Amid Land Disputes, An Unconventional Map Preserves Practices of Secrecy in Indigenous Communities

Architectural notation, the precise language by which windows and doors become lines and arcs, typically has little use outside of floor plans. In her new book, The Language of Secret Proof: Indigenous Truth and Representation, the architect and researcher Nina Valerie Kolowratnik manages to repurpose this graphic shorthand. With a set of unconventional maps, she employs the tools of architects and planners in service of an Indigenous land claim in the American Southwest. The result is an encrypted notational system that both reveals and obscures the territory.

The book examines the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico as its case study. Like most of the surrounding Pueblo nations, Jemez prohibits outside photography, video recording, and even sketching. Secrecy also serves an internal role, with various figures in the community awarded different types of spiritual knowledge, from the mystical and unspeakable to the superficial and fragmentary. Vows to keep such information secret are taken seriously and often supersede familial obligations.

The Hemish Ceremonial Trail represents the path Hemish religious groups take when they walk from Jemez Pueblo to their primary sacred shrine. Image from The Language of the Secret Proof.

The Hemish people have been trying to reclaim their ancestral territory since 2012. The land in question—a hundred thousand acres, home to centuries-old village ruins and Wâavēmâ Mountain, the site of their principal shrine—currently belongs to a national park. The lawsuit and its subsequent appeals have so far failed for various reasons to do with 19th-century treaties and other complex legal issues. Most importantly, the case also sits at the intersection of two systems of truth: that of an Indigenous nation with strong practices of secrecy and the Western legal system with its preference for empirical evidence (archaeological surveys, for instance, over oral histories).

When disputes over ancestral lands are brought to court, the burden of proof lies with the Indigenous plaintiff. The community in question must reveal the nature of their ties to the territory—a record of an ancestral village or a ceremonial practice, for example. But for Indigenous communities with strict protocols of confidentiality, this type of disclosure can be damaging. “The person who gives away secret, powerful information to someone who is not supposed to know, who is not initiated into that society, might lose his strength,” explains Pah-Tow-Wei Paul Tosa, a former governor of the Pueblo of Jemez, in The Language of Secret Proof. The sacredness of the information itself might be lost, too. It’s a double bind: to justify their claim, the community may undermine the value of the land it hopes to regain.

In the last few decades, the U.S. Congress has addressed the issue with federal acts that extend protection once the sensitive information is disclosed. Creative ideas have been introduced, such as making use of the trade secret exemption to the Freedom of Information Act to safeguard such testimonies as if they were commercial trade secrets. But these solutions still take for granted that an Indigenous community must divulge its private traditions; Kolowratnik’s encoded maps hope to offer an alternative.

Over several years of research, Kolowratnik designed a unique spatial notation system for the Jemez Pueblo. It documents their connection to the land, without revealing its specific spiritual meanings. She worked alongside Tosa and Christopher Toya, an archaeologist who also serves as historic preservation officer. The Hemish agreed to collaborate with Kolowratnik because, unlike the anthropologists who preceded her, she intended to conceal their traditions, rather than call attention to them. Secrecy, long seen as an obstacle to understanding Indigenous peoples, is instead the foundation for her work.

The Hemish Traditional Running drawing represents the practice of traditional running in Hemish spiritual culture. Image from The Language of the Secret Proof.

The most immediately legible map in Kolowratnik’s book illustrates the practice of traditional running. It shows the trails where the long-distance runners train for national competitions or compete in local races, a secular and spiritual use of the Hemish ancestral homeland. These routes are a kind of inheritance, passed down through generations of the same families. The map shows only the mile markers and the topography of the routes, omitting all information about the purpose or exact dates of the races.

Another document depicts the route to the Wâavēmâ Mountain. Instead of location, the pilgrimage is depicted in terms of time and elevation: a series of cross-sections show the duration of the walk and the slope of the path. The drawing functions like a rudimentary treasure map, evidence of a buried ‘X’ with no way to find it. Outsiders can see where the trail passes an ancestral village or a natural spring, or where it intersects with the national preserve fence and the highway, but they could never recreate the same walk.

To someone with the key, the drawing represents an entire choreography. 

The spiritual connection between the Hemish people and this mountain shrine is the subject of a more elaborate drawing. The volcanic peak anchors the document within a pattern of concentric circles. From the center of the mountain, lines radiate like spokes to the edge of the page. Each line represents a ceremonial dance, and comes wreathed in its own set of symbols: a different shape for each movement. There are circles, Xs, and dashes; dotted arcs, open-ended ovals and squares; squiggles and parallel strokes. To someone with the key, the drawing represents an entire choreography. 

The notation style is clean and delicate; there’s a certain appeal to all the trappings of precision—the elevation lines, the dates, the geographic markers—in the service of abstraction. To admire the scattered symbols might feel similar to attending a Hemish ritual open to the public, witnessing a ceremony through untranslated sights and sounds.

The Hemish Spiritual Pathway drawing represents the spiritual connection between the Hemish people and the shrine on Wâavēmâ Mountain. Image from The Language of the Secret Proof.

The system takes inspiration from Indigenous art and oral histories, in addition to conventional topographical maps and geographic information systems. The undisclosed visual code is reminiscent of traditional ceramic work or kiva murals. Although she couldn’t personally consult the Jemez kiva, a structure for sacred ceremonies, Kolowratnik studied nearby examples open to the public. To some, these murals convey complex cosmologies; to others, impressionistic patterns.

The book challenges the legal bias toward conventional empirical evidence—Kolowratnik argues that space can be narrated just as well as mapped. At the same time, her work also makes use of this bias. The drawings, however unusual, are meant to appeal to this preference for specialized expertise, the kind of evidence you can print out and staple. Kolowratnik is canny about how her discipline looks to the outside, and knowingly mobilizes architecture’s aura of authority. “Relying on and playing with architecture’s claims to objectivity, factuality, and descriptive clarity, these drawings construct truth-value,” she writes.

Kolowratnik argues that space can be narrated just as well as mapped.

The maps haven’t yet been tested in court; Toya plans to bring them to the next appeal, as another “arrow in our quiver that we could use in this uphill battle with the U.S. government to regain our ancestral homelands,” he says. Until then, this experiment with the language of architecture is a reminder that there are alternate forms of testimony, imaginative ways to resist the binary of secrecy and transparency.

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