2016.12 Bringing Indigenous Kamchatka to Google Earth Collaborative Digital Mapping with the Itelmen Peoples

Brian Thom, Benedict J. Colombi, and Tatiana Degai. Bringing Indigenous Kamchatka to Google Earth Collaborative Digital Mapping with the Itelmen Peoples. Published (Print) 01 Dec 2016, Research Article, Pages: 1–30 


Indigenous peoples in the Russian Far East are engaged in vibrant cultural and linguistic resurgence and revitalization through their community and regional organizations. Through the activities of these organizations, a computer-aided cultural mapping project was initiated in collaboration with indigenous villages along the Kamchatka Peninsula, working with youth and elders to map out the histories of special cultural places. The project utilized innovative participatory methodologies using Google Earth and related Google mapping tools, which are freely accessible and desired for use in the communities, providing an accessible, low-cost, easy to-use computer application for detailed digital cultural mapping. This article elaborates on the use of these technologies to empower a community-based collaborative research project and reflects on critical issues in aligning community, corporate, and scholarly objectives in successful projects.


Brian Thom is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Victoria. He founded UVic’s Ethnographic Mapping Lab in 2010 (http://www.uvic.ca/socialsciences/ethnographicmapping/) where indigenous communities and university researchers collaborate on innovative cartographic projects. He is also research axis co-leader for Community Mapping with the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives (http://cicada.world/research/themes/) (McGill U), and with the Canadian Conservation in Global Context (CCGC) project (U Guelph). From 1994-1997, 2000-2010 he acted as researcher, senior advisor, and negotiator for several Coast Salish First Nations (Canada) engaged in treaty, land claims, and self- government negotiations.

Benedict J. Colombi, Ph.D. is Faculty Director of the University of Arizona’s Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs (GIDPs) and Associate Professor of American Indian Studies and Affiliate Associate Professor of the School of Anthropology, School of Geography and Development, and School of Natural Resources and Environment. He also holds a Faculty Appointment with the Institute of Environment, a center for disciplinary and interdisciplinary environmental and climate change research. He is the Past Program Chair of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Anthropology & Environment section, Past Faculty Fellow with The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, a Fellow with The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), and a recipient of a 2014 US-Russia Fulbright Scholar Award.

Tatiana Degai is PhD candidate at the University of Arizona in American Indian Studies and Linguistics, and Director of the Community House of Culture, Kovran, Russia. She is a member of the Council of Itelmens in her home community, and is actively involved with culture and language development projects. She has a Master on Arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Anthropology and a teaching degree in foreign languages from Kamchatka State University. Her research borders on indigenous education, sociolinguistics, ethnography, indigenous activism, and revitalization.

This article is about a remarkable community-initiated cultural mapping project undertaken in collaboration with indigenous organizations in Kamchatka (in the Russian Far East), and anthropologists from the universities of Victoria and Arizona. Working with representatives from the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Kamchatskii Krai), the municipal government cultural institute House of Culture in Kovran, and the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kamchatka Branch of the Pacific Institute of Geography, we set about a project to train community members to use freely available, easy-to-use software (Google Earth) to create a digital atlas of indigenous language place names and accounts by the community of culturally signi cant places. While representatives of several indigenous communities in Kamchatka have participated in the training, the eldwork has so far been mainly centered in Kovran, an Itelmen shing community on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula where the subsistence economy is vital for the community, and where many families are signicantly involved (Koester 2012; Murashko 1997).

Like many indigenous peoples worldwide (Bryan and Wood 2015; Chapin et al. 2005; Eades 2015), Itelmen peoples have several goals in setting about to collaborate on a digital atlas with Indigenous-language place names and cultural sites detailed in text, video, and photos. One objective is to engage school-aged youth in conversations with elders about indigenous language, tradition, and cultural heritage. In turn, goals of documenting and celebrating indigenous cultural heritage knowledge for use in village schools and throughout the broader public benefits all Kamchatka residents, and most especially Kamchatka youth who are engaged in the contemporary resurgence of indigenous cultures.

Through documenting and making accessible indigenous peoples language, history, and places of signi cant cultural identity, the project seeks to bene t youth, elders, and local educators/specialists in Kamchatka. The atlas materials highlight and celebrate indigenous language materials and history, they also have contextual information in Russian and English of interest to researchers and others more broadly. The digital atlas also has potential as an instrument for public policy that uniquely positions communities to communicate key values associated with particular locales in the spirit of cross-cultural collaboration.

Web-page of the project:

UA, Google Creating Digital Maps to Help Preserve Cultural Heritage of Russian Community:

Categories: English


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