In a space between two books I find myself launching one while another takes shape. Out now with McGill-Queen’s University Press, Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place and Identity in Indigenous Communities theorises the place-meme as a construct for talking about place and space across generations. I focus specifically on Cree, Inuit, and Northwest Coast Canadian indigenous peoples, and how repetitive commemorative journeys shape intergenerational knowledge, landscape and language. Place-memes are inscribed and performed, written and embodied spanning brains, bodies, maps, and tracks across the land. I focus specifically on the northern Quebec Cree community of Wemindji, and their yearly commemorative return to an old dwelling site. The annual return, kaachewaapechuu, means ‘going offshore’, and it has come to refer not only to a set of linked places through which one passes during the three day journey back; it also refers to a set of ongoing processes. Land is rising in Wemindji, faster in James and Hudson Bays than anywhere else in the world. Isostatic rebound, colonisation, the decline of the Hudson Bay company, and fluctuating fur and food stocks and prices all contributed to the re-settlement of Wemindji, and all are commemorated through the performance of the annual return journey.
Place-memes are at base sets of linked names, and these names follow pathways as they are uttered by elders, heard by youth, internalised, performed and in turn passed on through generations. Place names and the so-called causal theory of names, or communication theory of names drive the theoretical core of The Geography of Names: Indigenous to Post-Foundational. At the same time, the nature of place-names is itself evolving and changing as emerging social media and mapping platforms allow for ‘geo-tagging’ and rapid re-uptake of new labels, tags, and place-name forms to proliferate. For example, in London, the twitter hashtag #greatnames tracks how Chinese (and other) visitors to London create descriptive new names for prominent features such as the Thames River, Big Ben, or Tower Bridge. Coordinate pairs attached to tweets that include the #greatnames tag can be automatically mapped to show new landscapes of names overlain upon older names that have themselves evolved since at least Roman times (when London was established in 43 AD). This new work takes a global view of place-names, also looking at how maps and politics shape new geographies of names that nonetheless find origins in older times. It covers British, North American, and Australian spatialities, indigeneities, and neogeographies of names.
These two books fit together quite naturally, with the latter (The Geography of Names) growing out of questions that the former (Maps and Memes) raised. Whilst the earlier book grew out my work as researcher and consultant based in Canada, I am now a lecturer based at Royal Holloway University of London, with a wide range of world class libraries and colleagues at my doorstep. The Institute of Historical Research, Senate House Library, British and London Libraries, not to mention the fourteen libraries found on McGill campus in Montreal, all have contributed space, ideas, and resources towards both books. An excellent and very engaged set of colleagues at Royal Holloway, and world class librarians at all the institutions mentioned are making the sometimes isolating or stressful process of structuring arguments and book sections much more bearable. The research overall is moving from questions of indigenous identity and maps towards more fundamental questions of geographical reality and thought. The Geography of Names is digging into place-names as tools for shaping reality through use in politics, cartography, religion, philosophy, and social media. Watch this space as new themes emerge, and for sample sections of the ongoing work.
Part of what has made this work possible is the fact that along Hudson Strait, for example, oral histories are beginning to be taken seriously again. Interviews with elders telling stories over maps in community halls in places like Kuujjuaq, Salluit, and Quaqtaq are becoming a regular occurrence as provincial and federal governments scramble to keep up with land claims after the successes of the Nunavut and Nisga’a territorial governments.
A book launch for Maps and Memes will take place at the Canadian Association of Geographers annual meeting at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver 1-5 June 2015; with another planned in the UK, probably in Canada House.
Dr Gwilym Eades is Lecturer in Human and Environmental Geography at Royal Holloway.