Still Living the Dream: Colonial settler mythology and a Critical Analysis of the Mapping of Places, Spaces and Subjects in the Americas

Introduction – Today, maps are such normalized aspects of life, resources so embedded in society and everyday living that it is easy to lose sight of the important relationship between maps and those who produce them. Commonly mistaken for “mirrors of reality”, maps can be more accurately understood as political propositions of places, spaces and things (Wood, Fels, & Krygier, 2010). Due to their role in the “representation and comprehension of spatial knowledge”, maps have been described as being “forever embedded in spatial politics (Manhoff, 2014), and as such can be read as text, and decoded, like any other creative cultural artifact (Kellner, 1995).

In order to develop a critical understanding of maps as texts, maps can be decoded through various ideological lenses to understand what might otherwise go unrecognized as embedded political and ideological depictions of reality. As Henri Lefebvre stated in The Production of Space (1991), “(social) space is a (social) product… the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action… in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power” (p. 26). Another way of saying this is that maps are not “objective” depictions of reality that are absolute or agreed, but instead reflect the interpretations, imaginations and designs of individuals and communities who have exercised power through the acts of producing maps; acts that normalize propositions and arguments about space (Wood et al., 2010).

The production of space is further problematized for its hegemonic nature by Michel Foucault, who clarified the notion of the production of subjects in space, and revealed how the production of space contributes to individual and collective identity formation, the creation of norms, and “othering” (Razack, 2002, pp. 10–13). Maps have not only shaped how people conceptualize the physical world, they have also shaped how people see themselves in the world. Thus, to engage in the practices used in critical cartography, which treats mapping as spatial politics and maps as official documents of power and colonization (Manhoff, 2014), is to engage in practices that are manifestation of critical theory, and should be understood as liberatory praxis with transformative potential (Bohman, 2015; Freire, 1971, p. 36).

This paper is an exercise of the practices used in critical cartography, intended to examine the relationship between maps, power, meaning-making and identity. Through an analysis of Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (Figure 1.0), created by Nicolas Sanson, and a Humanized Landscapes (Figure 2.0), created by Charles C. Mann, I will apply the methods of critical cartography to reveal the stories of the maps.


Methods In Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society, Sherene H. Razack described a white settler society as one “established by Europeans on non-European soil” (Razack, 2002, p. 1). Those with knowledge of world history and, more specifically the colonization of much of the non-European world by Western Europe, should be able to recall at least one example of a country born out of a white settler society. The United States and Canada are both examples of nations born out of a white settler society.

Mythologies and national stories develop to support the acceptance of a particular narrative that explains a nation’s origins and history. “They enable citizens to think of themselves as part of a community, defining who belongs and who does not belong to the nation” (p. 2). According to Razack, “a quintessential feature of white settler mythologies is…the disavowal of conquest, genocide, slavery, and the exploitation of the labour of peoples of color” (p. 2). Because the national mythologies of white settler societies are deeply spatialized stories, they serve to install Europeans as entitled to the land, and these claims become codified in law (p. 3). Europeans have essentially been imagining and actively working to create the Eurocentric world they would like to live in for close to 500 years, while rewriting history and passing laws that serve to validate their myths and protect their spoils.

It is only logical that those who would claim the lands of others and rewrite history would also map the spaces and places in their stories. As Razack put it, “the subject who maps his space and thereby knows and controls it, is also the imperial man claiming the territories of others for his own; the inventor of terra nullius”, meaning “no-man’s land” (Razack, 2002, p. 12). Never simply the representation of a place, “once accepted and circulated – once they are recognized as legitimate knowledge – maps have influence over how the SPACE is perceived and what action takes place within it” (McDowell & Sharp, 1999, p. 25). To unmap or denaturalize spaces, then, requires us to “explore space as a social product, uncovering how bodies are produced in spaces and how spaces produce bodies” (Razack, 2002, p. 17). It is then necessary to consider how “subjects come to know themselves in and through space and within multiple systems of domination” (p. 17), and explore racial heirarchies, which “come into existence through patriarchy and capitalism” (p.6).


Map Descriptions – Figure 1.0, Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (Le Canada), was created by Nicolas Sanson, royal geographer to Kings Louis XIII and XIV, and considered by some to be the father of French cartography, in 1656 CE (“Guiana and Caribana,” 1700). Inscribed in French and Latin, the name translates to “Canada” or New France”. It is a depiction of the region of North America known today as Canada, as well as part of the United States and the southern tip of Greenland peeking in at the top. Le Canada was created early in the period of the European “exploration” and colonization of North America.

Figure 2.0, Humanized Landscapes, was created by Charles C. Mann for use in his book 1491: Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Mann, 2005), and can be understood as a counter mapping of the Americas from the perspective of a writer that is challenging the myth of the Americas being a pristine, and underutilized, garden of Eden that was only tamed, and fully utilized, when Europeans arrived, in a book that presents research about the accomplishments of communities and cultures in the Americas prior to the invasion of Europeans. With English text, the map attempts to portray regions of the physical landscape of the Americas now known to have been cultivated and shaped by Indigenous peoples.


Map Evaluations – Central to the story told through Le Canada is the notion and myth of terra nullus, or empty, uninhabited land. Created by European colonizers for European colonizers, terra nullus was a legal term applied more frequently to spaces and places that were inhabited by people who were not“…Christian, not agricultural, not commercial, not ‘sufficiently evolved, or simply in the way” (Razack, 2002, p. 3). For the individuals and groups of people who had left their homes in western Europe in order to find wealth or improve the standing of the family name, claiming to discover entire swaths of uninhabited land that could be claims for the crown or for self was an exciting reality and a tempting one. Given the limited ownership of property and the high populations known to many Europeans who migrated to the Americas, the “New World”, with all of its resources, was something of a treasure at the end of a rainbow; a new garden of Eden in the minds of the public, and a catalyst for new visions and possibilities for the future.

