California Map Society Conference, May 2015: “Ghosts of Former Indigenous Inhabitants of Stanford University”

CMSAs a new student member of the California Map Society, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the Society’s conference at Stanford University on 2 May 2015. The speakers covered a range of fascinating topics. For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my notes from each talk from the event in separate blog posts.

Ghosts of Former Indigenous Inhabitants of Stanford University – John West


John West spoke about his “Ohlone Stanford Lands” map published in An Atlas of Stanford Counter Maps. I noticed this map during our lunch time tour of Branner Library:

counter map4West explained that part of the inspiration for his cartographic creation came from the mission architecture style on the campus of Stanford University:


He noted that the red tile roofs, stone arches, and fountains are a part of the “Stanford brand” that stands in contrast to the gothic architecture of East Coast ivy league schools. Despite positioning itself as some sort of “ahistorical techno-utopia” (focused on technology, innovation, and novelty), the Spanish mission architecture style, as West argued, actually celebrates colonialism in a visual tribute to the genocide of three quarters of the people on this continent. He pointed out the contradiction between unoccupied land (that was never “in use”) and emptied land (that Indigenous inhabitants have left), noting that these myths work together in support of colonialism and ongoing dispossession.

West used a 1950s survey map (measuring 4 feet by 5 feet) as the base map for his project in an effort to the visual contradiction between an authentic / outsider perspective. Working with Dr. Laura Jones of the Stanford Archeology Department, West initially planned to use his map to show how the Ohlone peoples had densely occupied the Stanford campus, based on the extensive archeological excavations all over the campus.

However, under state (and federal) law, active archeological digs must remain confidential to avoid vandalism and looting, so West instead chose to highlight historical resources, such as waterways, wildlife, and forests–with evidence regarding the latter derived as well as possible from 1940s ariel photos. The river and forests extend beyond the arbitrary boundaries of private boundaries. To avoid having his map show merely a collection of natural resources, West included contemporary sites to show that the Indigenous presence is not gone from the territory. Some of the present-day campus locations of importance to the Native American community and Ohlone peoples that West included on his map are:

1) Cantor Arts Center, which houses many Native American art materials and objects

2) Stanford Powwow, an annual event with roughly 30,000 attendees

3) Stanford Stadium, where alumni attempt to reclaim the inaccurate “Indian” mascot

4) Stanford Archeology Department, which conducts studies and digs on campus

5) Native American Cultural Center, which supports Indigenous students on campus

6) Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, an on-campus house for Indigenous students

7) Field Conservation Facility, which is affiliated with the Archeology Department and houses some of Dr. Jones’s findings from campus

8) Jasper Ridge, which is closed to the public but occasionally used for Ohlone ceremonies

9) Petroglyphs and bedrock quarries, both important to Ohlone peoples and archeological digs. Since these are already publicly known, their locations did not have to remain secret like the active digs.

10) Mount Diablo, which is considered a creation space by many Ohlone peoples

With his map and his talk, West strove to problematize history as it is learned in schools (through celebrations of Columbus Day) and urged us to unlearn lessons about the supposedly “virgin territory” of the United States (and the Stanford campus) by highlighting continuous occupation by Ohlone peoples along the riverbed, as well as use of oak groves for shelter, acorns, and hunting.

Although the present-day Stanford campus that is most broadly accessible includes the quad, residences, and classroom buildings, these are mainly in the precolonial swampy area. While the public can access much of the campus and the Stanford Dish hiking trail, access to much of the 8,000 acres (or 24 square miles) of the campus remain restricted. West used the technique of blacking out names to showcase the physical redaction of names from the historical record and indicate that Ohlone names for the territory may be unknown to contemporary cartographers, but despite this erasure from history, the area was richly labelled and named, densely occupied, and lived in by the Ohlone peoples.

West concluded: “genocide doesn’t disappear just because we’re not talking about it.”

His map was an excellent launching point for further conversations about genocide and colonial dispossession on the Stanford University campus, in California, in the United States, and in the Americas.

Further Reading:

– Joe Bryan and Denis Wood, Weaponizing Maps: Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas, 2015.

– CBC News, “First Nations learn to map territories using Google Earth,” 25 August 2014.

– Sacred Land Film Project, “U.S. Laws & Court Cases Involving Sacred Lands

This entry was posted in Category Awesome and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to California Map Society Conference, May 2015: “Ghosts of Former Indigenous Inhabitants of Stanford University”

  1. Pingback: California Map Society & Stanford Lecture Series Notes | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s