Surveying the Past

Geography, Indigenous Mapmaking, and the Honors College

As a part of the Honors Learning By Contract course options, students from the Honors College and the College of Arts and Science have published research in an academic journal.

The publication team is made up of Sarah Frost, Grace Martinez, Dr. Mark H. Palmer, and Lasya Venigalla of the University of Texas at Dallas. The team’s research paper has been published in the November edition of the International Journal of Geo-Information.

The paper has been in the works for more than a year now. It documents the teams’ in-depth exploration of a late nineteenth-century Kiowa map of what is now Oklahoma. The project sought to promote Indigenous knowledge in relation to geographic studies and cartography.

“As someone accustomed to a Western education…learning about geography and cartography using a Kiowa map really expanded how I think,” Frost says.

The Kiowa map was created by a Kiowa man named Chál-ko-gái around 1895. It is made on canvas using pencil. The map was not created using a mathematic coordinate system like other contemporary maps of the era. Where there wasn’t room to portray parts of Kiowa territory, space was manipulated to suit the map’s purpose.

Through combining Indigenous knowledge with digital elements, something the paper refers to as indigital, the project sought to study and join geographical science with the map’s Indigenous knowledge.

“Learning about native knowledge is so much more important than people think,” Martinez says. “There’s always something before you and there’s always something that’s after you.”

Dr. Palmer is considering digitizing the map with an interactive element, where a user could hover over a section, symbol, or spot on the map and learn more information about that specific part.

“There’s an opportunity here not only for instructors like myself, but students to engage with these materials they’ve never seen before,” Dr. Palmer says. “Instead of [the map] being a static kind of frozen artifact that’s stored away in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., it suddenly becomes alive, and we can experiment with it.”

Students who studied the map have made new discoveries about its place in Indigenous history.

“Several years ago, I brought the map into class. I had told a story early in the semester, a Kiowa story about these three boys that ran away from a boarding school, and they ended up dying on the prairie because there was a blizzard that hit,” Dr. Palmer says. “I told [the students] that they were trying to get to this cave in [the hills] in southwest Oklahoma. They never made it. A student brought the map up to me and he said, “Is this the cave?”

There had been a small etching on the map that resembled a cave near the boys’ destination. Dr. Palmer and his colleagues had missed it.

“And I said, “I think you’re right!” Dr. Palmer says, “So, I’ve learned a lot from Sarah and Grace, just about what they’re seeing and how they’re interpreting that map, which is different than the way I look at it.”

Dr. Palmer’s students have also grown through studying the map.

“Studying geography, I learned not just new information but new ways of thinking. I’m from Columbia, and even the familiar landscapes of my hometown started looking different because I learned new ways to look at them,” Frost says.

“I learned so much,” Frost continues “A big takeaway for me was the value of collaborative research. We all put work in, and I gained way more from that synergy than I would have just relying on ideas from my own noggin.”

“It was the first time that I got something like that published,” Martinez says. “I was interested in the research and learned a lot. I can look [the article] up and my name is on there!”

Study of the map will continue, but many other areas of study are available through Honors Learning By Contract. The team’s paper is available online for free on

Photo source: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – Department of Anthropology