A review of Guide to Indigenous DC, an app highlighting Indigenous histories, presents, and futures in the nation's capital, directed by Elizabeth Rule
Guide to Indigenous DC
Elizabeth Rule (Chickasaw Nation), American University
Joshua Catalano, Clemson University
By highlighting sites of importance to Native peoples within their and contributions to Washington, DC, the Guide to Indigenous DC showcases the empowering stories of how this prominent city is a place of tribal gathering, presence, and advocacy with a long, rich history. Users of this free iOS/Android mobile application have access to a digital map featuring sites of Indigenous importance, including photos, descriptions, and external resources. While in Washington, users can geolocate themselves in proximity to these sites and generate walking, driving, and Metro directions to each, with the option to utilize the guide as a tour.
Currently highlighting 17 sites, the list of included locations reflect the diversity of Indigenous communities and their impacts on DC by expanding beyond the fields of history and archaeology — disciplines commonly associated with the study of Native populations — to include the works of Indigenous communities in the areas of fine arts, activism, and policy/government. Intended to be representative and not exhaustive, sites also span temporal periods in order to disrupt the popular misconception that Native peoples are mere historical subjects — commonly advanced by the myth of the vanishing Indian — and instead promote awareness about Indigenous nations as contemporary peoples advocating for tribal issues in the 21st century.
Developed by principal Investigator Elizabeth Rule (Chickasaw Nation), an Assistant Professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies at American University, the Guide was created in close collaboration with scholars and members of the local Native community who have institutional knowledge of key events and locations, as well historians specialized in the history of the region and individuals from the diasporic Indigenous community that lives and works in the nation's capital. The Guide to Indigenous DC serves: 1) the Piscataway community, upon whose traditional homelands Washington, DC was built; 2) the diasporic Indigenous community residing in Washington and representing dozens of tribal nations, including the many tribal leaders who travel to Washington to conduct tribal business, and the hundreds of Native students who come to study in DC; and 3) the general public and millions of tourists visiting the capital each year. Of particular significance to the Covid-19 pandemic and the move toward distance learning, users from any location globally have the ability to engage a “virtual tour mode,” complete with 360-degree on-the-ground views of the sites. The application also contains a text-to-voice feature to increase accessibility. The app currently has over 4,000 downloads, 32,200 impressions, and 10,570 tour views with users spanning six countries and four continents.
The app has been used in K-12 schools and incorporated into the curricula at three DC universities. Specific feedback gained by DC university students include the following comments: “Debunks Indigenous erasure,” “It lets people know that Native people are represented at the capital,” “No other map gives this info,” “I think it helps people, non-Native or not, experience the real history of the city,” and “This inspired me in a way to not forget the past.”
The Guide to Indigenous DC is the first digital map/mobile app publication of the Guide to Indigenous Lands Project. Since launching the Guide to Indigenous DC, the project director has also created a Guide to Indigenous Baltimore (November 2021) in partnership with Lumbee scholar Ashley Minner (Baltimore-based artist and assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian). Rule is also currently developing a state-wide Guide to Indigenous Maryland in partnership with the Maryland State Library and Prince George's County Memorial Library System. Additional iterations for states, cities, tribal nations, universities, and Indigenous communities outside the US will continue to be developed.
Funding for the project has been provided by the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship, the American Indian College Fund, Native Americans in Philanthropy, the Minneapolis Foundation, the GW Humanities Facilitating Fund, and the American University Inclusive Excellence Collaboration Grant. The Guide has won the Library Company of Philadelphia’s 2021 Innovation Award and has been covered on over thirty media outlets, including The Washington Post, Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, and Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.
The Guide to Indigenous DC is a free mobile application for iOS/Android that introduces audiences to some of the Indigenous spaces in what is now the District of Columbia. Elizabeth Rule (Chickasaw Nation) developed the app in collaboration with the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at George Washington University, the American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association, and Indigenous consultants and historians. The stated goal of the app is to emphasize “Indigenous peoples’ contributions to Washington, DC,” highlight the “historical and contemporary federal tribal policy developed in the city,” and acknowledge “the peoples whose homelands upon which the District of Columbia was built.” The Guide is intended for multiple audiences including K-16 students, tourists, and Indigenous people and organizations residing in or visiting the capitol.
The app, which guides users along a 17-stop trail, is not meant to be an exhaustive documentation of Indigenous DC but an educational sampling of purposefully selected people, places, events, and art. Each entry is approximately 200 words and includes images and links to external resources, many of which are from Indigenous authors or government websites. This app sets itself apart by prioritizing contemporary Indigenous activism that showcases survivance and avoids relegating Indigenous peoples to a distant past. Many of the stops are focused on locations where important events occurred such as the Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1972), the Cowboy and Indian Alliance Camp (2014), Native Nations March (2017), and the Indigenous Peoples March (2019). The use of external links helps center Indigenous voices but will require continued maintenance over time. At the time of testing, there were some links that needed updating.
The app provides users with both a standard and a virtual mode to experience the tour. The standard mode provides two navigation options. The first is a set chronological progression through the numbered stops beginning in Arlington, VA and ending in Congressional Cemetery in Southeast DC. The route is approximately nine miles one-way and takes an estimated four hours to complete. If the user chooses to engage with each stop, which occasionally requires entry into a building, the tour can take considerably longer. The need to enter buildings also complicates the use of a scooter or bike. Garage parking can be found near the first stop and users can return to the general start proximity upon completion of the tour by accessing the Potomac Ave Metro stop and taking the Blue line back to the Rosslyn or Arlington stops. The alternative is a “free range” mode that allows users to more easily pick and choose which sites they would like to visit. By default, this mode provides directions to the closest location to the user making it convenient for visitors at the National Mall.
The built-in navigational feature provides cardinal directions instead of road/sidewalk routes if the voice navigation option is engaged. This can be very useful when a user is close to a geolocated site but can be challenging when needing to navigate longer distances. For users who would like route directions, the app provides an option to access directions through Google Maps. The app also has an augmented reality setting where users can physically scan the horizon with their phone to see the location of each site. While the majority of the tour is wheelchair accessible, users of mobility aids may encounter unforeseen obstacles along the route such as sidewalk/road closures, potholes, and significantly damaged and uneven walking surfaces. Given the distance of the tour, the climate of the capitol, and the inconsistency of restrooms and refreshments along the route, app users should carefully plan and prepare.
In addition to the standard tour mode there is a virtual tour mode that provides access to users across the world. This mode simulates travel along the route using a pointer icon. While the adjustable speed of the icon is relatively slow, this design allows users to pause on the route and access a 360-degree Google Street view of the area, providing a virtual tour that closely simulates the standard mode. All modes include a setting that can be turned on that provides a text-to-speech reading of app content for each location. However, this does not allow for a user to easily replay or pause content if desired. Additional images on each entry would not only enhance the virtual mode, but would provide access to spaces that have restricted access or hours. Future updates could refine some of the details. For example, the image of the US Marine Corp War Memorial is not the statue in DC but a Wikimedia image of a replica statue in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Indigenous DC is a welcome public history contribution that teaches about people, places, and events not found on other applications such as Histories of the National Mall, Clio, or Historypin. This project will serve as a model for future collaborative efforts to challenge erasure.