Speak of maps, and most people think of lines drawn on paper. But American Indians have navigated the land for thousands of years using mental maps created from generations of stories and oral history. For them, the landscape is a fusion of familiar landmarks and mythical or real events that happened there.

Since 1999, the Indigenous Communities Mapping Initiative has been combining indigenous and Western methods of mapping. Jim Enote, associate director of the initiative, says the community-led mapping projects help tribes retrace their ancestors’ footsteps and then match those journeys with paper maps. Eventually, he hopes these maps will help tribes win back some ancestral lands. “Maps are very powerful,” he says, “they can be used for you, and they can be used against you.”

The mapping initiative is currently working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana and the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, among others. Enote says the maps have already helped win federal protection for areas of cultural significance.

For more information, contact Curtis Berkey, director of the initiative, at 510-548-7070 or Jim Enote at 505-782-5681, P.O. Box 1068, Zuni, NM 87327.