Think of all the ways new technologies help us understand history. Geologists can determine the earth's temperature millions of years ago; archeologists can find out what early humans ate; botanists can discern where that food grew. We can learn the patterns of ancient migrations and the reasons for human successes and failures along the way.
But technology doesn't just determine environmental factors or biological make-ups. It can help us remember lives of particular people, important stories, even entire languages that are in danger of disappearing. Native American tribes across the United States are using state-of-the-art technology to map their ancestral lands, preserving cultural landmarks and indigenous languages that are almost extinct.
On the forefront of this technological preservation is the Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe. The tribe has had an active geographic information systems (GIS) tracking program since 1992. GIS tracking is a computer system that can assemble, store, manipulate and display geographic information, including images collected by satellites and aircraft. This information is transferred and rearranged digitally to display a region in complex, multi-dimensional ways.
In 2000, the Coeur d'Alenes began using GIS technology to map culturally significant places within their ancestral lands. "Names and Places," as the project is called, is carefully documenting five million acres of land in the Inland Northwest.
What's in a Name?
Naming has power; it defines places and people. Likewise, language is more than a tool for communication; it can serve as a treasure chest of information from which whole histories can be discerned. GIS tracking is creating maps of significant tribal locations in the region, which the tribe is renaming in Snchitsu'umtsn, the Coeur d'Alene language.
"There are a little over 100 'Squaw'-somethings in Idaho alone," says John Hartman, one of several GIS specialists behind the Names and Places project. "The Council of Geographic Names Authorities voted to rename them. As far as I know, the state has done nothing."
Kim Matheson, projects coordinator with the Coeur d'Alene Language Department, says the project is important. "We like to let tribal members know the places were named before white settlers arrived."
The Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe currently has 1,843 members and sovereign authority on a reservation covering 345,000 acres. But before the U.S. government determined those political boundaries, the tribe lived on about five million acres, stretching from Eastern Washington through North Idaho and into western Montana.
All five million of those acres are being mapped by GIS tracking, which enables the tribe to get a multi-dimensional view of significant sites.
"Think of it like Saran Wrap," says Hartman. "It's basically layers of information on top of each other." For instance, a map of roads piles on top of a map of streams, which piles on top of a political map, showing borders and boundaries. We see where the roads, streams and political borders cross and fuse.
"Three-D models overlay U.S. geological survey maps," explains Hartman, as he quickly piles different, detailed geological assessments of the same strip of land on top of each other. "You can zoom in to get more detail," he says, and as he does, the land becomes more than dirt and grass and rocks. It becomes a space where information seems infinite and history unravels.
Language can form a visceral map of sorts; symbols and names provide descriptions of how people think and categorize things, and how they express that thinking. Combining this with physical maps, we see a historical record of daily life and meaningful places.
But naming important and sacred places on maps is only one part of preserving them. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is making the maps interactive. Organized and choreographed information about the tribe's historical homeland is being placed on the Web, and elders from the tribe are narrating -- in both English and Coeur d'Alene -- stories about the significant places. With one click of the mouse, Hartman shows a three-minute digital video clip of Felix Ariba, a Coeur d'Alene elder, speaking in a mix of Coeur d'Alene and English, about the camas roots his ancestors gathered, while simultaneously digging for and pulling up one of the roots.
"We visit these sites," says Hartman. "We get a history, a breakdown of language, an elder saying the name and a video of the elder talking."
Hartman says Ariba is 79 years old and almost completely deaf. But there he is, on a windy plain, talking about how to cook camas root and the families that used to live in the area.
Among the scattered boxes, strewn maps and computer wiring that fill Hartman's small office building are piles of VHS tapes, each with hours of recorded monologues from Coeur d'Alene elders.
"This information is priceless," says Hartman, gesturing to the tapes. "It's just sitting here. It makes me kind of nervous, actually.
"You see three minutes of edited stuff," Hartman explains about the digital showing on the Web. "But we have hours of Felix talking."
Not all the information about the tribe that is recorded on these outings with the elders is put on the Web site -- it couldn't be because there is simply so much information. But some of it will never be shared.
