Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mapping The Marias: The Interface Of Native And Scientific Cartographies

Barbara Belyea
Great Plains Quarterly
(Link) pdf

Preconceptions and Ways of Seeing

But so insistent an intrusion as the arc of "Clark's River" remains exceptional in Clark's cartography. Similarly, there were moments such as the pause at the Missouri/Marias junction when Lewis and Clark were driven to suspect the insufficiency of their own understanding, but such moments did not last. "Actual observations" were used to fill in blanks, not to revise conventional images. It is difficult to appreciate just how wide a gap there must have been between the Native people's way of seeing water- and landforms, and the explorers' insistence on their own standard geographical patterns. Like Fidler and Lewis, like Arrowsmith, like Allen and Moulton, we tend to assume that our perception of geographic patterns is a direct understanding of natural phenomena - that we are accurately seeing what is there. A hint of this bias comes from explorers' tendency to rename geographical features, and historians' acceptance of these names as the "real" ones. Lewis identified the "River which scolds at all others" with the river he had named for its "peculiar whiteness"; according to Allen, this was "the Milk River of reality."[54] We need to remember that Lewis and Clark came west laden with scientific baggage, the chief elements of which were not their instruments but their preconceptions: their "logical and theoretical constructions," to use Allen's phrase again. We have inherited this way of seeing, as demonstrated by our scientifically correct topographical maps and geographical information systems. But the Native cartographers that Fidler engaged were under no constraint to depict the upper Missouri as a watershed. Instead their maps show the Missouri as a web of equal streams, a series of fords, a multiplicity of access routes to the mountains. The logic of the captains' choice at the Marias occasioned the expedition's long detour past the Missouri's great falls to its three forks, across Lemhi Pass, and north along the Bitterroot trail. Yet shorter, easier routes could have been found by following well-worn Native trails to the buffalo. The captains' reliance on scientific geography actually slowed their progress, and for good reason: although they had great faith in details of Native "information" gained at Fort Mandan, they were less curious about the patterns of Native geographical knowledge.

A more "remarkable act of the mind" than that of Lewis and Clark is left for us to accomplish: to realize that river shapes and "connection with other rivers" are not limited to the watershed pattern we unthinkingly accept.  This is very hard to do, since our vocabulary of rivers (source, branch, mainstream, affluent, tributary, watershed) reflects the hegemonic model of empirical science. We do not have appropriate words to describe or explain what is traced on the maps Fidler and Clark solicited. But we can at least acknowledge that Native maps were not simply "rude drawings," as Moulton calls them - sketchy, approximate, crude designs that European and American explorers felt obliged to revise, pulverize into "data" and insert into their own "correct" geography.[55]  The captains' dilemma at the Missouri/Marias junction was the dilemma of all exploration, and especially of frontier cartography:  the coexistence of two cultural verities - that of the Native inhabitants, and the explorers' own. In the end, one kind of knowledge could not be integrated, rationalized, reduced to the other, despite the partial inclusion of details learned from Native informants on scientific maps that the explorers carried with them. Lewis suspected Fidler's "varacity" when the periphery of Arrowsmith's map became his own center of interest. The captains were intent on replacing both Native knowledge and "erroneous" constructions with their own "actual observations," according to the progression outlined by Allen. But as we have seen, their mapping simply continued the patchwork compilation that had produced the Arrowsmith 1802 update and Clark's own Fort Mandan map. On his return Clark continued the same process of combining his own surveys with reports from Native informants and traders, selected and rationalized to conform with scientifically acceptable ideas and patterns. His great map of the West, drawn in 1810, was engraved by Samuel Lewis and published in 1814 with the Biddle/Allen text.  Arrowsmith was to extend the process by one more stage when he selectively copied information from the Samuel Lewis map onto his next update of the Map Exhibiting all the New Discoveries.

With Arrowsmith's 1814 update, the process of scientific enquiry that had prompted the Lewis and Clark expedition came full circle. As he had Fidler's maps, Arrowsmith gave Clark's work the imprimatur of scientific authority and made it available for yet further correction in the field. In their journals Fidler, Lewis, and Clark expressed a qualified awareness of and confidence in Native knowledge; on their maps, whatever the Native visitors to Fort Mandan had said about the Missouri upstream, whatever they had drawn, pointed to, and named was transformed out of recognition or rejected in favor of a "correct" scientific view. At best we can reconstruct this cultural frontier as a tentative, fragmented, one-sided account of the explorers' attempt to assimilate this knowledge into their own image of the West. The other voice of the dialogue is missing, and that absence is our loss.

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