Creating digital maps to help preserve cultural heritage of Russian community

Jan 30, 2014 by Yara Askar
The workshop and mapping project in Kamchatka stemmed from UA anthropologist Benedict Colombi's work with both indigenous peoples and scholars working in Kamchatka and from Colombi's book, "Keystone Nations: Indigenous Peoples and Salmon Across the North Pacific." Credit: Benedict Colombi

Indigenous communities from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula are dealing with an issue of great concern – the possible impending loss of the Itelmen language, which, in the community of 4,000, is only spoken by roughly one dozen elders.

To ensure that younger generations of the Itelmen ethnic group retain their heritage, University of Arizona anthropologist Benedict Colombi and Tatiana Degai, an Itelmen student pursuing a doctorate in American Indian Studies at the UA, have been working with the community in partnership with Google Earth Outreach, a program supporting non-profit organizations raising awareness of global issues, to create interactive and engaging digital maps of locations that hold cultural and historic significance.

The maps will be customized versions of Google Maps, with information specific to the Kamchatka area, located in far eastern Russia. The maps will be accessible to the world just like other Google maps, although some of the information specific to the community – such as hunting areas – will be visible only to the Kamchatka community.

"These languages are highly endangered," said Colombi, associate professor in the School of Anthropology. Colombi is leading the project, which involves researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Itelmen, Colombi said, is "on the brink of extinction."

The National Endowment for the Humanities reports that an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages are endangered. The Kamchatka project is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Along with Kamchatka and researchers, plus reaserachers and Google Earth Outreach, the UA co-hosted the first Indigenous Mapping Workshop during the fall of 2013. Participants discussed what kind of tools to include in the map, project deadlines and what roles community members would have in the development of the map. A second workshop is planned.

The team eventually will map places such as where the indigenous community members gather food, fish and hunt. The maps also will note natural resources and other culturally significant sites, such as historic and sacred areas, the presence of gold as well as oil and gas resources or the migration of salmon.

"We are really focusing on the historical and cultural significance of landscapes for these indigenous groups and also mapping resource development and historical events," said collaborator Drew Gerkey, an assistant professor of anthropology at Oregon State University. "The maps will include many elements, and they will be based on the needs and recommendations of the indigenous community."

The team met with Kamchatka community members and Google Earth Outreach during a workshop held on the UA campus in the fall to discuss how to structure collected data and what mapping tools to use. (Photo: Benedict Colombi)

The team is working to keep the ties between the elders and younger generations largely because the elders hold and maintain knowledge about the landscape, the language and the place, Gerkey said.

"We hope these maps can help strengthen cultural identities. Some maps may remain private for use within the communities, while others may be made public," he said. "People in Kamchatka are concerned whether this knowledge will be passed on to younger generations."

Gerkey said young people in Kamchatka are interested in the latest technology, such as digital cameras and computers. Because the project will use cutting-edge technology by Google, it may motivate the younger generation to get involved, he said. Another goal is to build capacity in the community to teach people in Kamchatka how to use this technology.

The digital maps will be used as a device to foster dialogue between local and outside experts where previous strategies have failed, Colombi said.

"We are dealing with a country that doesn't recognize very well any indigenous rights," Colombi, said. "These are people that live in a very remote part of the world and it's very rich in natural resources."

And the map could be used in negotiating with government and nongovernment actors, he added.

The map will include an educational component in Itelmen, which is one of the native languages of Kamchatka. Incorporating the map into the village school's curriculum will enable community members to reinforce preservation of the language and other cultural knowledge.

"We are trying to get the youth excited about who they are and trying to get them excited about their own language," Colombi said.

The effort is not Google's first partnership with . Google has worked with Surui indigenous people of Brazil to create maps that help the Amazonian tribe share their knowledge of the forests, plants and the issure of illegal logging on Surui territory.

"I think that the Surui Cultural Map has been an inspiration to other indigenous peoples around the world, motivating cultures from South America to Australia to Russia to create their own maps," said Raleigh Seamster, program manager at Google Earth Outreach. "These are great examples of how rich stories can be incorporated into cultural maps."

Members of the Kamchatka community will be able to include stories, images and multimedia about these locations in the map itself for viewers to explore.

"Using these tools to make a cultural map will allow the community to create a that accurately reflects their traditional landscape, and will encourage dialogue and sharing of knowledge between generations," Seamster said. "The Kamchatka Cultural Map they create will be a document that will help them preserve and protect their cultural heritage."

Explore further: Indigenous communities deploy high-tech mapmaking to staunch global land grab

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