palmer and rundstrom on g.i.s. and the bureau of indian affairs


Mark Palmer and Robert Rundstrom, ‘GIS, Internal Colonialism, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers iFirst.

This article contains the first comprehensive empirical account of the history of geographic information systems (GIS) development within the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an account founded in part on a previously unused source of archival data. It also demonstrates the importance of linking a standard technical and institutional history of GIS with a topic neglected in most such histories, the history of the resource application crucial to GIS deployment. The main finding is that across four decades of effort, the BIA’s pursuit of GIS is better understood as an effort to perpetuate its internal colonial agenda and its own bureaucratic existence during an era of rapid technological upheaval rather than as a trustee’s effort to better manage resources for the greater good of American Indians. The BIA’s quest involves various time-honored colonial practices: creating new forms of dependence, imposing complex bureaucratic procedures, misusing funds, distributing free commodities, developing obligatory points of control, and outsourcing both management and labor to a private sector with long experience exploiting Indian resource economies. We conclude that rather than revolutionizing institutions and setting them on new trajectories toward self-improvement as some have suggested, GIS development is often merely a part of a broader and historically consistent pattern of policymaking and behavior.

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