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ArcGIS Online: A powerful tool for documenting indigenous culture, tradition and history

GIS can be used to teach different subjects and to research important issues. As National Aboriginal Day approaches, find out how GIS is being used in K-12 education to support the teaching and learning of indigenous culture, tradition and history.

Esri Canada’s K-12 group is always excited to find out how K-12 educators and GIS Ambassadors are using GIS in their teaching and outreach. With National Aboriginal Day observed on June 21st, this blog highlights some of the exciting applications of GIS that focus on indigenous culture, tradition and history that have been shared with us.

1. Michael Li is a technology trainer from the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre who promotes the use of ArcGIS Online for land-based education, an important area of indigenous learning in Canada. Here are a few examples of traditional land based activities and history that have been documented through Michael’s outreach.

This story map documents the traditional ice fishing practices in the Pinaymootang First Nation.

2. Karen Talbot is a teacher from Francine J. Wesley Secondary School in Kashechewan, Ontario who’s been using ArcGIS Online to teach indigenous history. Earlier this year, her grade 8 students completed a month-long project about Treaty 9. The students first learned about the history of the treaty, and then they used ArcGIS Online to map the treaty route the government took in 1905.

Karen shared the positive experience her class had with this project: “My students became engaged through a visual representation of this journey, and they were able to attach a more meaningful connection of the communities involved during the time of the Treaty 9 agreement. The cross-curricular activities established using ArcGIS Online were limitless. As a teacher, I could apply GIS to literacy, math, history, geography and art within a time span of 4-5 weeks.” Stay tuned, a blog post highlighting Karen’s work will be coming soon.

3. Last fall, GIS Ambassadors Jennifer Link and Keith Hautala along with other GIS volunteers, Krista Bullock and Jason Freeburn, facilitated a 2-day GIS workshop with grade 8 students from Kingsway Park in Thunder Bay. This event was part of the Let’s Talk Science program.  On the first day, the students went on a guided hike with an indigenous elder at the Kingfisher Outdoor Education Centre who identified plants and trees along with their traditional uses. The students collected GPS locations of plants and learned a lot about native plants and trees in the area. On the second day, the students worked in pairs at a Confederation College computer lab to create ArcGIS Online Story Maps highlighting the location of the plant and tree information they collected. They included photos and descriptions of what they learned from the elder. In an upcoming blog post, we will share more of what Jennifer and Keith have done and their plans for the new school year.

This story map documents the information the Kingsway Park students collected on local plants and trees.

4. Other GIS applications include:
A Kids Guide to Canada
This project encourages Canadian K-8 students from every corner of the country to collaborate and help create the first interactive and multilingual guide to Canada produced by kids and for kids! When entering information about their community, kids are asked to include the name of the First Nation's treaty territory or traditional land they are on. We encourage you to add your community information to this map!

If you are currently using ArcGIS Online, try some of these resources with your students to celebrate the importance of indigenous culture, tradition and history in Canada.

  • The Canadian Arctic and the Northwest Passage
    In this web activity, students will explore the Canadian Arctic and its people, the history of the Northwest Passage and the importance of maintaining a strong Canadian presence in the northern region.
  • The Red River and Northwest Rebellions
    The Red River and Northwest Rebellions of 1869 – 1885 were pivotal events in shaping Canada’s history. Making connections between these events and their causes, consequences and implications will demonstrate their repercussions and influences even now in the 21st century. In this lesson, students will identify key events, battles and people during this era, and they will investigate how they affected one another and how they continue to affect us today.

    Using the  Canadian Arctic and the Northwest Passage web activity, students will explore the Canadian Arctic and its people, the history of the Northwest Passage and the importance of maintaining a strong Canadian presence in the northern region.
  • Communities in Nunavut
    This web map displays Nunavut communities. Click on the points to view a description that includes the community name in the Inuit languages of Inuktitut and Ininnaqtun, the translation of the place name and the population in 2011. Click on the image provided in each pop-up to open a website that provides additional information about the community.
  • Traditional Inuit Place Names in Nunavut
    Inuit place names describe physical or cultural features in the landscape. Across the territory, examples and variations abound of Qikiqtarjuaq (big island) and Tasiujarjuaq (big lake), and they also describe fishing lakes and rivers and tidal pools “where the char go to digest their food,”  as well as a multitude of other illustrative names.
  • Aboriginal Peoples in North America
    In this lesson, students will explore the Aboriginal and European settlements in North America circa 1630, 1740 and 1823. Specifically, using ArcGIS Online, students will discover the diversity of the Aboriginal peoples and their ways of life. They will also explore Aboriginal and European settlement distribution. Natural Resources Canada provided this data.
  • Interviewing Indigenous Elders
    Elders have wisdom about traditional knowledge, customary recipes, spiritual ceremonies, healing practices and environmental observations that they can share with the youth in their community. In this lesson and its associated activities, students will identify questions they would like to ask the elders of their community, create a GeoForm application to record the answers and build an operation view of the information to summarize the results.

This web map shows the Aboriginal Peoples in North America in 1630 by population range.

If you are a K-12 educator and are new to GIS, you can request an ArcGIS Online account at Find ArcGIS Online tutorials and other resources to get started at

About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Resource Developer on the Esri Canada Education and Research team. She has over six years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela is responsible for producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum specific resources, conducting and creating custom workshops for educators and judging and developing the question for the annual GIS Skills Ontario competition in Waterloo, Ontario. Angela has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography and Sociology from the University of Western Ontario and completed the Applied Digital Geography and GIS certificate program at Ryerson University.

Profile Photo of Angela Alexander