Completed over one hundred years after the French arrived in North America, Le Canada portrays reported French knowledge of the space that is North America. Surely, the people of French descent who lived in these lands were aware of more than is displayed on the map, especially those living on the “frontiers” of French settlements. But as an official legal document, Le Canada argues that “civilization” in North America exists in concentrated areas, predominantly on the east coast, east of the Great Lakes. Beyond the lakes, to the north and to the west, is empty space. Some of the places in that empty space have been named, but the naming is sparse in comparison to the east coast, as are the indications of natural landforms. It is as though the cartographer had utilized a vignette style of photography to attract the reader’s eye and attention to a desired space on the plane of the map, analogous to a dream in which tunnel vision of what is ahead is all that is visible, and nothing else matters.

There is no indication of the flora, fauna or indigenous people of the regions depicted in the map. If indigenous names were borrowed to names places or spaces, and they were, these names are not identifiable and the cultures responsible for providing the French with names of those places are not mentioned. Territories that are claimed by Spain and England are recognizable, however, and the indication of borders reveals the importance of the presence of other colonial powers for the French visionary, Nicolas Sanson.

I would argue that the map proposes that North America was an empty space waiting to be claimed by whoever is most ambitious. The map argues that the French, the English and Spanish are all in on the competition, but that the French have the best positioning and potential for controlling and fathering an entirely new world. If the French are clever and daring enough, and if they overcome the British and eventually the Spanish, they could potentially unite the entire new world under one French banner. The map teaches that great adventure and mystery is still out there; and that the unknown still exists! And it is to the west.

The implications of all of these lessons are that the indigenous people of the land are unimportant when considering the space that is North America. They need not even be thought of.

Figure 1.0, Humanized Landscapes, however, is a representation of the region of the world we call the Americas prior to the arrival of the French, the British and the Spanish. It contains the following text:

Despite its complexity, this map of Indian effects on the environment is incomplete. The most important omission is fire. I have highlighted some areas where indigenous fire effectively controlled the landscape, but Indian burning played an important ecological role throughout the hemisphere. Similarly, scattered clearing, burning and earth movement for draining occurred in all agricultural areas – this map indicates only those areas in which these factors were especially concentrated (Mann, 2005).


Charles C. Mann used this map to show the influence indigenous people had on shaping the land that Europeans encountered as of 1491 C.E. Directly and intentionally challenging the myth of terra nullus, Humanized Landscapes provides a counter-story about pre-European indigenous culture and accomplishment in the Americas, but can also be juxtaposed with Le Canada to better understand the inherent flaws and lies told through the stories of colonial-age European cartographical representations of the Americas.

Figure 2.1 is a close-up of Humanized Landscapes that depicts a large portion of North America, including areas portrayed in Le Canada. In it Mann presents areas with raised fields, widespread forest clearing for agriculture, and areas dominated by anthropogenic fire that serves as evidence of Indigenous peoples working and shaping the land. Unlike the large empty spaces portrayed in Le Canada, Humanized Landscapes reveals that indigenous people were not only in the spaces Europeans considered uninhabited, they were thriving there and exerting their will on the land. Therefore, what was empty space to the Europeans were known places for Indigenous people.

European perception of this land as pristine and underutilized is also part of a story told through Humanized Landscapes of the very different cultural and ideological aesthetic of Europeans and Indigenous groups throughout the Americas. Generally less concerned with dominating the natural environment and instead taking on an holistic understanding of their relationship with the land, Indigenous peoples of the Americas are said to have developed settlements that were, compared to Western European standards at the time, more integrated into the natural environment (Mann, 2005). Many indigenous cultures preferred to utilize tension instead of compression for mechanical engineering purposes and “…wove together reeds rather than cutting up trees into planks and nailing them together” when making boats or buildings, for example (Mann, 2005, p. 83-84).

Not only does the title, Humanized Landscapes, tell a story, but the content of the map does as well. In this map are stories of Indigenous ecological wisdom and prowess, ambition, innovation and creativity, as well as another piece to the puzzle of the beautiful manifestations of human culture and accomplishment. In a world afflicted with the destruction of so much of the indigenous accomplishment in the Americas by Europeans, the findings of Mann’s research and the portrayal of his learnings in this map should be treasured and studied further so we can learn more about the past and the stories that have been lost through colonization.


ConclusionLe Canada, a French colonial representation of North America, and Humanized Landscapes, a counter-map of Indigenous cultivation of land in the Americas, are cultural artifacts that allow readers to understand the spaces and places represented in the maps, as well as the individuals who created them. They also teach us about the subjects of those spaces and places, whose identities were and continue to be shaped by the politics, ideologies and notions of race and othering that they portray and argue. Scanning from Le Canada to Humanized Landscapes, indigenous people literally go from “nothing to something”. Apparently erased and muted from the French mind, indigenous people in the Americas were not the audience or the subjects of concern when Nicolas Sanson created this depiction of North America. The history of the land that unfolded after the time of the creation of the map would also reflect this bigoted French mindset. Humanized Landscape, on the contrary, humanizes the people of the land. It shows accomplishments as well as a commitment to ideals on the part of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and suggests we question the vision for and methods used to create the civilizations that have been built on top of Indigenous communities, and in their spaces.   More than anything else, these maps tell a story of the need to question the notion of objectivity, the need to deconstruct and explore ourselves, our world, our relationship with each other, and our relationship with the earth.


Figure 1.0


Figure 2.0

Humanized landscapes-big

Figure 2.1

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