of the town. It is a hand drawn diagram with 48 square sections, just like the rural municipality map. Except this one also has meandering, hand-drawn lines. There is the Crooked River and the Hell Roarin’ Creek. There are early roads, a church, a sawmill and… a long winding trail. The legend tells me this is the “Indian or often called The Pas Trail” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1984, p.18). It connected the Pas region with the Battlefords. This logbook also tells me of Indian gravesites and arrowheads, of “Indian tents” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1984, p.393) that would appear near long patches of wild strawberries and saskatoons in the Spring, and then disappear again in the Fall.

So it wasn’t empty land after all. Someone was using it. My ancestors did not start with nothing. They started with land… someone else’s land.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) calls for Canada to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius” (Call to Action #45i, p.5). Heeding this Call begins with the origin stories that we tell our children, and ourselves. Once upon a time our ancestors came from Europe. They were given free land. This was the land of the Cree, the Anishinaabe, the Lakota, the Dakota and the Nakota peoples…

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius also begins in the classroom, with a Sharpie marker. We need to correct our maps by adding treaty areas and Indigenous place names. We need to add in the winding Indigenous trails and the traditional trap lines.

And that world map? Why not try it South up?


Calderón, D. (2006). One-Dimensionality and Whiteness. Policy Futures in Education. 4(1), 73-82.

Croce, J. (1973). Bad, Bad Leroy Brown [Recorded by J. Croce. Artist]. On Life and Times [Vinyl]. New York, NY: ABC.

De Armendi, N. (2009). The Map as Political Agent: Destabilising the North-South Model and Redefining Identity in Twentieth-Century Latin American Art. St. Andrew’s Journal of Art History and Museum Studies13, pp.5-17. Retrieved from: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/media/school-of-art-history/pdfs/journalofahandms/mapaspoliticalagent.pdf

Joel, B. (1983). Uptown Girl [Recorded by B. Joel. Artist]. On An Innocent Man [Vinyl]. New York, NY: Columbia.

Meier, B. P., & Robinson, M. D. (2004). Why the Sunny Side Is Up: Associations Between Affect and Vertical Position. American Psychological Society. 15(4), pp.243-247.

Nelson, L. D., & Simmons, J. P. (2009). On Southbound Ease and Northbound Fees: Literal Consequences of the Metaphoric Link between Vertical Position and Cardinal Direction. Journal of Marketing Research. 46(6), pp.715-724.

New Osgoode Restoration Club. (1984). Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. (2015). Calls to Action. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

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