The Map Is Not the Territory

Gregory Bateson was fond of noting that the Map is not the Territory. This is a statement of the obvious, yet it is also a profoundly difficult concept to hold in mind. Over the past few days I have been reminded this, repeatedly.

During this time I have had the privileged of spending time with several good-hearted people who happen to be experiencing chronic,  life altering, and possibly life threatening, illnesses. In each case there is a Diagnosis, after which, as if by magic, the person becomes the Illness, or rather, the Illness becomes the Person. Take for instance, Schizophrenia or Congestive Heart Failure. Each diagnosis is made in the presence of a set of Symptoms. In response to those Symptoms medication may be administered. If the Symptoms respond favorably to the medication, the Diagnosis is confirmed. At this juncture, the Patient and the Illness assume a sort of fused Identity.

I imagine a more useful way to think about Chronic Illness is as a landscape of experience. Some of that experience will be Symptom derived, yet most will be Social. For instance, having had Polio at an early age, I experienced a dramatic shift from full mobility to limited mobility. My body was no longer the companion I knew. I also experienced a profound break from my family, as I was hospitalized for many weeks. I became further socially isolated as both a Cripple and a potential Carrier of the Disease. Note that both of these roles are social constructs, yet these very constructs become Symptoms of the Disease, as well as markers for my Recovery. Over time the paralysis and weakness associated with Polio slowly lessened but did not disappear. I was permanently and chronically altered. The presence of Polio was irrevocably written on my body. Polio had become firmly social. My reactions and adaptation to this new life constituted a journey into unknown, although well charted, territory. The map, although potentially helpful, was most certainly not the territory. My experience was PERSONAL!

This problem with maps and territory also came up this week in the squabble surrounding Elizabeth Warren‘s claim to Native American Ancestry. I found myself wishing she had simply addressed the issue in all of  its racism and complexity. But she didn’t, and I can empathize with that. After all, Identity issues are maddeningly difficult for many of us. They are also politically charged.

In response to the controversy CNN posted a thoughtful discussion about blood quantum and tribal membership. The piece opened:

The recent controversy over Massachusetts congressional candidate Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry, where the campaign of her opponent for a senate seat called for her to release documents claiming her Cherokee ancestry, has caused some to ask: What makes someone “legitimately” Native American? And who gets to make that determination?

The remainder of the article read as a fairly balanced and nuanced exploration of the complexities of Native identity. If there is a glaring absence, it is the absence of any discussion of the history of Federal efforts to shrink tribal roles and fracture relationships between Native people and tribal life. Nor is there sufficient discussion of the Mixed Race experience, including the lack of a Federally recognized category for those of us with complex identities, a situation somewhat address in Canada by the designation, “Metis“.

In a lengthy article for Newspaper Rock, Michael Patrick Leahy asserted that as Warren appears to have no direct evidence she is Native, she is not. He further asserts that only tribal membership can be used to determine Identity, suggesting that family lore is inaccessible as evidence for Self. Of course tribes have an interest in limiting membership, both to maintain traditions and protect limited resources. Beyond that, categories must have some definition in order to be meaningful; if everyone is Native, no one is. Still, the Map is not the Territory. Leahy’s position fails to adequately address the plight of millions of North Americans who as a result of governmental action or personal surveillance, chose partial assimilation while Identifying as Native. Nor does he give sufficient weight to the immense difficulties posed by the process of mapping Native identity in families who “passed”.

Identity politics are powerful, and more often than not, the maps used to structure and validate them are faulty. I suggest that cognitive maps are inevitably as problematic as they are useful. This is especially true when the territory being mapped is that of Personal and Family Identity, Ethnicity, and Chronic Illness. History is a construct, a map created by a mapmaker, and reflects that person’s priorities and concerns. We must be very careful when applying such devices to the lived experiences of people. Too often the map erases both lived experience, and Self.

6 thoughts on “The Map Is Not the Territory

  1. One way of understanding the Ghost Dance Prophesy is seeing the re-incarnation of Native Americans killed by the White Europeans as children of the Colonizers. We can’t prove our ancestry by blood quantum (another clever form of genocide) but take a look at our values and respect for Mother Earth. It’s time for the Rainbow Tribe to stand up for itself and leave all the debate behind.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I imagine the range of Mixed Heritages to be large and diverse. That makes us interesting. The trick is noticing both the commonalities and the divergences. I believe we are here to bring change, and hopefully, healing. That implies being thoughtful and respectful of those who have been born into cohesive tribes. They have their own battles an challenges, appropriation and other forms of racism and colonialism to name a couple. (But you are already keenly versed in this.) The forces of forced assimilation are hard at work.

      Jennie and I have noted recently that we have been called to work with individuals and their Ancestors from many traditions. Each group seems both open to change and most receptive when approached in terms that match their respective tradition. Always the task is to be respectful. Standing for what we know to be true for us, and doing so in a kind, respectful, and often playful way, seems a way forward.

  2. Quite a strong commentary. I find it strikes a cord with me, especially with respect to the 25 years I lived in New Mexico. I am in Vermont now, but in many ways the same issues and questions arise. I landed here tonight thanks to The Common Wanderer. i appreciate your thinking and will dig through your blog for more. Have a good week.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I lived in NM briefly in the 70’s, as I attended NM Highlands for grad school and managed a ranch in the mountains for a couple of years. I have not been back, yet miss it. Being here in Vermont often seems a blessing.

  3. And that’s where there gets to be a problem. There’s nothing wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong. All of us have notions. All of us have these ideas and self-romanticizations of our history, our lineage. All of us come from sort of sense of royalty. But then when it comes to, well, we want to gain something as a result of this identity – as happens in the educational context at the school that I went to and numerous other schools, as well – then there’s a problem, because then it’s coming at the exclusion of some, you know, more deserving native person that actually has paid part of the burden of being a native person, because there is a burden associated with it.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I think the problem is greed.Those of us who have plenty must refuse to take that which would aid those who have less. We also have a responsibility to do our best to ensure all in the community have enough. At the same time, I think we must notice the ways the colonial endeavor has fractured The People, and stop fighting over who is a real….. The results of that are just too painful.

      My problem is with politicians, and others, claiming to be (whatever) and not walking the road. I am grateful to my ancestors for doing their best to make my life good, and to teach me to remember the centrality of humility, kindness, and connection to the Creator. I do not believe the Creator cares much about skin color, sexual orientation, or social rank. S/He certainly seems not to be taken with political power either.

      Let us know how your summer goes!

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