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Centuries of forced relocation, disease and genocide - all factors that have made it difficult to find where many Native American tribes once lived. But a cartographer in Oklahoma has managed to identify the locations and original names of hundreds of American Indian nations. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team tracked him down.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It can be surprisingly hard to find mapmaker Aaron Carapella on a map. He lives across from a kennel farm in Warner, Oklahoma - population 1,641.
So where are we on this map right now?
AARON CARAPELLA: We are right here, just about right here. The I-40 runs here.
WANG: Carapella shows me one of his maps of Native American tribes inside his ranch house. As a teenager, he says he could never find a map like this, depicting more than 600 tribes - many now forgotten and lost to history. Now, he sells maps as large as three by four feet with the names of tribes hovering over land they once occupied, and now known as the continental United States.
CARAPELLA: So the original people from here, this land, are the - I would say of the Osage - although this would be their traditional eastern boundary.
WANG: Carapella wears a goatee and long brown hair tied in a ponytail. At 34, he considers himself a former radical youngster who led street protests against Columbus Day observances. Carapella also describes himself as a mixed-blood Cherokee who lives within the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation.
This self-taught mapmaker consulted history books and library archives, called up tribal members and visited reservations to determine where different tribes were based before their first contact with Europeans.
CARAPELLA: I think a lot of people get blown away by - wow, there were a lot of tribes and they covered the whole country.
DOUG HERMAN: You can look at a map and you can sort of get it immediately. Oh, OK, this is Indian country and it's not the Indian country that I thought it was because all these names are different.
WANG: This is Doug Herman.
HERMAN: I'm the senior geographer here at the National Museum of the American Indian. There are no junior geographers here, there's really just me.
WANG: I stopped by the Museum in Washington, D.C. to show Herman a copy of Aaron Carapella's map, which labels most tribes with both their original and commonly known names. Herman says most groups got stuck with names chosen arbitrarily by European settlers. For example, Comanche is derived from a word in Ute meaning anyone who wants to fight me all the time.
HERMAN: It's like having a map of North America where the United States is labeled gringos and Mexico is labeled wetbacks. You know, you have these derogatory names that people have for each other and that's the names that have entered into common parlance. And, you know, naming is an exercise in power. Whether you're naming places or naming peoples, you are therefore asserting a power of sort of establishing what is reality and what is not.
WANG: Look at a map of Native American territory today and you'll see tiny islands of reservation and trust land engulfed by acres upon acres seeded by treaty or taken by force. Aaron Carapella's map serves as a reminder that the population of the American countryside stretches back long before 1776 and 1492.
CARAPELLA: This isn't really a protest, but it's a way to convey the truth in a different way.
WANG: A way that's already remapped the continental United States, Canada and Mexico. Carapella says next up is Alaska. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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