The story behind the “Defending Sacred Water” map

In the middle of 2016, the Water Protectors defending the health of the Missouri River (and the land of the Oceti Sakowin [Great Sioux] tribe) from the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline captivated the attention of people around the world who wanted help the Protectors at Standing Rock Reservation in the ways they could. Universities gathered students and faculty to address how they could harness their skills and resources to also offer assistance. The Native American Studies Department at the University of California, Davis, set up such a gathering and what came out of it was a number of task forces focused on specific needs. One of the needs identified was a map that clearly explained the main issues at Standing Rock: what is currently happening on the ground, and what is the historical context of the land and tribes on the land. No one had yet seen such a map.

Professor Liza Grandia, Lakota tribal member Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, and doctoral student Cinthya Ammerman, coordinated the project that would become the “Defending Sacred Water” map that would later be included in Guerrilla Cartography’s Water: An Atlas. They acted as liaisons between leaders at Standing Rock, historians at UC Davis, and me (Molly Roy, M. Roy Cartography), so that we could gather all the data needed to put together a map detailing historical and contemporary events that would inform a general audience what was happening on the ground. The map was never meant to show all the important historical moments, nor all of what was happening presently—that would be impossible. The map was meant to be a snapshot in time, but a snapshot that shows more depth and richness than the maps people were currently being exposed to.

After our team completed a draft of the map, we shared it on social media and it spread like wildfire. Teachers were asking for print-out versions for them to share with their students, and those who were not aware of the historical background thanked us for helping them understand the situation a little bit better. But now the year is 2019, and we don’t hear of Standing Rock in the news. The tribe is still fighting against the pipeline, but there are not millions of eyes to watch or hands to help. The map we created is as we intended—a snapshot in time—and because of this, it does not reflect the dynamic, ongoing struggles of the people involved. As a cartographer, there is a constant question of how to show time, movement, and dynamism in an unmoving form such as a static map, and how to responsibly fill a role of communicating information about an unfolding story. This instance of mapping the story of Standing Rock was an experiment that was both a success (according to the original intention) and a lesson in how to engage more deeply with those questions of dynamism.

The making of Atlantis

Guerrilla Cartography is kicking off a monthly blog with this first installment from Melissa Brooks, the cartographer and designer of Locating Atlantis, published in our latest volume, Water: An Atlas.

Locating Atlantis, page  1 of 2
Locating Atlantis, page  2 of 2

How did you decide to map what you mapped for Water: An Atlas?

I was lucky enough find this project on the internet just as the first call for maps came out. I put my hand up to do both the research and cartography for one of the map topics up for grabs. I figured being in New Zealand, I would be in a different time-zone from most of the other volunteers. One of the projects I was sent back to choose from was Atlantis. Just a small stub of an idea with the preface that I could take this idea in any direction I wanted and run with it. I had always found Greek mythology fascinating and this topic had me immediately looking around the internet for more information.


What was your mapmaking process for this map?

The story of Atlantis was born out of historic texts, the documented conversations took me back in time as I read them. I had an idea in my head that I felt the need to sketch out in pencil first. This sketch, which included notes about my intended colour scheme and content, became the first of many iterations of the Atlantis map. From here, I began using a digital art tablet to trace the sketched design.

The first part of the project is always about collating information. I approached various people and sources of information, obtaining permission where needed. I also scouted the internet for free stock photos for the paper textures and fonts. I ensured the usage permitted me to alter the images (something to look out for).

The main layer in my map, the points, were derived from a table of information I received from the owner of a website I approached. I had to put a fair bit of time aside for data quality checks and then running some simple geoprocessing tools to provide me with the layers I needed to begin building my map.

The map itself was designed in QGIS, this included the layers, labels, legend, etc. The illustrative overlays I made in GIMP were added into QGIS as an overlay at the end.

This was a truly iterative, trial and error process. I made an animated gif (see the following link) to show just how the Atlantis map evolved over time, refining and altering the map until I felt it was finished.

I’ve described the making of the Atlantis map in much more detail over on my blog, here:


What surprised you during the map making process for this map?

I initially began this project thinking I would be making a map about where Atlantis was, everyone *knows* it was in the Atlantic Ocean right? There were two things that caught me be surprise. The earliest record of Atlantis being mentioned is from Plato’s texts. When the context of where, when, and why Plato transcribed the conversations are taken into account, the various other proposed sites for the lost city of Atlantis seem equally as viable.

But the main thing that I didn’t realise would overwhelm me came at the end of the map making project when it hit me that the map wasn’t only about Atlantis. This project was about all lost civilisations, it was about remembering those we have found that we thought were only stories: Troy, Pompeii, Machu Picchu. What if even one or two of the dots on my map were a city we had once lost? It surprised me that this map, at least for me, became a way to cheer on the maritime archeology teams out on the ocean forever endeavoring to find Atlantis.


How do you hope this map might affect people or how might they use it?

I want people to think “What if?” What if there was a population of people at war with Greece around 9,000 BCE who succumbed to some sort of tragedy. On the other hand, what if the whole thing was a political ploy to control the population using, what may have been the equivalent of an Aesop fable. But, what if instead of Atlantis someone finds a lost or fictional civilisation we had not even known to look for?

I want this map to spark a little light with someone, whether you always loved listening to Greek mythology as a kid like me, or you’re an educated anthropologist, or somewhere else on the scale bar. I want to get people talking, get them looking at things from a different angle, the same way good art does.


What does it mean to you to be a “Guerrilla Cartographer”?

I think being a Guerrilla Cartographer is about reconnecting with the map making process, in an industry where most roads lead to data entry/analysis/data cleansing, followed by quick and nasty maps, it was a joy to be able to push myself and showcase some of the amazing things that can be achieved when we marry the art of cartography with the science of GIS. The map is both an art AND a science. To me, you cannot have one without the other.

As a Guerrilla cartographer, I’ve been able to limitlessly extend myself cartographically. Another key point to the Guerrilla Cartography ethos is sharing. The collaboration and open sharing is a huge part of it. The three blog posts I made on my site to accompany the Atlantis map are a testimony to the nature of the work the team does; the whole time I was making the Atlantis map, I created screenshots of my progress because I already knew there would be a how-to.

The team gave us the platform to create. No strings attached. I’m over the moon to have my work in print. Thanks to everyone on the Guerrilla Cartography team!

Visit our new poster store to purchase Locating Atlantis as a poster.
The water atlas is available in hardcover or softcover or as a free pdf download at The Atlases page.

Links to Melissa’s blog posts: