Western Maps & the Dreaming

The map to the left is not of downtown Moscow, but is instead how my hometown of Heywood, Lancashire, looked on a mid-1970s Soviet map of Britain. It was produced for a potential Soviet invasion, and Russian mapmakers used existing Ordnance Survey maps, satellite images, road atlases and their own spy network to create a highly-detailed map that highlighted potential tank routes and included sites such as nuclear research facilities that were considered too secret for many British-produced maps. There was a colour code for different targets, and so industrial sites were black, administrative buildings purple, and military installations green.

It was how Soviet occupiers would initially interpret the British landscape had they made the trip: a militarily strategic roadmap with place names transliterated into Cyrillic. This act was nothing new, as invaders always create their own maps of lands they have ‘acquired’ (or intend to). It is an administrative extension of conquest. Back in the 11th century the Domesday project had been a way for the Normans to create a social map of their newly-conquered lands.

My involvement with the ‘Mapping Brisbane History’ project got me thinking about maps, especially as different cultural concepts of space and time had been a favourite subject area during my undergraduate Anthropology days. I was

So creating a map is an essentially political act. Peoples of different cultures perceive and chart the same landscape in different culturally-specific ways, and attempt to impose their own worldview on that landscape, or seascape, or even on the stars.

In the Australian context, European arrivals of the 18th and 19th centuries were largely incapable of comprehending (or at least acknowledging) the existing Aboriginal cultural landscape. Indigenous peoples have often been conceptualised as being detached from the landscape and, in a process described by anthropologist WEH Stanner as ‘zoomorphic’, were made invisible in that landscape like nocturnal fauna.

The new arrivals saw the new continent as essentially ‘empty’, a wilderness. Terra nullius. They set about transposing their own names to the country and attaching their own values to places and resources within it. This act was clearly at odds with Indigenous perceptions of a landscape that was not only filled with meaning, but had already been mapped and demarcated according to their own cultural conventions.

Indigenous connections to landscape are primarily based on a history of total dependence on local resources and the development and maintenance of the knowledge that allows sustainable use of those resources. In these small-scale cultures, experience is locked into a relatively limited space over a large time-span, and knowledge becomes highly refined and the landscape infused with a great deal of meaning.

The relationship between Aboriginal peoples and territory is strongly expressed in the form of language, which becomes a repository of knowledge about landscape. Languages are seen to be landed, as each different one is associated with particular territory, and even Dreaming figures are held to change their language as they move from one country into another. At the same time, land is said to be languaged as place names are imbued with myth and personal experience, establishing relationships between people and place. Because of this, place names are a repetitive feature of Aboriginal songs and storytelling and help to link people to their heritage through land, people and ancestors.
Indigenous language map, 1996 (AIATSIS).

Aboriginal songs emerged from the creative process of Dreaming figures transforming themselves into country, and these figures are believed to continue to exist through the performance of such art forms. There is a circular relationship of culture and environment, as culture is a product of landscape, and landscape is maintained through cultural expression.

Sacred sites and song lines associated with certain ancestral powers, and landmarks associated with human historical events, and all resultant place names are ways in which landscape is culturally marked in Aboriginal society. Related songs and stories not only explain country and infuse it with meaning, they also create spatial boundaries and serve as a map in a political sense, demarcating those areas a clan is responsible for maintaining. Knowledge of particular songs and stories identifies a person as being responsible for the territory that those songs and stories refer to.

Of course times change, and Indigenous peoples around the world have long used Western cartographic methods to help validate claims to territory. These maps help ‘authenticate’ Indigenous legal claims and as such are powerful cultural symbols. As subjective statements, they are as much cultural constructs as the landscapes they depict. Also, books such as Dr Ray Kerkhove's 'Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane' use maps to demonstrate the extent of Indigenous use of country prior to European arrival. The result is that maps are becoming an important medium of expression in cultural conflicts, highlighting the fluid nature of perceived cultural boundaries.