Mapping for Communities: First Nations, GIS and the Big Picture

Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre, Duncan, BC
November 20-21st, 2003

Challenges and Issues from Breakout Sessions (Day 1) and Discussions (Day 2)

Authors: Craig Candler (Ph.D. candidate, UBC), Carolyn Whittaker (M.Sc., Ecotrust Canada), and Rachel Olson (M.Res., Aboriginal Mapping Network)


One of the key goals of the 2003 AMN conference has been to gain a sense of the current and most pressing issues faced by AMN members. In doing this, the AMN hopes to better focus its efforts towards the needs of the Aboriginal mapping community today and in the future. The following lists came out of breakout sessions held at the end of the first day of the conference. They briefly (and often cryptically) summarize comments made by conference participants regarding the biggest issues and challenges that they face as Aboriginal mappers, or that they see in the future of Aboriginal mapping.

We have chosen to publish these lists of comments because they provide an excellent overview of current issues in the aboriginal mapping community. We hope that this overview will be useful in at least three ways:

  • as an introduction to the challenges involved in the world of aboriginal mapping for other communities and individuals who are not currently involved in it;
  • as a document that lets other aboriginal mappers know they are not facing their problems alone, but as part of a larger community of mappers that also recognizes and faces common challenges;
  • as a stepping-off point for future discussions and research within the always growing and dynamic field of aboriginal mapping, or aboriginal geo-spatial wisdom, as one of our conference speakers might have put it.

The comments are not direct quotations. We have organized them into themes in hopes of making the lists more clear and useable to readers. The original spoken comments have been interpreted, written, summarized, shuffled and re-grouped by both the note-takers and the authors. As such they reflect the words of the original speakers, and also the understandings and interpretations of those of us who wrote down and organized them. We have done our best to properly understand and represent the words of the conference participants and we accept all responsibility for any errors or omissions. We encourage all of those present at the conference to contact the AMN to clarify, comment on, or add to the existing lists wherever they see room for improvement. We recognize and thank all of our fellow mappers who offered their stories and understandings in the making of these lists.


Approximately one hundred participants from across BC, Canada, the US, and internationally, were randomly divided into four groups of approximately twenty-five people each at the end of the first day of the conference. One facilitator and one note-taker were assigned to each group. The groups sat in four large circles that met for approximately one hour. Each participant was invited to very briefly introduce themselves, their current work, and to name the biggest issues or challenges that they currently face, or that they see in the future of Aboriginal mapping. Comments were written down on flip charts and notes during the sessions and corrections to the flip charts were invited afterwards. That evening, after a wonderful salmon feast provided by the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre, the authors transcribed the comments from the flip charts and grouped them into four general themes that seemed to arise from the comments themselves. These themes provided some constructive focus for breakout discussions on the second day.

At the end of the second day of the conference, participants chose one of the four breakout groups to take part in. Each of the groups took one of the preliminary themes to discuss. The comments from the previous day, grouped according to theme, were made available to all of the breakout participants. On this second day, the four groups ranged in size from approximately fifteen to thirty people. Each group was asked to discuss the themes and suggest constructive strategies for addressing the issues contained. Due to time constraints, these breakout discussions lasted only a little more than half an hour. Notes were again taken using flip charts and each group chose one of its members to briefly report back to the entire conference. Notes from these four brief reports are provided after each of their respective lists.

Following the conference, and because of comments from several of the participants, the four initial themes were further divided into sub-themes in order to enhance the clarity and readability of the lists. The four initial themes are in bold and the sub-themes are in italics. Some of the comments are followed by a number in brackets (#). This indicates the number of people that made essentially the same comment within the same group.

1. How to get data into use in the community:

Mapping for Communities (GIS with strong roots)

  • What forces are actually driving traditional land use studies? Are they really community based or driven?
  • Does GIS investment improve decision making? Where will it have the most influence? Inside or outside the community?
  • How do we move towards thorough, pro-active land use planning rather than feeding into government initiatives
  • How to disseminate data and encourage/improve the use of it
  • What are the different uses of GIS? How do we encourage other parts of the community to put GIS and data to use
  • How can GIS address long term strategic objectives
  • How to incorporate TUS into broader processes
  • How do you do a GIS needs assessment
  • How do you do a Land Use Plan

Mapping for Conservation and Land Protection

  • Combining traditional and scientific knowledge (validating each other)
  • Pro-active mapping ahead of potential and foreseen conflicts
  • Streamline TUS to be as fast as possible ahead of environmental impacts and logging
  • Using GIS as a tool to connect the community to the land base
  • Identifying/defending against invasive plant species, loss of trad. Medicines. (2)
  • Monitoring changes to our environment
  • Environmental protection
  • How to use information to negotiate protected areas and land management
  • How are different conservation techniques being implemented
  • How do we link resource info into sustainable land use?

