“Because [I am] afraid of drowning.” This was the answer an Inuit elder gave when asked why he was so skilled at reading the weather. Like many of his people, he became skilled at reading the signs in the clouds and the changing bite and smell of a cold front. “Instead of formal maps or compasses…the traditional Inuit read variations in light or patterns in the snow,” Alan Morantz explains in his book. Where is Here? Canada’s Maps and the Stories they Tell. “They sang aya-yait songs that acted as Triptiks, and built inuksuit stone figures to relay information to other wayfarers. They devised visual place names to evoke a picture in the mind: An island could be called “where seals lie upon the ice” or “that which resembles a woman removing her parka hood.” Where is Here? Is a book about maps and their special meanings and functions for the past, present and future inhabitants of the vast expanse of land now called Canada.

This is not only a book about the ancient ways of orienteering, but it explores the idea of identity as it relates to geography, or in other words, the concept of “who I am” as it relates to “where I am.” The book spans a wide range of research techniques and approaches to the idea of “topography.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines topography as ”1) a detailed description, representation on a map, etc of the natural and artificial features of an area or, 2) the mapping of the surface of the body with reference to the parts beneath.”

The chapter titles loosely outline the different human motivations, and techniques, by which topography was carried out. Morantz pictures the landscape of Canada as did the various inhabitants of that landscape, its original topographers, have. Chapter one, “Survival,” not only explains the Inuit methods of navigation for survival, as well as other First Nations techniques, but also talks about the messaging systems used by the early hobos (those migrant workers and drifters who rode the North American rails back and forth cross-country from the late 1800s into the middle of the 20th century).

In another chapter, “Exploration,” Morantz describes the mapmaking efforts of the early white explorers, who acted as translators and bridges between the first peoples’ ways of mapping and the European convention. It was, as the book points out, a very rare explorer, French or English, who ever went up the rivers and through the forests towards Hudson’s Bay (as Samuel de Champlain did) without both a native guide and a collection of maps drawn for him by natives. Similarly, years later. De La Verendrye spent a great deal of his career probing his Cree acquaintances for their wisdom to help him find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. And for all his insistence, the Cree did in fact help him in his quest; often, by telling the famous explorer part of what they knew and part of what he wanted to hear! Morantz is keen on pointing out how virtually none of the European exploring and settling would have been at all possible without so much assistance from the First Peoples. Some of the most interesting stuff in the book comes later, when the author expands out from pure history into a discussion of what “mapping” means for human ideas of who we are, and what our landscape means.

In the chapter “Nation-Building,” the author details how natives in the modern era can use techniques of map-making as a form of reconquest. “It was not so long ago that the early European explorers used their own maps to write native people off their own land,” he explains. “Now, native groups in the Pacific Northwest are blending their own ancient stories with modern mapping technology to win back what was lost.” Morantz goes on to detail the ways the plaintiffs used territorial mapping in the landmark Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en land claims trials in British Columbia, and how the members of the Gitksan Houses introduced adaawk (sacred songs about their ancestors and territories) and other traditional land-use and ownership rites, into evidence. Though the trial was initially lost in B.C. Supreme Court, the decision was overturned on appeal in 1996, thus “paving the way for the use of oral traditions in equal measure” for land claims trials, according to Morantz.

This decision paved the way for the strategies, including cartographic ones, for all the land claims suits that came after. These included the Nisga’a trial, where, in fact, the Nisga’a won control of 1,200 square kilometres through negotiations in which native maps played a huge part. Problem was, the Nisga’a claims conflicted with the claims of other peoples, including some Gitksan.

Cartographic conflicts, it seems, are not so simplistic: rather than just being between whites and natives, they are as complicated as their cartographers.

In “Identity,” a chapter near the end, the author expands the definition of a “cartographer.” A mapmaker, it seems, can be anyone who seeks to define him or herself in relation to the Some of the Hobo Signs: a map of what’s around landscape they inhabit. One local example tells of the Quebec government’s project to rename the islands in the reservoir south of Kuujjuaq after French-Canadian artists. The Cree, of course, objected that those “islands” were the tops of mountains flooded to make the James Bay hydroelectric project. The author points out, as did Bill Namagoose at the time, that renaming the land would be a way of appropriating it geographically, or, in other words, a way for the whites to reclaim the land in their own image.

And isn’t that, after all, the whole purpose of every map? Rather than rendering the land as it is, isn’t a map always a way to remake the land in a shape the mapmaker himself understands?

Where is Here: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell By Alan Morantz Penguin Canada, 256 pages.