Aaron Carapella’s decade-long project began by marking poster boards hanging on his bedroom walls.

Aaron Carapella's map shows locations of Indian tribes before their first contact with Europeans (Photo by Hansi Lo Wang/NPR)

Aaron Carapella’s map shows locations of Indian tribes before their first contact with Europeans (Photo by Hansi Lo Wang/NPR)

Today, reports Hansi Lo Wang at National Public Radio’s “Code Switch,” Carapella’s maps of the United States, Mexico and Canada show the original locations – and original names – of more than 600 Indian tribes, “many now forgotten and lost to history,” Wang writes.

“I think a lot of people get blown away by, ‘Wow, there were a lot of tribes, and they covered the whole country!’ You know, this is Indian land,” says Carapella, who calls himself a “mixed-blood Cherokee” and lives in a ranch house within the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation.

For more than a decade, he consulted history books and library archives, called up tribal members and visited reservations as part of research for his map project. … So far, he has designed maps of the continental U.S., Canada and Mexico. A map of Alaska is currently in the works.

What really sets Carapella’s maps apart, a senior geographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian told Wang, is that they show both the original and commonly known names of tribes.

Some tribes, Doug Herman explains, were stuck with names chosen by European settlers that were often derogatory terms other tribes used to describe their rivals – such as “Comanche,” derived from the Ute word meaning “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.”

“It’s like having a map of North America where the United States is labeled ‘gringos’ and Mexico is labeled ‘wetbacks,’ ” Herman told NPR. “Naming is an exercise in power. Whether you’re naming places or naming peoples, you are therefore asserting a power of sort of establishing what is reality and what is not.”

Carapella calls them “a way to convey the truth in a different way.”

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