Our Internal Maps

The British Museum owns a fascinating map, probably drawn up by a Native American around 1774. Roughly drawn on deerskin, it shows the area of America between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi connected by the Wabash River. The map only shows the Native American settlements and the rivers, not the physical features of the land over which these people hunted and roamed. It illustrates communities, not landmarks; habits of use, not geography. Above all, it does not show patterns of ownership. Like everybody, Native Americans mapped what mattered to them.

For me, the power of this map lies in what is missing. In detail the map shows all the river systems and the settlements of the Native Americans. Yet none of the European settlements is illustrated. St Louis, for example, which was already a great bustling centre of trade and communications with thousands of inhabitants, is just not shown.

Another map owned by the museum, dating from the same period, is the British controlled Wabash Land Company.  It does the reverse of the Native American map: it shows land ownership, shapes of farms, roads, towns and individual buildings. In common with the deerskin map, it is dominated by the rivers systems, but what it does not show are the Native American communities.

The physical landscape is shared in the mapping of the rivers, but each of these population groups read it in a different way. The maps represent an individual worldview, a combination of history and culture, a shared understanding of the external and internal worlds these peoples inhabited. Yet even though they shared and interacted within the same physical landscape, they did not really see or understand each other.

Like the European settlers and the Native Americans, every one of us carries an internal map of how we see and navigate our world. Each of these internal maps is made up of our physical, mental and cultural histories, each unique to us. Even though we share the same physical world as others, with its historical and cultural assumptions, we can be blind to their own internal maps. We assume others can read our maps are clearly as we can and are confused when they cannot.

In turn, we attempt to read others’ internal maps using ours as guidance and are surprised, angered or saddened when we meet with unexpected or negative reactions. Many of us can spend a whole lifetime in a relationship unable to see this fundamental difference, never fully accepting the other. This unacknowledged difference can lead to anger, sadness and disappointment, as happened with the European and the Native Americans, who could see the rivers and lakes in the landscape yet could not truly see each other.

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Written by Kevin Ryan MBACP (Accredited)

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Written by Kevin Ryan MBACP (Accredited)

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