This is a story about how to Indigenize history.
It’s one thing to gawk at the monuments and museums along Washington’s National Mall. People snap selfies with the Martin Luther, Jr. Memorial and walk along the Tidal Basin to see the Thomas Jefferson Memorial with the Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom.
Now there’s a way to tell a different story. A new app called “Guide to Indigenous DC” reframes the colonial narrative and the space that is Washington.
Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw, assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at The George Washington University, designed the free iOS app along with scholars, local community members and historians, to serve the community.
It first started out as a “interdisciplinary research project that’s public facing and highly accessible” which is also built into the curriculum for the students at the university. It also turned out to be a printed map but Rule wanted it to accessible to everyone.
The idea came out of talking with people in the city about how Indigenous history is embedded within the colonial history.
“It came out of conversations from many people across the city about what folks do and do not know about Indigenous history here and ongoing Indigenous advocacy organizing,” Rule said. “This is not a place where Indian people should feel out of place or isolated or alone but that there’s a long and rich history of ancestors coming before us.”
Rule hopes tribal members, tribal leaders, delegates, Native youth, non-Natives, tourists and educational programs use the app so they can understand that before the white and brick buildings, Washington was and still is an Indigenous homelands.
The app is free to download on iPhones and the Android version is being worked on.
Folks can take a walking tour (or virtual tour) of the 17 sites across Washington where significant moments in Indigenous history took place, such as the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indigenous Peoples March, or Native Nations March.
If you’re in the city, you can also see many of the key locations up close like the Marine Corps War Memorial, the spray-painted mural of Piscataway History and Culture created by Joerael Elliott, the Kicking Bear Buffalo Dumbarton Bridge, the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, or the Liberty and Freedom Lummi Totem Poles at the Congressional Cemetery. Visitors can also see the 36 tribal leaders and delegates who were buried in the same cemetery.
The app launched on Tuesday with a presentation in front of a crowd of students, community members and the press at the university.
Evelyn Immonen, Turtle Mountain and Standing Rock Sioux, attended the event and was excited such a product exists now.
Immonen, a researcher in the area, said the app allows her to “engage with Indigenous places and potentially even people here in a way” that she’s been searching for in the past year.
“I felt like there was no Indigenous space here like even when I was at the Indigenous Peoples March. It was hard because I was there by myself,” she said. “I’ve been trying to meet other people and even knowing that this exists, and hopefully seeing where other places of Native presence, around the city really excites me.”
One student participating in the INSPIRE Pre-College Program is Cory Hancock, Choctaw.
He thought the app is “phenomenally well made” and appreciates that the virtual tour allows you to look at the sites at the street level.
Hancock thought his history buff dad, who lives in Oklahoma, would enjoy the app since its encompasses historical facts in each of the 17 sites.
Rule knows that there is room for this project and product to grow. She even said that she’ll consider adding the offices of Reps. Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland since they made history by being the first Native women elected to Congress. (Or perhaps Charles Curtis, Kaw, vice president under Herbert Hoover.)
She also hopes to partner with more Native advocacy organizations in the district and show visitors how strong that advocacy network is. You can’t see that network unless you live in Washington or are part of it.
“I think it’s important to do that work of putting our place on the map and showing just how far and wide Indian adviconcy runs in D.C. and to show that there are so many people and so many offices devoted to that cause,” Rule said.
This app is also a way to show Native youth that when they come to Washington to represent their tribal nation they are “following an ancestral legacy” because “Native people have been here, they are going to continue to be here.”