March 15th, 2010 | By Thomas Lennartz | Filed in Inuit Culture/Art
I ran across an intriguing image today, of a tactile map used by the Inuit of Kalaallit Nunaat (aka Greenland) to navigate the coastline. The maps, carved from wood, were held inside the users’ mittens, and read by feel, rather than visually. Made from wood, they were durable, floated if dropped in the water, and were unaffected by weather and damp. The contours of the land are exaggerated, allowing users to navigate entirely by feel.
There are frustratingly few images of these maps online — I don’t know if it’s my web-research skills, or the fact that I couldn’t find any reference that gave the Inuit name for these artifacts. But I did find quite a few blog posts about the maps, all of them written by non-native posters, many of whom were intrigued by the idea of non-visual mapmaking.
Over at SpaceCollective.org, Manuel Lima cites a passage from Leo Bagrow’s 1960 History of Cartography that mentions the maps:
…wood was, and is, the most distinctive medium used by the Greenland Eskimos in mapmaking. Blocks are carved in relief to represent the rugged coastline of Greenland with its fjords, islands, nunataks and glaciers, the shapes of the various islands being linked together with rods. In order to reduce the size of the blocks, the outline of the coast is carried up one side and down the other.
As Bagrow notes, the maps are abstracted, conveying essential information about the coastal geography and marine features and creating a concrete evocation of a place in a tremendously portable medium, usable under even the most difficult conditions.
Over on Middle Savagery, Colleen Morgan, an Ph.D candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, points out that these maps are just one of the tools used by Inuit to navigate.
Peter Whitridge wrote a brilliant article titled Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries that queried the binary set up between space and place wherein space is portrayed as empty, scientific, geometrical, and place is embodied, historical, culturally-constructed. To do this, he demonstrated Inuit placemaking in songs, myths, legends, even tongue-twisters where Unalakleet place names are strung together–mnemonics of places along travel routes. Personhood incorporates place, and every personal name corresponds with a place name; both people and places are signified as important by the very fact of being given specific names.
The Inuit made songs, but they also made maps. These were often sketched in snow or sand, but some of them were sketched on paper with pencil for European explorers, and were intelligible to these Westerners. These are interesting in comparable abstractions of space (thus directly addressing Whitridge’s question about the space/place binary) but I am more interested in the 3D wood carvings of the East Greenland coastline, with the details of inlets and islands in sculptural relief. These could be employed by at night in conjunction with the stars, feeling your way along the coastline, navigating at an intimate scale.
As abstract as the maps are, they are also remarkably accurate. An article in the April 1990 issue of Geography Review entitled “A Cultural Interpretation of Inuit Map Accuracy” cites several European explorers who noted the outstanding accuracy of Inuit maps, and the remarkable ability of Inuit cartographers to find and record subtle features in even the most unfamiliar landscapes. The accuracy and detail of the maps conveys something about the Inuit relationship with the land:
To guard against the often violent force of nature, Inuit enveloped themselves in the environment rather than fighting to extricate themselves from it.
Many aspects of Inuit culture, the article notes, encourage mimicry, be it of the sounds and movements of marine animals or the the contours of the landscape. The accuracy of the Inuit maps captures not only the intimate bond between their makers and the land, but the immersion in the landscape that has shaped and informed Inuit culture for centuries.