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Google Earth Trains Native Americans to Protect Their Land
Jamelyn Ebelacker sat in front of her computer, using her mouse to fly over dry New Mexico terrain, stopping only when she saw the telltale sign of a pueblo dwelling. “That’s Puye, those are my ancestors’ homes,” said the 20-year-old from Santa Clara Pueblo. She zoomed into the Puye Cliff Dwellings, a circular pattern spread meticulously across the desert plateau, then zoomed out again in search of a nearby riverbed.
Ebelacker was one of nearly 20 young Native American students selected for a training this November by Google Earth Outreach on how to integrate mapping techniques into their film and storytelling projects.
Organized by New Energy Economy and Dreaming New Mexico, which envisions sustainable resource use across the state, the goal is to empower young Native Americans with tools to tell their stories, stories that often entail loss of land through coal, oil and gas drilling or uranium mining.
Krystal Curley, 21, came from Gallup for a film she is making about uranium mining on Native land. The film will integrate similar mining stories from Russia and the Ukraine, including the destruction of sacred lands by corporations. “If I can map the points of all the mines and coal, I can show that we’re being attacked, murdered. It’s genocide all over again. Corporations are taking our land,” she said.
Two other Navajo from Flagstaff, Ariz. were fresh from having their first film shown at the prestigious Sundance film festival, and now wanted to focus on the destruction of their communities through mining. “The Water is Life” focuses on the sacredness of water, and on its contamination by uranium, plus other industrial waste dumped near local populations, said Jake Hoyungowa.
For Hoyungowa, 22, and film producer Deirdre Peaches, 23, it’s a deeply personal story, having both lost family members to the effects of uranium mining. They want to find the best way possible to show the next generation what occurred on their land and to their communities, Peaches said. “When we have kids, I don’t want them to say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’”
Google Earth Outreach was launched to help support nonprofits and spread the gospel of world mapping knowledge. Since the mapping tool emerged in 2005, it has become a widespread phenomenon for those seeking vacation spots or wanting to spy on their neighbors, but more recently it has become a means to document the quickly and oftentimes dramatically changing landscapes across the globe.
With the clicks of a computer mouse, one can go anywhere in the world and see satellite shots from different time periods and in varying degrees of clarity, of countryside, homes, and even ground level views of city streets. It allows people to create “tours,” pinpoint locations and add video, photos or captions to any site on the globe.
The training workshops have been particularly useful in documenting community concerns, said trainer Steve DeRoy, who flew in from London. In his work with Native peoples he says he uses Google mapping to aid impact assessments, to show past and potential effects by industry on communities and environments. Success stories range from the altering of development plans to increasing the benefits to displaced people based on a clearer view of impacts.
In perhaps one of its better-known applications, Google Earth Outreach, led by Director Rebecca Moore, held a training in 2008 in the Amazon Forest for indigenous tribes to help them protect their forest and culture. Maps drawn by Chief Almir of the Surui tribe showed the perimeter of his shrinking forestland and areas where illegal logging was clearly taking place.
Prior to that, Moore stopped a logging project near her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California by showing the proximity of projects to schools, neighborhoods and watersheds, said Moore at a recent Bioneers conference.
The training was made possible by a grant to Dreaming New Mexico from Google, Inc. and the Charitable Giving Fund of Tides Foundation. In 2009 DNM was selected first runner-up in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for its work creating perhaps the first comprehensive overview of a state’s food and farming, and one of the most detailed analysis of any state’s complete energy system.
In training young Native Americans, the hope is that they will help map a renewable energy future away from fossil fuels and promote wind and solar technology, organizers said.
It is also very much about preserving culture. For Ebelacker, it is a means of gathering traditional stories whose oral tradition is quickly fading. “I come from a long line of potters so I want to mark things like where they get the clay, right here by the riverbed,” she said, pointing to a long blue line across the computer screen. “The oral tradition in my pueblo is fading out fast, so hopefully the people in my community can use this as a tool to carry on our tradition.”
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