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.