After All, The Border Is Artificially Imposed
Networking the Aboriginal Mapping Community in British Columbia

By Roman Frank and David Carruthers
Aboriginal Mapping Network

(Photo: AMN Staffer Mike George demonstrates the new website.)

"Great site you've got set up! Feel free to e-mail information that might pertain to tribal GIS down here-after all, the Canada/U.S. boundary is artificially imposed. I'll let our members know of your website so they can bookmark it." This excerpt from an e-mail from Tom Curley, the GIS program manager for the Suquamish Tribe, is one of many feedback messages received during the past two years on the Aboriginal Mapping Network (AMN). In a way, this simple e-mail message goes right to the heart of what the network is all about: breaking down artificial barriers and sharing experiences with others throughout the aboriginal mapping community.

Two years ago, at a roundtable discussion after a GIS conference in Vancouver, several aboriginal mapping leaders stood up and voiced their concern that First Nations in British Columbia are all investing in GIS technologies in isolation-cut off from each other and unable to learn from each other. A formalized network was needed, and it was needed right away.

A small group of people got together to make it happen. Russell Collier of the Gitxsan Nation, Roman Frank of the Ahousaht Nation, and David Carruthers of Ecotrust Canada contracted a University of British Columbia student, Ben Johnson, to conduct a needs assessment, to help identify the building blocks of the network. After a lot of feedback and consultation, it was decided that the network would be comprised of four different activity areas: (1) a Web page of resources, stories and links; (2) an annual conference to help bring people together; (3) a publication series addressing common themes identified by network participants; and (4) informal roundtable workshops throughout the year. On June 21 (National Aboriginal Day in Canada), 1998, the network sprang to life.

The AMN Web site ( hosts a wealth of information including data sources, training resources, funding information, and methods for mappers. As the AMN is designed to be a forum for sharing ideas through interactive media, it has also created a moderated LISTSERVE where participants discuss issues and ideas with each other via e-mail. The site is very dynamic, with updates posted weekly. The number of hits has been steadily increasing to an average of 2,500 hits per month.

At the annual international GIS conference First Nations are able to present mapping issues on First Nations terms. The agendas for large mapping and GIS conferences are usually set by industry or government, and rarely address issues from a local or First Nations perspective. In March 1999, the AMN hosted the first two-day First Nations GIS conference in Vancouver. In all, approximately 80 native participants attended, with panel presenters from across Canada and as far off as Barrow, Alaska, and Australia. A First Nations committee oversees the conference planning, and has set the 2000 conference for late fall in Vancouver.

The AMN's series of "best practices" is designed to help fill the void of good reference materials dealing with First Nations and cultural applications of mapping. To help meet the increasing demand for such products, AMN has joined together with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs to coproduce the series. The publications are peer reviewed and written and formatted in accessible and informal mediums. A multidisciplinary, cross-cultural advisory group is being set up to help select new themes, topics, and authors for the series. The AMN's first publication, due for release this coming summer, is a full-color book by Terry Tobias that examines common pitfalls encountered by First Nations while designing and implementing cultural land use studies, and offers clear guidance on how these problems can be avoided. The publication will be distributed at cost through the Chief's Mask Bookstore in Vancouver and will be available for free in PDF format on the Internet through the Aboriginal Mapping Network Web site.

"My name is Victor Hart and I'm an Indigenous Australian (from the Yiithu Warra people of Cape York). First let me say how this site was something I've been looking for, for a long time… it seems like the spirits led me to it."
(Victor Hart, Cape York Australia )

The informal roundtable workshops are focused on topics that surface within the network. To date, the AMN has hosted three workshops, bringing together over 45 First Nation mappers from around the province to hash out issues such as bringing traditional use information into a GIS, using mapping technologies to respond to development plans, and modeling wildlife areas for First Nations applications.

Unlike industry or government's gradual embrace of GIS technologies, First Nations are not being given the time to adapt the technology for local applications. There is currently intense pressure for native groups in the province to "hit the ground running" and become proficient with GIS tools overnight. Whether it is for treaty negotiations, litigation, cultural, or resource management applications, First Nations are becoming creative in how to deal with these pressures, adapt the technology, and tell their own stories through maps. The Aboriginal Mapping Network is becoming the forum of choice in the province to help make this happen.

For more information on the Aboriginal Mapping Network, please visit or write to the Aboriginal Mapping Network Coordinator


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Compilation & web design: Charles Convis, ESRI Conservation Program, December 7, 2000