Mapping for Economic Development

  • We need to share knowledge of how to get into the business side of GIS and make it work
  • How to implement economic development using TUS and GIS
  • Forestry development
  • Including aboriginal values in forest management (2)
  • Developing a service area, how to go about it?
  • Possibility of proprietary GIS datasets as a revenue generating resource

Mapping for Treaties and for working with other First Nations and governments

  • Communicating through mapping to policy makers
  • GIS and capacity building within new (modern day) treaties
  • How do we use GIS as a stepping stone to localize our resource base (or secure it)
  • Dealing with overlap issues
  • The issue of mapping for Treaty versus land use plans
  • Integrating heritage information for Treaty issues

Using Data vs. Protecting Knowledge

  • Recognizing the difference between sacred and secret
  • How do we protect sacred knowledge?
  • How do we regulate the dissemination of this information?

2. Technical issues of GIS and Mapping:

Data quality, accessibility and cost

  • Translation of historical data to current spatial standards (4)
  • How to meet the challenge of shifting between base maps with different scales and maintaining accuracy
  • Challenge of moving from paper to digital formats
  • Identifying needs and gaps in information
  • Challenges of building databases
  • More effective ways of sharing knowledge through the Aboriginal Mapping Network, maybe a listserve that is posted to the web.
  • We need a centralized database so that everyone knows what maps are available and so we don't duplicate efforts.
  • Data sharing issues and problems (2)
  • Getting data/capacity through partnerships with universities

Weighing the benefits/limitations of GIS and other mapping systems within communities

  • Evaluating the strengths and limitations of GIS
  • Making maps/resources that are relevant to different age groups
  • How to integrate the needs of different interest groups
  • Role of technology in redefining and reviving culture for the youth
  • Challenges of small communities (with limited capacity) in dealing with a very large territory
  • GIS needs to be democratized and demystified in the communities
  • Is it better to use base maps or start from community drawn maps?

3. Education and Capacity Building

Finding funds for building and maintaining capacity

  • Funding
  • How to find long-term core funding for a lands office/program
  • How do we find funds for an extensive land use plan (4)
  • Funding and training
  • How to maintain GIS through shifts in funding priority

Building basic capacity

  • What are the best and most cost effective tools and software for setting up an office
  • Building GIS capacity
  • How to set up digitizing/GIS office (software, staffing, funding, etc)
  • Survey of what works incl. software options and how to set up a GIS office

Building and maintaining human capacity

  • Hard to find local people to train and maintain capacity
  • Finding the 'right' people to go into the field and providing appropriate training to them
  • How to handle an overwhelming amount of work (2)
  • Isolation of GIS people from the mapping community and their own community
  • How do you ensure process and capacity is sustainable
  • How to stay on track with leadership and resources when staff changes over time
  • How to sustain a GIS office through political and economic change? (3)
  • How can First Nations become innovators in GIS

Education and International Exchange

  • Making the maps and technology relevant through education (2)
  • Educate youth re. history
  • Ensuring the community receives and recognizes the benefits of research
  • Education and broad-based mapping curriculum development
  • International exchange
  • How do we support links and solidarity between First Nations and with others internationally?

4. Making mapping belong to the community, putting a human face on data:

Community participation, ownership, trust, and connection

  • How do we encourage a feeling of community 'ownership' over projects?
  • How to gain the trust and confidence of elders so that they feel comfortable talking, that their knowledge will be valued
  • Gaining the trust of elders
  • How to implement a truly community based strategy
  • Participation is the most important thing
  • The more high tech you go, the more you distance yourself from the community
  • Making projects more meaningful to communities
  • Involving community in methodology development
  • Challenges of working with elders, challenge of not losing their stories in the database
  • How do we make the process inclusive so it is community based, community owned
  • Keeping technology and social processes connected and balanced

Supporting (and sometimes threatening) traditional cultures, knowledge, and wisdom through maps and mapping

  • Mapping to bring back culture
  • Need to use more place names
  • Maintaining cultural values within spatial information
  • GIS as a new way to deal with aboriginal traditional knowledge
  • Implications of GIS in changing knowledge and how we relate to the land (2)
  • How do we add social/cultural info to land mapping processes
  • Making maps that truly reflect cultural knowledge (2)
  • How can GIS change the way people view land and culture?
  • Language preservation through mapping (place names, etc.)
  • Retaining cultural traditions
  • Cultural traditions are being lost (2)