"There are three tiers of security," Hartman says. "The first tier is what would be on the Web site. The second would be available to the tribe. The third tier would be only for research and education.
"The tribe is sensitive about some of the information. This is all built for the Web, but it's not all out on the Web. It goes through final authorization. You know, sensitive sites, like burial grounds -- there might be a discussion within the tribe."
Not all tribal members believe the information should be kept away from the public, but there is a strong argument that certain sacred sites could be looted if people know about them. How strict is the security?
"If someone's working on a master's thesis, we're not going to keep that [information] away from them," Hartman says.
The information posted on the Web will be used in the tribe's Language Department for educational purposes.
"The language program has been newly formed, so I don't know yet all the ways we would use it. But I know we will use it to teach geography and history," Matheson says.
While the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, along with hundreds of other tribes, works to map expanses of land, documenting significant sites and using the information to educate and preserve language, a few people are watching restlessly.
"Somebody came here and said they found an ancient rock structure," Hartman says. "I contacted the landowners, and they were real hesitant to let me look at it. They eventually let me come. It was current, not ancient. It was real obvious the rock [structure] wasn't old."
The five-million-acre mapping project is bound to make some property owners nervous, but the tribe insists the Names and Places project is about preserving their culture, not staking claims to land.
"We're trying to get the knowledge before the elders go away," says Hartman. Since the project area is owned by a multitude of federal, state, county, city and private owners, whether the Coeur d'Alene Tribe would have any rights -- and what those rights would be, if sacred land were involved -- is hard to say. Katherine Arneson, a consulting anthropologist with the Spokane Tribal Cultural Preservation Program, says laws are established to determine which sites can and should be preserved.
"Each one of those jurisdictions has different rules," says Arneson. "For the State of Idaho, until they declare and nominate them, they are considered [only] information."
Gary Palmer, a professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says documenting significant sites can't hurt the tribe. "It's important for tribes to identify their cultural values and significant locations, and to publish documents and make it publicly known and properly described," he says. "It puts them in a stronger position to protect them."
Palmer has studied the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's language since 1972 and published eight books on the subject. Though Palmer is not directly involved with the Names and Places project, Hartman along with other project organizers use his work for reference.
If the GIS researchers or elders are cataloging sacred places, the tribe will protect that information, never making it public.
"I would envision the Coeur d'Alenes will put the information to use in their history," says Brian Flett, the Heritage Coordinator for the Spokane Tribe.
Flett says tribes keep information secret for a reason. "People might come out and maliciously destroy it, or mimic our practices. We have to be careful," he says. For the same reason tribes keep their most sacred sites a secret, they probably would not fight a private landowner over it, either.
"If we have a culturally significant site or a spiritual site, we don't like to make that public information. So if we end up going to court and fighting, it's going to become public knowledge. Then we have to ask ourselves, are we truly protecting it?"
Flett says that if a sacred or culturally significant place is owned privately, the tribe doesn't have many legal rights. If it's a federal or state possession, there's more bargaining room.
"If the developments that are going to go in have federal dollars or permits involved, the tribe has a better bargaining position. They have more of a right to come in and say, 'We don't want you to destroy this site.' If there is no way around destroying or disturbing the sites you can mitigate," Flett says.
But mitigation and disputes aren't what GIS tracking is attempting to accomplish. The Names and Places project is working to preserve a language, rename important native sites for the tribe and provide a geographical context for the tribe's historical knowledge.
"Only a handful speak fluent Coeur d'Alene," says Hartman. Certain words and sounds cannot be transcribed into the English alphabet, making it difficult to write the language without "English-izing it," as Hartman points out.
A 3,000-year-old language with only a "handful" of speakers is an urgent issue for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The tribe contributed $50,000 in seed money for the project but soon learned they needed more. Foundation Northwest donated $25,000, and the Heritage Preservation Service's Tribal Preservation Program, a part of the National Park Service, donated $47,000 for two years.
Still, Hartman says Names and Places may need more money. "We're right up to the end. I would start writing grants at the beginning of next year. We'll see what the budget looks like."